light in dark­ness?

Shock­ing yet shy, provoca­tive yet frag­ile, bru­tally hon­est yet fiercely pro­tec­tive, Char­lotte Gainsbourg is crush­ingly aware of all her con­tra­dic­tions. But af­ter years of per­sonal strug­gle, has she fi­nally found some…

ELLE (UK) - - Elle Play - Pho­to­graphs by TRAOMOYST Words by LOTTE JEFFS

It’s 34 de­grees in Paris, and Boule­vard Sain­tGer­main is heavy with the heat. Of­fice work­ers hud­dle in patches of shade, smok­ing, and out­side Café de Floré, a chichi lady fran­ti­cally wafts a fan rather than re­move her Chanel tweed jacket. I’ve never seen this city so slow and sweaty. But in­side Ho­tel Mon­talem­bert, the air-con is on ice mode and Char­lotte Gainsbourg wears black leather Saint Lau­rent trousers and a long-sleeved black silk shirt. Her dis­creetly bare feet are the only sign it’s un­sea­son­ably hot and she’s not en­tirely un­touched by the world out­side. Though, as I later come to learn, Char­lotte doesn’t care much for stay­ing in sync with ‘the world out­side’, hav­ing spent most of her ex­cep­tional life at one re­move; coolly dis­tant yet pierc­ingly en­gaged, rid­dled with self-doubt yet one of the bravest per­form­ers of our time. But then, the daugh­ter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin was never go­ing to be one of us. Her late fa­ther was a no­to­ri­ous ac­tor, mu­si­cian and en­fant ter­ri­ble. Her mother, now in her sev­en­ties, was a fa­mous model, ac­tor and singer in the Six­ties and Sev­en­ties. Even if Char­lotte wanted to be ‘nor­mal’, the peo­ple who so idolised her iconic par­ents wouldn’t let her. And that, she ex­plains, is just a cross she’s had to bear.

‘I’ve al­ways been very ashamed of my looks com­pared to my mother, and then the tal­ent…’, she tells me, speak­ing softly – a quirk she’s in­her­ited from Jane Birkin, whose fa­mously breathy whis­pers on the 1969 record Je t’aime… moi non plus have been the sound­track to many an amorous mo­ment. ‘My life is al­ways in ref­er­ence to them [her par­ents] when I’m in Paris,’ she says. Char­lotte now lives in New York with her hus­band Yvan At­tal, a film di­rec­tor, and their three chil­dren, and finds it eas­ier to be her­self there, rel­a­tively free from the shadow of her par­ents’ no­to­ri­ety. ‘I feel bad say­ing how lib­er­at­ing it is not to be in Paris, but ev­ery day I’m here, some­one will say some­thing about my fam­ily. But when I ar­rived in New York, I was so sur­prised that peo­ple would come to me ref­er­enc­ing the Lars von Trier films [she fa­mously starred in Me­lan­cho­lia and, in a part that in­volved her ap­pear­ing to cut off her own cli­toris, Nym­pho­ma­niac]. It was only me.’

Char­lotte tells me that, for years, she re­fused to talk about her fam­ily be­cause the nar­ra­tive of her early life – her par­ents’ very pub­lic af­fair, her fa­ther’s bat­tle with drink, his con­tro­ver­sial song and mu­sic video Lemon In­cest, which in­volved her, aged 13, ly­ing on a bed semi-naked with a shirt­less Serge – be­longed to ev­ery­one but her. ‘The up­bring­ing was some­thing I kept for my­self, as if it was the last trea­sure I could claim,’ she says.

She is quite still as she talks, ex­cept for her hands, which trem­ble with ner­vous en­ergy. Since mov­ing to the US three years ago, she says, ‘Sud­denly, I felt that I wanted to share things… even talk­ing about my own pri­vate life. I feel so much more re­laxed.’

On her new al­bum, Rest, she opens up about her fam­ily and per­sonal strug­gles in her work for the first time. The 11 tracks are a tri­umph – thanks, she sug­gests, to pro­ducer Se­bas­tian Ak­choté-Bo­zovic, the man be­hind French la­bel Ed Banger. String-em­bla­zoned elec­tro-pop, Nou­velle Vague melan­choly and even a jaunty disco num­ber are eclec­tic but im­bued with a spirit that’s hard to pin down. And Char­lotte’s voice! In­stantly, you’re trans­ported to the Marais, or strolling the Left Bank with a hand­some in­tel­lec­tual on your arm – it’s as French as a baguette in a beret. As Char­lotte de­scribes it: ‘The idea of hav­ing a small voice and a strong, sort of bru­tal sound. That was ap­peal­ing.’ And hav­ing the mu­sic out in the world is, she tells me, cathar­tic, de­spite the process be­ing ar­du­ous. ‘The al­bum was ready a year ago, but I didn’t like the treat­ment of my voice. I think I was be­ing picky be­cause I wasn’t ready for it to come out.’

