Charlotte Gainsbourg: ‘Everything now is so politically correct. So boring’

The actor and singer grew up in her parents’ shadow, and starred in Lars Von Trier’s most extreme films. She talks about why she’s finally comfortable in her own skin

When Charlotte Gainsbourg was 16, she came home from school to find her mother distraught and the police waiting for her. They had just discovered that she was the target of a kidnapping plot. A gang of upper-class teenagers – journalists called them the blousons dorés (golden jacket) gangsters – had planned to kill a police officer and steal his uniform. Then, using this disguise, they were going to abduct Gainsbourg and demand a 5m franc ransom from her famous parents, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. The gang, who had already committed several armed robberies, had found a country house where they were going to hide Gainsbourg. They had even bought shovels with which to bury the police officer.

Gainsbourg laughs as she recounts the episode: “I thought it was so cool.” Her mother and father weren’t quite so blase. “I remember my parents being extremely scared and my father made me go to school with a bodyguard.” She stares into her coffee, stirring in milk for longer than is necessary. “I was so ashamed.”

Gainsbourg and I are sitting in a chic but uncomfortable corner booth in a hotel cafe in Greenwich Village, New York. The singer, actor and style champion has just come back from Paris fashion week; French Vogue is full of pictures of her looking glam in a see-through shirt and tailored suit. She is dressed more simply today, wearing what she describes as her “jean uniform”: skinny jeans and a white T-shirt that, upon closer inspection, bears a Saint Laurent logo and probably costs a small fortune. She leads a jet-set life and works in the most extrovert of industries, but remains notoriously private and uncomfortable with attention. She fiddles anxiously with her necklace as we talk, avoiding too much eye contact. Having to be trailed by bodyguards as a teenager, having all eyes on her while her would-be kidnappers were arrested and, eventually, sentenced to several years in jail, must have been mortifying.

But Gainsbourg spent her childhood in the public eye, with a mother who epitomised 60s cool and a father whose provocative and often alcohol-soaked antics often made headlines. There was the time he appeared with Whitney Houston on primetime TV and announced that he wanted “to fuck her”, for example. On another live TV show, he burned a 500 franc note to protest against what he considered excessive taxation. Gainsbourg’s classmates didn’t respond very kindly to that stunt. “At school, the kids took my worksheet and they burned it,” she says. She laughs quietly. “So I did get… I did get bullied.”

With her father Serge, her mother Jane Birkin and half-sister Kate, 1978.
With her father Serge, her mother Jane Birkin and half-sister Kate, 1978. Photograph: Getty Images

Her father died of a heart attack in 1991, when Gainsbourg was just 19. She still seems to worship him and says she misses being “able to ask him all the questions about music that I have today”. She speaks fondly of the way he used to come up with melodies and test them on a little focus group consisting of her, her mother, and his artistic director. “We’d make little asterixes next to the melodies we preferred,” she remembers. “Even though I was just a kid, he wanted my point of view.”

When she was 12, Gainsbourg made her musical debut alongside him on the song Lemon Incest – a play on un zeste de citron (a lemon zest). In the infamous video, Gainsbourg is sprawled on a bed while her topless dad caresses her and sings about the love they will never make together. The song, recorded in 1984, was accused of glamorising abuse and paedophilia, but despite the scandal – or perhaps because of it – Lemon Incest peaked at No 2 in the French charts.

With her father Serge in the Lemon Incest video, 1985.
With her father Serge in the Lemon Incest video, 1985. Photograph: Getty Images

Gainsbourg has spent decades fielding questions about Lemon Incest and is less than thrilled when I ask her whether something similar could be released today, let alone spend 10 weeks in the Top 10, in the era of #MeToo. “It was already shocking at the time,” she says with faint exasperation. “I remember my father having to explain himself, and his lyrics, because he plays with the jeu de mots, how do you say that? When you play with the sounds of the words, like a double meaning?” Gainsbourg is bilingual, but French is her first language; she pauses occasionally in our conversation to search around for le mot juste. We settle on “pun” and she continues. “Incest is so shocking and so taboo. It’s as if he was amusing himself with that. But when you listen to the lyrics, he’s just talking about the infinite love of a father for his daughter and of a daughter for her father – and you can’t condemn that. Because there’s nothing physical. So, yes, he says incest, but that’s it. I find it terrible that you can’t talk about things that are…” she trails off, searching around for the right word. “Difficult?” I suggest. “Nuanced?” She shrugs. “You hear the word ‘incest’ and conversation gets shut off,” she says. “There’s no dialogue.”

Social media has made it harder, I suggest: you can imagine the Twitter storms Lemon Incest would provoke today. “Yes, but I think my father would be condemned in every move he made,” she says. “Everything now is so politically correct. So boring. So expected. And everyone is so scared of what will happen if they go too far.” Men, in particular, she says, have reason to be scared. “A few tweets and it’s done… their career is over.” Her dad, she says, would have been miserable today, “because it did matter to him what people felt, what people thought, when he got criticised”. He is known as a provocateur, but he was sensitive, Gainsbourg says. “He got very wounded by a lot of stuff. There were a lot of antisemitic things going on during his life.” And not just during the war, she adds, when, as a 10-year-old in Nazi-occupied France, he was forced to wear a yellow star to mark him as a Jew. “Even afterwards, France was still very antisemitic.” So much so that, when Serge Gainsbourg released a reggae version of the Marseillaise (a characteristic provocation) in 1979, one newspaper critic accused him of bringing antisemitism upon himself, by “trying to make money with the national anthem”.

