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The Throes Charlotte Gainsbourg


OFFICE – You’re just back from Poland, what is it you were working on there?


CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG – I was shooting sort of a dark thriller with a Greek director called Aleksandros Avranas. It was a very heavy experience, but wonderful. I like heavy stuff. [laughs]


O – Yes, I’d gathered as much! You were shooting with us in New York, then to Poland, now Paris—does it benefit you to be constantly moving?


CG – Actually, it does. I just moved to New York, I’m not based in Paris anymore—I moved because I lost my sister. I had to move, it wasn’t a happy move, or a relaxed thing. But taking all my family there I discovered, really, a new way of life. It’s not my real life yet, and maybe it will never be, because my memories are in Paris. But you sort of make up a different personality. I feel so much freer in New York of course, because nobody really knows me, I’m so anonymous. It’s a real freedom. Then on different shoots, with different cities, you are not the same. Each time I have to pack again there’s sort of a panic. You make up your own little world for a few weeks, or a few months, and you gather just the things that you’ve chosen, as opposed to in your home where everything is, you know—I’m not very good at tidying up. [laughs] In Paris I’ve had twenty-five years of family life, so it’s wonderful to be able to just have a few books, a few pairs of’s quite beautiful.


O – Well it’s nice then, that you’ve had that opportunity recently. You say your memories are in Paris, is it fair to say you identify primarily as French?


CG – Well, I was talking about that yesterday, because I don’t feel anything. Of course I feel French, yes I do feel French, but I was born in London so I always have a tendency to say I’m not completely French. And now that I live in New York, the language has become more familiar, I have to speak English much more, so the English part of me has become greater, and a little more legitimate. It’s as if I could never say I was English—I have part Russian, part Jew. There’s something of wanting to belong a hundred percent, but I’m never a hundred percent. Though especially today, when everybody is pointing out identities, religions, and being so scared of foreigners, I’m very happy to be a bit of everything. I’m just not enough of everything.


O – But it does allow you to be a bit of a chameleon.


CG – Sure, yes. For instance I have to learn Polish for a film I’m doing, and that’s a little bit of me because of my grandparents being Russian. So it’s like going back to something I’ve never really experienced, but still, I know it’s part of me.


O – Have there been moments, whether in your adolescence or adulthood, where your identity became particularly defined? 


CG – No, I think as a teen I was looking, at an age when it’s so obvious that you’re looking for something. Before that it was complete innocence, I didn’t need to belong to anything, just complete freedom. Then suddenly my grandmother died, my Russian grandmother on my father’s side. It was the first death I had to experience inside my family—I think I missed her so much, I wanted to go somewhere I knew she was from. So suddenly the Jewish side was very appealing, and because I’d never had any religious upbringing, I went on my own, a little bit in secret, to synagogue. I made up this persona, I wanted to pretend that I completely understood what I was doing. I was ashamed to say it to my father and my mother, so I would just go off on Friday evenings. It was a very obvious lack of belonging.


O – It’s sort of sadly ironic that we long for things, like you with your grandmother, just after we’ve missed them.


CG – Yeah, exactly. I also lost my father when I was nineteen, and of course I didn’t have time to ask him about his memories. It’s now that I want to know everything. Just talking about this origin thing, I still have my aunts left, his sisters. But it’s not the same as asking your father. 

You know, I was always hoping I’d be a genius.

O – Yeah, I have a grandmother who’s my last living grandparent, but she’s less lucid. So she’s there, and I know that she has these memories within her, but it’s so hard to know how to access them. It’s such a frustration, but there is beauty in everything being so fleeting.


CG – It’s wonderful, I’m seeing it as a film. It’s a beautiful metaphor.


O – A bit heavy, as you said.

CG – Very heavy.

O – Are there things at this point in life that you consider sacred?