Char­lotte’s ac­cent when speak­ing English is clipped and old fash­ioned – think Au­drey Hep­burn in Break­fast at Tif­fany’s. She doesn’t sound ‘for­eign’ un­til she asks, ‘How do you say that word in English?’, which takes me slightly aback.

She’s hum­ble to the point of self-dep­re­cat­ing about her own mu­si­cal tal­ents. ‘When my fa­ther died, I was re­ally com­pelled to do some­thing in mu­sic, but I didn’t feel I was a singer and I didn’t feel I was a writer, so I wanted to work with other peo­ple.’ (Beck, Air and Jarvis Cocker are all pre­vi­ous col­lab­o­ra­tors.)

With Rest, Char­lotte has fi­nally found her own way to write and ex­press her­self. But how? ‘With sin­cer­ity. It was my only tool. I was able to be hon­est and then it was a ques­tion of not be­ing ashamed of what I had to say. Even de­pict­ing my fa­ther’s death. Noth­ing made me em­bar­rassed. I wasn’t shy about the crude­ness of words. I didn’t feel I had to hide my­self.’

In 2013, while she was writ­ing this al­bum, Char­lotte’s half sis­ter Kate, daugh­ter of Jane Birkin and com­poser John Barry, died sud­denly in Paris. Char­lotte says: ‘No one re­ally knows what hap­pened and

‘I’m only my­self, and for me, that is just not enough'

there are still so many ques­tions.’ Kate’s death weighs might­ily on Rest, and songs talk di­rectly to what Char­lotte de­scribes as the raw ug­li­ness of griev­ing. ‘The loss was so trau­matic. So vi­o­lent. So un­ex­pected. It’s hard when there are so many ques­tions and you try to put the puz­zle to­gether. I still feel an­gry; I still feel that it’s un­fair.’ She says she coped with this loss very dif­fer­ently to when Serge died of a heart at­tack. ‘My fa­ther, it crushed me. I was not my­self for years – un­til I had a baby, and then I was look­ing to­wards life a lit­tle more. It was pain­ful.’ Par­tic­u­larly so be­cause she was still fig­ur­ing her­self out at that time, or, as she puts it, ‘I wasn’t some­one yet; I wasn’t modelled yet; I was 19.’

There’s a real sense that Char­lotte has fi­nally found her voice, al­beit later in life than she might have liked, but some­thing in her still feels not quite con­nected – like two pieces of a puz­zle that look like they should fit to­gether, but no mat­ter what way round you try them, they don’t. I can’t help but ask, ‘Are you happy?’

There’s si­lence, and for the first time in an hour I’m bro­ken out of the spell of her cap­ti­vat­ing di­a­logue and am sud­denly aware of the clat­ter­ing of cut­lery, as wait­ers set up ta­bles for din­ner in the ho­tel res­tau­rant that lies just be­hind the door.

She seems dis­armed mo­men­tar­ily, and there’s a sharp in­take of breath be­fore, ten­ta­tively, she says, ‘Um, I en­joy life more.’ Another long pause. ‘I can’t say I’m happy, no. I have mo­ments.’ Find­ing her rhythm, she con­tin­ues: ‘Be­fore, there was al­ways a ques­tion about be­ing alive or not. Once my fa­ther died, I won­dered: “Do I want to be here or not?”, and I didn’t have an an­swer. Now, I re­ally think I want to be here. And I think that’s enough. My chil­dren give me most of that [hap­pi­ness]. But I don’t want to weigh too much on them.’

I ask Char­lotte what kind of par­ent she is. I won­der if, due to her own par­ents’ lais­sez-faire at­ti­tude, she is the op­po­site? ‘My fa­ther was strict about man­ners, and it was funny be­cause at the same time he was out­ra­geously provoca­tive. My mother had a very mo­ral, gen­er­ous per­spec­tive on things. So I hope I give both those things. But I’m not a good par­ent in that I don’t think I’m very sta­ble. I’m too vul­ner­a­ble and I think they know...‘ ‘You need too much from them?’ ‘Yes. They can be scared of hurt­ing me. I think that’s a real fault. My par­ents never showed me that…’

At 46, Char­lotte is look­ing back on her par­ents’ be­hav­iour, and her own re­la­tion­ship with them, dif­fer­ently. In fact, she tells me she is mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary about her mother as a way to ad­dress their dy­namic and the pres­sure of things un­said be­tween them. ‘We are very close. There’s some­thing so pre­cious that I can’t re­ally ex­press it. That’s why I wanted to film her, just to be able to tell her [how I feel] in this dis­guised way.’