Still, Gainsbourg says brightly, she had a “completely normal and very simple childhood”. She was born in London, but grew up in Paris. Apart from regular ferry trips to England to see her maternal grandparents, the family travelled little; her father was scared of planes. Her parents split up when she nine, but Gainsbourg remained close to both, as well as her half-sister Kate Barry, the late fashion photographer (Birkin’s first daughter, with the English composer John Barry). All in all, she says, life “was very square”.

These days, Gainsbourg seems drawn to square pegs in round holes: men like her father who are both outsiders and insiders, who use outrage as a weapon against a society in which they have never felt welcome. Some might call them provocateurs, others perverts. One of her most notable collaborators is the Danish film director Lars von Trier, whose dark, psychological films Gainsbourg has appeared in – Nymphomaniac, Antichrist and Melancholia – reflect his battles with alcoholism, depression and various phobias. (Like Gainsbourg’s father, Von Trier is terrified of flying.) In Von Trier’s films, these battles are often acted out violently on Gainsbourg’s body: in Antichrist, she plays a grieving mother who cuts off her clitoris with a pair of scissors; in Nymphomaniac, her character has graphic sex with strangers.

Gainsbourg has often been called Von Trier’s “muse” – but that is too passive a word to describe the actor. Part of her allure is that as a performer she is impossible to categorise neatly. She is not a stereotypical sex symbol or a damsel in distress, and she is not just an instrument for older men to act out their provocations; she uses them just as much as they use her. In all of her parts, you get the sense that she is the one in control.

Styling: Paul Sinclaire. Hair: Kevin Ryan at Art + Commerce. Makeup: Frank B at the Wall Group. Manicure: Maki Sakamoto at the Wall Group.
Styling: Paul Sinclaire. Hair: Kevin Ryan at Art + Commerce. Makeup: Frank B at the Wall Group. Manicure: Maki Sakamoto at the Wall Group. Photograph: Chris Colls/The Guardian

Von Trier’s films have frequently been described as misogynistic, but Gainsbourg rejects that idea, saying that she has done some of her best work with him. “He gives such wonderful parts to women,” she says. “How can he be misogynistic if he’s portraying women like that?” What about Björk, I ask, who starred in his film Dancer In The Dark? In 2017, as #MeToo started to become a mainstream movement, Björk claimed that she had been sexually harassed by an unnamed film director many assumed to be Von Trier. He denied the allegations.

“It’s true Von Trier pushes you into really dark places,” Gainsbourg says. “[But] that’s what I’m looking for in acting – I want someone to push me places where I haven’t been, where it’s difficult, where I’m uncomfortable. That’s all I want. For me, a lot of the work is letting go and trusting him all the way.” While she won’t speak for Björk, she feels her own trust in Von Trier was never betrayed. In Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, for example, he walked through every frame with her to make sure she was comfortable. “I said, the only thing I’m really uncomfortable with are my boobs. So he said OK, and I’m wearing a T-shirt the whole time [in the sex scenes]. I trusted him.”

In Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, 2009.
In Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, 2009. Photograph: Allstar

Gainsbourg released her first album, Charlotte For Ever, when she was 15, then took a long hiatus from music. She didn’t release anything new until 5:55 in 2006, which sold well and had favourable reviews. She has kept going ever since, exploring a cinematic strain of disco pop, close in spirit to Goldfrapp. While working on her most recent album, 2017’s Rest, she asked French novelist and provocateur, Michel Houellebecq, if he would write the lyrics. When I bring this up, she looks puzzled. “Who?” “Houellebecq,” I repeat, in my best French accent. “Ah!” she says, finally, “Houellebecq! Yes, my producer [Sébastien Akchoté] and I had the same passion for his genius. My record company did ask him, but he wasn’t very interested. Anyway, then I realised that I wanted to write the lyrics myself. I do love other people’s writing. I feel very lucky to have worked with Jarvis Cocker and Beck. But it’s so different to write your own lyrics. Touring and being on stage had a purpose. It changed everything.”

Rest is one of her rawest and most personal albums, and a lot of it stems from grief. In December 2013, her half-sister Kate died after falling from a fourth-floor window in Paris. Her death made living in Paris unbearable, Gainsbourg says. A few months after the tragedy, she decamped to New York with her partner and their three children. “I was coming from a very dark place,” she says. In the US, “I was breathing again and seeing new sky. I thought: how come I haven’t done this before? It’s wonderful to just take a bag and go somewhere else.”