CG – No, I don’t feel as though I have certainties of any sort. I’m not religious at all, I don’t believe in anything. I wish I did, because it would be so much easier. But I don’t. I’ve had my path of trying to be as traditionalist as I could with the irony of not having had that in my family upbringing. It’s horrible when you lose someone. When I lost my father I was so in need of his side, just wanting to belong to...well, to him. I have an inferiority complex, and with his side, the English side, it was very easy not to feel good enough. It was more comfortable for me to feel French. I think it’s a matter of grafting whatever you want, it’s a matter of feeling the right to feel things for yourself. 


O – That sense of legitimacy seems very important to you, whether in feeling you have the right to a certain cultural identity, or the right to call yourself an actress or a singer.


CG – Exactly, it’s the same with being an actress, with being a singer. It was, and still is, too difficult to say it is legitimate. It’s so much easier to be uncomfortable, to be in between, to not know, to just question. So all this talking about my “craft,” it’s fake. And the belonging, also. There’s a little pretention behind everything. It’s difficult to believe in yourself.


O – How then do you summon the courage to make films or music? Do you have any rituals, certain methods you rely on each time you prepare?


CG – I’m not conscious of anything like that, but I’m sure things operate without you really noticing. I’ve been working with a coach that I adore. On I’m Not There, the Todd Haynes film, I arrived in Montreal, where I was supposed to shoot, a few days before the start. I suddenly realized who I was going to play with, and I panicked at not being well prepared, even though I’d had the script for nearly a year. At the time I had such stage fright—I still do somewhat. So I called a friend who’s a scriptwriter and she said “Call this guy, he’ll help you.” He read me through my whole part, the whole script, and maybe it is so banal for other actors, but he gave me little tricks to focus on things to recognize the mechanism of a scene. He opened my mind regarding a character, and the questions you can have about a scene, the arcs of every single moment. It was a real discovery, so since then I always try to work with him. Having this dialogue is so precious. But it’s not like a ritual, it’s more just my way of doing it now. It’s very reassuring.


O – You often have somebody else collaborating with you on your work, whether it’s a producer on an album or a director, even if the work is very personal for you. Does that other person help to reflect you back on yourself?


CG – Yeah, it makes it easier to reveal yourself. I love that. Working on my own, doing everything on my own has no purpose. I love to trust people. This film I just worked on, I put myself in a difficult spot, because there were a lot of sex scenes—filmed in a very protected way, it wasn’t horrid to do in any way, but there was a lot of violence. I gave my complete trust to the director, and I know I was right. I don’t know if the film will be good, but I know who I gave my trust to. I hate this word “sharing,” but it’s a wonderful exchange. Maybe I miss this exchange in real life, because I spend a lot of time, I guess...being a little distant to people. Not my family of course, but people in general. I know, because I’ve asked myself, “Why do I not have friends?” [laughs] It’s part of who I am, I don’t open myself. Because I was a little well known very young, there wasn’t this equal exchange. There was curiosity maybe, but the basic exchange in friendship I didn’t often have. So I guess in work it’s wonderful for me to be able to make this ping-pong thing. 


There’s a masochism in wanting to explore the pain like that.

O – You’ve sought that out in music as well, finding other artists with whom to have that exchange—you made a record with the guys from Air, then with Beck, and aren’t you now working on another collaborative album?


CG – Yes, I hope I’ll be done quite soon. I worked with a guy called Sebastien, he’s a French guy that comes more from the electronic world. The thing is, each time I’m glad to be getting to a different spot. I first did this album with my father, and of course he was leading, and I was so happy to be lead by him. But then it took me twenty years to go back. Thanks to Air—I was attracted to their music, and everything they did, so that became my way of finding a legitimate way of entering the music world again. Jarvis Cocker was writing the lyrics, and I was admiring them all, it made it possible to go behind the mic again. With Beck it was a different process, I was much more part of the creation. With the previous album I had been part of it too, but I was so shy that I was waiting for people to give me stuff. Writing a few words here and there, but not confident enough. With Beck I wasn’t confident enough still, but he was pushing me so much, to try and get me to write. There was a real exchange, and I felt that I was revealing myself a little more than the previous album, which had been more in Air’s atmospheric haze. So with Beck we were exploring different facets that could be mine. He was the one who said “Just try and write the crappiest song you can, that’s the first step.” It took me a long time, but I finally did it. Now for this one, I wrote nearly all of the lyrics, and musically I knew what I was hoping for, so I was able to suggest things to Sebastien, again collaborating with something completely new. I’m gradually having the courage to explore myself a little bit more each time.