I ask if her mum still wor­ries about her. Char­lotte says, ‘She al­ways wor­ried about me. She al­ways thought I was the frag­ile one. I had all sorts of ac­ci­dents. Even when I was born, I had an enor­mous jaun­dice, so I was brought to another hos­pi­tal, tubes in my nose... I was al­ways sort of the one that you had to care about. In fact, my sis­ter was the frag­ile one; I was al­ways strong. In the end, I was al­ways there. I had a brain haem­or­rhage [she had surgery to al­le­vi­ate bleed­ing in the brain af­ter a water ski­ing ac­ci­dent in 20017], and I broke a ver­te­bra. I’m very solid.’

If you’ll for­give the Ab Fab ref­er­ence, I pic­ture Char­lotte as a kind of sen­si­ble Saffy to Jane and Serge’s Ed­die grow­ing up, but I ask on the off chance whether she was ever a night­mare teenager – shout­ing and slam­ming doors – but no: ‘I was very se­cre­tive. My sis­ter was like that, though. I wish I had been; I wish I had had more of a nor­mal teenage life, even just an ar­gu­ment. I was al­ways too re­spect­ful, but in a dis­hon­est way. Be­cause of all the vi­o­lence we had gone through – door slam­ming and smash­ing glasses and dishes, all of that – I was al­ways the quiet one and I did ev­ery­thing se­cretly. I had love sto­ries se­cretly, but it was very hard for my mother be­cause she didn’t know any­thing that was go­ing on. I was a wall.’

‘You wanted to make ev­ery­thing OK for your par­ents?’ I sug­gest.

‘I was ir­re­proach­able. I had good marks. I wanted to go to board­ing school. Al­ways dis­tant. I re­ally re­gret that. It’s part of my char­ac­ter, but that put an enor­mous dis­tance be­tween us. It made me un­reach­able.’

It’s time to lighten the mood, so I ask if she’s a morn­ing per­son. I can guess the an­swer.

‘No. I hate morn­ings. Even if I wake up at seven, I won’t be able to func­tion be­fore 11 or 12.’ For the record, ‘peak’ Char­lotte Gainsbourg is be­tween 6 and 7pm.

She sounds so fab­u­lously, in­so­lently French as she tells me this. So un­like her Bri­tish and Amer­i­can ac­tor peers, who power through sun­rise spin­ning classes, drink­ing green juice and post­ing a #in­spo In­sta­gram, all be­fore 9am. She’s spent enough time in LA, though, to have dab­bled in such life­style trends: ‘The gluten-free and the lac­tose-free – I’ve done that. But now I’ve just gone back to be­ing my own Parisian self!’ In France, she says, ‘It’s so nat­u­ral not to do the gym. And if you do ex­er­cis­ing, don’t say any­thing!’

When I ask Char­lotte how she feels about get­ting older, her re­sponse is noth­ing if not bru­tally hon­est. ‘No’, she says sim­ply, ‘I don’t en­joy [get­ting older]. I find it hard. Only now have I un­der­stood cer­tain things and I wish I was 30 again. I wish I could make the most of my youth. Be­cause now, I think I won’t have the parts that I want. The age is a prob­lem. You don’t get that you’re at your peak in your thir­ties, not when you’re 46. I don’t feel my age… so it’s prob­lem­atic.’

I sug­gest that mu­sic is an out­let that is less age-ob­sessed? ‘Maybe, but I also have a feel­ing that mu­sic is for the young peo­ple. Of course, ev­ery­one lis­tens to mu­sic, but I can see my chil­dren: they have an ap­petite for mu­sic that is sym­bol­ised by youth. There’s some­thing of a de­cline that I can’t do any­thing about… it’s not that nice.’

Char­lotte tells me she doesn’t en­joy per­form­ing her songs live on stage, or at least not yet. ‘I be­lieve I will en­joy it even­tu­ally. But it’s not as easy as per­form­ing a role; I don’t feel nat­u­ral. It’s be­cause I’m only my­self, and for me, that is not enough. I’d love to not care; to be able to do my own thing and to tell my­self that if peo­ple come to see me it’s be­cause they know who I am and what to ex­pect.’

I think there’s a part of Char­lotte that en­joys chal­leng­ing her­self in this way. ‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I like be­ing pushed. I like ef­fort. I like be­ing un­com­fort­able. Be­cause I’m not a per­former in the sense that I have a loud voice or a real in­stru­ment; it’s not enough of an ef­fort. I have to find a way, but what­ever I do, it has to cost me real ef­fort.’

I ask why.

‘Each time I’ve done a vi­o­lent scene in films, that was the most happy. Be­cause it was a mo­ment where I for­got ev­ery­thing, where my un­con­fi­dence, and un­easi­ness… I didn’t think about it; the ac­tion was stronger. Then, work­ing with Lars, he took me to places where it was ex­actly that. The emo­tions were stronger than my own per­sona. I didn’t have time to judge my­self, and be­ing in those rough places was a dis­cov­ery. And I loved the suf­fer­ing. There’s a bit of masochism – but I feel alive.’

Rest is re­leased on 17 Novem­ber

‘I like be­ing pushed. I like ef­fort. I like be­ing un­com­fort­able'

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