Une étoile Modeste
Charlotte Gainsbourg began her music career on the cusp of pubescence when she sang ‘Lemon Incest’ with her father – the late, infamously provocative singer-songwriter, actor, director and producer Serge. In the song’s promo video a 13-year-old Charlotte with a short, boyish crop stretched out on a large double bed clad in a man’s shirt, while Serge reclined shirtless beside her. Add this to the sumptuous, erotic whisperings of the great man’s 1967 duet with Brigitte Bardot, ‘Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus’, which was actually released two years later featuring Charlotte’s actress/singer mother Jane Birkin, and it’s clear to see why Charlotte isn’t known to stray from controversy.
In 2009 she acted out a scene of genital mutilation in Lars von Trier’s The Antichrist, which caused much furious uproar as well as praise. What doesn’t make sense, however, is the timid, quiet woman who sits before me, carefully pouring a pot of tea from a breakfast tray littered with discarded crockery. “It’s not in my nature to perform,” she admits. It’s a modest statement from someone with such a prolific body of work in acting and music behind her.
“I think a lot of actors are shy people,” she elaborates. “Maybe I’m not shy, but I’m embarrassed by myself. With an acting part it’s fine, and with a film crew, at first it’s difficult, but then you can forget. With an audience it’s completely different because you’re there for them, so you have to look at them.”
Born in London in July 1971 but raised in Paris, Charlotte first dove into acting when she was 12 years old in the role of Catherine Deneuve’s daughter in Élie Chouraqui’s 1984 movie Paroles et Musique. Two years later she released her first album, ‘Charlotte For Ever’ (sic), which was written and produced by her father. She most recently starred alongside Hollywood actress Kirsten Dunst in another Lars von Trier movie, Melancholia, which followed two sisters coping with emotional stress under unusual, life-threatening circumstances. It was released two months before the birth of her third child – son Joe Attal – and she’s just finished making a film with one of the British tabloid’s favourite indie fools Pete Doherty and model Lily Cole (entitled ‘Confession of a Child of the Century’), not to mention her double album, ‘Stage Whisper’ that was released at the end of January.
With so much going on (and having gone on) in one lifetime, it’s difficult to know where to begin, so I ask Charlotte if she’d like to kick things off. “Oh no, I’d never know what to say.” She chuckles bashfully and leans forward. “It’s always very embarrassing to explain why you’ve done something and how you’ve done it. You just want people to listen to the music or go and see the film and nothing more. I don’t mind listening to other people when it’s very abstract and I know nothing about their lives, sometimes it’s interesting, but I wouldn’t know what to say about myself.”
Perhaps it’s best, in that case, to start with the music. After ‘Charlotte For Ever’ came out it took 20 years before the French singer released a follow-up. “Well, with the first album I was 16 and my father just wrote it for me,” Charlotte starts to explain. “I can’t even remember talking about it before we did it. Everything was ready and it just meant spending a week in a studio with him. He did everything, he was even directing me behind the microphone. He was like a cinematographer. Then when he died I was 19 and I thought I’ll never get into music again. It felt impossible because I’d had so much pleasure with him that I was completely lost without him, so a lot of time passed by and it’s only when I met the guys from Air and Nigel Godrich, the producer – we met in Paris [at a Radiohead gig] – and I was about to ask them if they would like to work with me, but they were about to ask the same question because the three of them had talked together and said it could be a good idea.