O – Getting more comfortable with your own authority, your own powers?


CG – Yeah. I don’t know if in the end I’ll be proud of it, I’m not sure, but I’m able to say “That’s who I am” at the time, and it is what it is. You know, I was always hoping I’d be a genius. [laughs] I was always comparing myself to my father. Of course that’s why I never wrote a line, because I was admiring his work so much. Today I feel that I don’t care—I’m saying this, but at the same time I’m taking a step back while I’m saying it. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there.


O – That sounds like progress. But having grappled with self-criticism, how do you react to criticism from others, especially as someone who identifies as somewhat aloof?


CG – I think when criticism has a truth to it, that’s what I’m hoping for. That’s what makes you evolve, I’m sure. That’s why I like working with people. We’re open to criticism from a director when we’re giving a take, and then hearing what they have to say, and in what direction they want you to go. That is a criticism, and it is a judgment of what you’ve just done. It depends on the director of course, but it’s a way of growing. I trust it completely, and I trust it to evolve as a process. But when it’s critiques on film, I don’t really read them. The thing is done, so it’s only hurting. If it’s a bad critique on an album, I find it quite hard to be open to that. There are TV shows in France that I know of where people are just mean for the sake of being mean. So it depends on the critique. I don’t want to justify myself. Having to talk about work is great, but having to explain a film, or explain a character is already going too far in what you need to do. I don’t care if I’ve understood the part, or if I’ve understood the director’s point of view, or even the film itself. Of course it’s interesting as an audience, even for me—on Lars [von Trier’s] films, for instance, I love to try and understand what he has in his mind. That’s wonderful, but I don’t believe it’s part of what I want to share.


O – And then with positive feedback? At Cannes for example, you were awarded the Best Actress Award for Antichrist, are you able to enjoy that? 


 CG – Oh it was wonderful, I was so proud. So, so proud. But a part of me knew that Lars did my performance. He was the one who edited, and his films are all about editing. He makes you explore the scene in such different ways, you’re all over the place. He pushes you, he makes you very unconfident, you don’t feel at ease at all, and you don’t feel you’re in control of anything. On Antichrist especially, I was so puzzled. At the end of the day, I was completely lost, not understanding what I had done. He just said, “But that’s the way I work. I want you to be lost, you have to trust me. I’m going to explore it all afterwards, and in the editing I pick a little bit of this, a little bit of that.” So he made my performance. I got the award, but I knew that he’d made me. It doesn’t make it illegitimate, I’m still very proud, but it was teamwork.        


O – Are there other directors or cast members that you’ve felt a similar connection with? From the sound of it you don’t even feel that with Lars, from film to film—each is it’s own little adventure.


CG – Completely. The thing is, when I was able to work with him three times in a row like that [on Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac], and also with his crew, there was something of a family that was getting together again, and I wish I had that with other directors too. It happened with Claude Miller, with whom I did L’effrontée and La Petite Voleuse, that was something that was growing too. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to explore things differently with the same people. I find the collaboration richer each time. Maybe because it takes me so long to feel comfortable with people, when you do a second film with someone there’s already a lot of barriers that are not there anymore, and it’s just about the work. You don’t have to work that much on your own difficulties, it’s more open. I would love to be able to work again with certain directors, it’s never really happened. I know in France people have sort of cinema families inside the movies, the directors ask for the same actors again and again. I’ve never really had that, but I miss it.


O – With all the independent and “foreign” films you do, all the more artistically focused films, what makes you sign on for a movie like Independence Day – Resurgence? It seems like something of a departure for you, was that fun? 