The anonymity of New York wasn’t just cathartic; it was creatively liberating. “Here, I feel I’m being myself with nobody noticing,” she says. “And I’m not noticing. I feel very different, because I’m not looking at myself all the time. I don’t think in France I could have released my album and written the lyrics myself.” The album, which blends French and English, reflects on everything from motherhood to the loss of her sister. On Kate, she sings: “On d’vait vieillir ensemble [we were going to grow old together].”

Playing live in London, 2012.
Playing live in London, 2012. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

In France, Gainsbourg is recognised wherever she goes and is known, first and foremost, as the daughter of Birkin and Serge. In New York, she is finally starting to break free from that history. “I feel ashamed saying this, but when people recognise me here it’s about me,” she says. “The films I’ve done, a lot of Lars’s films, and my music. I don’t get recognised that often, but when it happens I’m really proud.”

At this point, a stocky man, dressed neatly in black, walks in and starts addressing her in French. I assume it is an adoring fan, but it is her partner, the French-Israeli actor and director Yvan Attal. After a second, he apologises to me for being rude and continues in English – he just wants a quick word about their lunch plans. The quick word is had and he disappears, presenting the perfect opportunity to start talking about him behind his back.

Charlotte Gainsbourg
‘Now, to French people, I sound totally British – to British people, I don’t.’ Photograph: Chris Colls/The Guardian

Gainsbourg has been with Attal for 27 years – they met when she was 19 – but they are not married. “It was never a goal,” she says. “On the contrary. My mother got married [to John Barry, before her relationship with Serge Gainsbourg] and it was not a success. So I felt that it wasn’t part of my plans. And Yvan, he didn’t care at all. Later on, we felt that for the children maybe it would be nice for them, for me to have the same name – but then I became so superstitious. I’ve heard of a lot of couples who live a long life together, and they get married and split. I thought it was bad luck.”

Hang on, I say: if she had chosen to get married, she would have changed her name? “No, not at all,” she backtracks. “I’m very attached to my name, because of my father. But what’s funny is that I was registered under Gainsbourg, which was not my father’s real name. He was called Ginsberg and he changed it for work. On his passport, it was still Ginsberg. When I was 18, I asked to go back to my old name, just to have the same as him. It was such a big deal to go through all the paperwork, but we did it. I’m very proud of it, because that’s my story. I feel very close to that past.”

With her partner of 27 years, actor and director Yvan Attal.
With her partner of 27 years, actor and director Yvan Attal. Photograph: Getty Images

How does England fit into her story, I ask? She was born in London and her mother is English, but she lived only in France, before moving to New York. “I feel I’m pretending to be English,” she says, quickly. “For a long time [growing up], I was very proud of being French. I had a very thick French accent and I wasn’t making any effort [to be English]; I was the French cousin. But gradually I wanted to feel part of that world. Now, to French people, I sound totally British – to British people, I don’t. I have this pride in being English, but at the same time there’s nothing really there. Anytime I go to London, I feel like I don’t belong.” The English “don’t let you in very easily”, she explains.

Has Brexit made her feel even less English? “No,” she says. “I am very proud of my British passport. It is so stupid. It’s a little booklet, but I cherish it. Maybe it’s my mother, who transmitted something, some pride in that nationality.”

With Sean Penn in 21 Grams, 2003.
With Sean Penn in 21 Grams, 2003. Photograph: Allstar

She has lived in New York for five years, but says there is a cultural divide she hasn’t been able to bridge. “I haven’t been able to get close to American friends. I feel I don’t understand them completely. It’s hard to – I feel stupid making generalities, but it’s so money-oriented. In France, we’re all about having lunch, dinner. It’s a real art of life, art de vivre,” she says. “And that’s what I love. I love time off.” In the US, she says, everyone is working all the time. “I feel they pretend that’s what they want, but they’re just forced to work all the time.”

For all this, Gainsbourg admits that she is a workaholic herself. She has released five albums and been in more than 40 movies; her latest is a French comedy called My Dog Stupid, directed by Attal and featuring her son, 22-year-old Ben (her daughters, Alice, 16, and Joe, eight, live with her in New York). She also models, and is the face of Saint Laurent. But while she doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, she has started to worry that the work will dry up as she gets older.

“I’m not at peace with [ageing] at all,” she says. “I think maybe when I’m 60 I’ll be at peace with it, because I’ll be an old lady and it’ll show.” For the moment, she is “hoping that I still look young”, although occasionally she finds herself surprised when she looks in the mirror and sees that “I do have wrinkles”. “It’s tough,” she says of getting older in the entertainment industry. “It’s a job where you’re not supposed to age. The parts get thinner and thinner. The work will become less and less consistent. But, in a way, I’ve already passed that. I had an agent who said: ‘Past 40, you’re going downhill,’ which was so depressing.”

Now she is approaching 50 and still getting parts, still making music. After decades of grappling with the burden of her name, Gainsbourg is starting to consider herself a success in her own right; to feel that it is OK to be proud of herself. She may worry about wrinkles, but she is finally comfortable in her own skin.

• Charlotte Gainsbourg wears Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello

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Arwa Mahdawi

The GuardianTramp

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