Charlotte Gainsbourg interview

Client: The Sunday Times
David Nicholson interviews Charlotte Gainsbourg interview, he daughter of English actress Jane Birkin and the French singer Serge Gainsbourg

You could say that Charlotte Gainsbourg had the perfect film-star childhood. The daughter of English actress Jane Birkin and the French singer Serge Gainsbourg, she played opposite Catherine Deneuve at the age of 12, won a Cesar (French Oscar) at 15 and now, at 22, is feted by directors across Europe as one of the most talented prospects in cinema.

Or you could say it was the worst. Charlotte had to endure fame even before she had entered the world. Pictures of a six-month pregnant Jane Birkin made the papers and her parents’ exploits were the talk of le tout Europe. Jane stripped her skinny body, referring to her nipples as ‘Pinky and Perky’, while Serge blundered drunkenly from saloon-bar brawl to television notoriety, once asking American singer Whitney Houston to have sex with him on live television. “You must be drunk,” she replied. He almost certainly was.

Genetically, Charlotte thinks she came off badly – in movie terms – from this match. She says she has her mother’s gawky, flat-chested body and lifeless hair, combined with something of her father’s face: a Slavic slump to the jowls, a nose borrowed from Barry Manilow and a mouth seemingly designed to accommodate an endless sequence of cigarettes.

“I’m very hung up about my face, my body, everything…” she says in the Paris flat she shares with her boyfriend, the French actor Yvan Attal. I certainly don’t have the typical Hollywood face. I’m no Julia Roberts.”

Gainsbourg is one of those rare creatures to have slipped through the film business net designed to fish out those without the necessary idealised features, lashings of self-confidence and the sheen of celebrity. Instead the industry has lionised her for the opposite qualities. Her shyness comes across convincingly.

And her film roles have been extraordinary. For La Petite Voleuse she wore a slit skirt and high heels as a teenage tearaway in Paris, stealing, assaulting and screwing her way around the city. It bought her an avid following, almost eclipsing her parents’ own celebrity.

Merci La Vie followed, a Bertrand Blier film in which, with a whoring accomplice, she blazed a trail of havoc and destruction, leaving Gerard Depardieu and Michel Blanc to pick their way through the ruins.

In The Cement Garden, she played a 16-year-old girl whose parents die, leaving her and her two brothers to fend for themselves in a weird concrete house somewhere in England. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel, the film takes us down strange, disturbing avenues of childhood that open up once parental control is lost and focuses on the sexual desires which can surface between siblings.

This, of course, means the film attracts the “incest movie” label. Gainsbourg disagrees. The story is really about a boy (her brother, played by the newcomer Andrew Robertson) discovering sexuality. “Maybe I should have been shocked by the subject, but I find it very normal. Well, maybe not normal, but let’s say natural,” she says. “I find it natural that people should have desires for someone in their family – a cousin or a father or a brother – in a physical way. It doesn’t shock me at all.”

Dramatised incest – and nepotism – have featured heavily in Gainsbourg’s career thus far. Her early film ventures were prompted by her parents, just as Jane Birkin as a pre-teen had acted alongside her own mother. But few children have had whole films constructed around them. In Charlotte Forever she spent much of the time in bed with her father Serge. Of her other films, two were directed by her stepfather, Birkin’s present husband, Jaques Doillon, while the director of The Cement Garden is her uncle, Andrew Birkin. In 1984, her father partnered her in Lemon Un Zest, a pun on “incest” which scandalised France.

However, nepotism only takes one so far, says Gainsbourg, whose father died following liver surgery in 1991. “My parents’ names allowed me to start in films. And even now when people think of me they think of my parents. But I’m not sure if it helps me anymore.” It couldn’t have helped when she was growing up, either. In 1996, as Jane and Serge were voted the most exciting French couple, children in the playground were calling her mother a tart and her father a drunk.

The uneasiness of those years still hasn’t left her. She treasures solitude and the simple life. “I live in my flat, take my dog for a walk, nothing extraordinary.” Her perfect day, she says, would be that of a writer, getting up and going to a desk to create imaginary worlds. “It would be a lonely life, but it would please me very much.”

She wants a child for the “calm” it would bring: “I’m thinking of serenity in my head. I don’t want to get old in my head and I feel very old now. Perhaps it’s just a moment in my life, but I don’t know how to get pleasure out of things. Sometimes, when I could get pleasure out of something, I just think of the problems I have and I don’t enjoy myself very much. I never did what young people do, like going out and having lots of friends. So sometimes I miss that.”

On a more practical level, an ideal day would include “getting a proposal to play a great part in a wonderful film.” This occurs quite often, though not often enough for Gainsbourg. “I was amazed by the way things happen in America when I went there. The way people push for things all the time. I really liked it and I think it’s something that’s missing over here. In France if you ask to meet a director you’re seen an an arriviste; it’s just not done. But in America it’s normal. I’m never at the parties here, the social whirl, so I don’t see anyone.”

Despite acclaim for most of her work, including The Cement Garden, which won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Gainsbourg still feels insecure. “I never know how long this kind of work will go on,” she says. “There are people like Depardieu who know they will work for the rest of their lives. But for the rest of us there’s always a big risk. A couple of failures and – bouff!- it could be over.”

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