CG – It was a lot of fun. First of all, the scale of the movie, I had never gone into that. It was completely new, and surprising. It was a big production and everything, but it wasn’t overwhelming, it didn’t feel like this huge American film where I would feel like I’m an ant in the process. I think that’s due to Roland Emmerich. He’s a foreigner also, and for me that’s important, because he’s very authentic. He loves what he does, and he’s like a kid exploring these vessels. That’s just fun to watch, and to be a part of that discovery. I’ve been in a few comedies, and the shoot is just the lightest thing. I haven’t done that often, but on Independence Day there was that feel of lightness. It was just fun. The thing is, I liked my character, and I knew what I was there for. I wasn’t trying to play someone else—I knew that it was OK to only be myself. Also I was able to play with Jeff [Goldblum], because the dynamic of my character is focused on him a lot, and he was such a great actor to work with. He’s very playful. So there was a real game with him that made every second of it worth it. 


O – Sounds like a welcome counterpoint to your more solemn work. But you do seem to gravitate towards weighty material, or maybe it gravitates towards you. Do you know what it is that you’re able to provide Lars, for example, that keeps him coming back to you for such key roles in his films?


CG – Very honestly I don’t know why he came back to me. For Antichrist I didn’t know why he chose me. I had the impression that he had another actress and it didn’t work out at the last minute, so he had to choose someone. I saw that the production was a little bit in a panic. I just met him once, and it was very awkward, the meeting. I didn’t feel comfortable—I felt comfortable with him, but I didn’t feel that anything was happening. I didn’t know what he knew of me, if he had seen a film, or whatever. That’s what I loved, that I was completely anonymous, with no threads attached, even about my parents. It was a great feeling that he was just picking someone out of the blue. Because you’re so naked, mentally, with him, that you don’t need a background, you don’t need a story. When he called me back for Melancholia, I was very surprised. Thrilled of course, but so surprised. And then when we were showing Melancholia at Cannes, before the big drama, he said to Kristen and me, “Oh, I’m going to do this porn film with both of you.” It was a provocation, but again it was like an accident. I didn’t feel that he was telling me “Oh, I love you, I want to work with you again.” It’s not that with him. It’s sort of like a joke, very unpretentious, and it seems very casual. And then you get the script...[laughs] Then you understand what you’re in for. 



O – What is it that draws you to the more painful or frustrating experiences of his films?


CG – I think I’m only made of frustrations. Of course it’s because of the shyness, because of the discomfort, then you have a feeling that you want to go up to where you’ll be on the verge of breaking. It’s just that I want to be heard, the feelings have to be stronger than my focus. That, with Lars, happens. Because you have to be in the moment. Not only in the violent scenes. Some of the most difficult scenes, in Antichrist, or in Melancholia at the end, when he was just asking me to explore the pain of the last shot, I had to let go of everything I knew, and just trust him, and not fear being ridiculous. Know that he would be the judge. You’re putting yourself in someone else’s gaze, and it’s a wonderful feeling of being able to give anything. With a certain focus, of course. Also what’s funny with Lars is, he’s such a provocateur that when you’re able to show him that you can be as well, you get a reaction. I know that he was very surprised with the masturbation scene in Antichrist. I started quite shy with what I was going to show him, and then he pushed me in another direction, and I just did it. He was so proud of me! [laughs] To see his surprise was very rewarding. Very, very rewarding. It doesn’t have to be about sex, also with emotional scenes. When you see that he’s surprised that he’s gotten something from you. As if he’d stolen it, but you gave it, you’re in command. It’s a wonderful feeling. That’s why I don’t feel that I’m an actress, in that I’m not as conscious of it. What I like is this exchange of giving something, letting go, revealing yourself in a very obscene way. Even in the last film I did, there was a lot of sexual violence, but again there was something shocking about it, because it was so brutal, that it sort of fulfills me. Just for a brief moment. I love that kind of work. But I’m still a shy person, I don’t like showing myself naked and all of that. Maybe it’s a bit of being exhibitionniste? For sure. Very masochistic, also. Even with the feelings, there’s a masochism in wanting to explore the pain like that. A different level of pain in reality, but still... You’re putting yourself in difficult positions.– END 

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