“I Like Being Manipulated”

Charlotte Gainsbourg discusses her music, her father, and her work with Lars von Trier.

French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg
French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images.

Actors who think they can sing are commplace. But unlike other truant thespians – Scarlett Johansson with her wretched album of Tom Waits covers, say – Charlotte Gainsbourg has what you might call a family stake in the matter.

Her father, Serge Gainsbourg, was revered in France as a great songwriter and even greater libertine. Her mother is Jane Birkin, the beautiful English actress-singer who swapped swinging London for Paris and the arduous life of being Serge’s muse. Charlotte’s memories of music in the Gainsbourg household are of her father playing records of his own songs at top volume, to the distress of those unlucky to live next door. “The police were always coming by because he was always listening too loud,” she sighs.

I meet her in Paris, where she lives with her husband and three children. The venue is a luxury hotel near the Champs-Elysées. Gainsbourg, 40, sits at a floral sofa opposite me, elegantly casual in a black jumper, grey trousers and brown boots. Her spoken English – refined, softly spoken, composed – evokes the Chelsea bohemia of her mother’s youth. But a Gallic sheen and the occasional stumble for a word are reminders that French is her first language.

Since her father’s death in 1991, when she was 19, Gainsbourg has established herself as one France’s best-known actresses, appearing in films ranging from mainstream French comedies (Ma Femme est une Actrice, made by her husband Yvan Attal) to independent US cinema (21 Grams) and controversial art-house dramas (Lars von Trier’s Antichrist).

Her music career has followed a more haphazard route. It began in 1986 when she was a teenager with an album devised by her father, Charlotte for Ever, then didn’t resume until she was in her mid-30s. This month sees the UK release of her new album, Stage Whisper. It’s the follow-up to IRM, which she made in 2009 with Beck, the tirelessly inventive American songwriter and producer.

It was under Beck’s aegis – he wrote and produced IRM – that Gainsbourg began to inch out from her parents’ musical shadows. The album was inspired by a brain haemorrhage that Gainsbourg suffered in 2007 after a waterskiing accident. Weird clanking songs imitated the noises of the magnetic resonance imaging machines that scanned her. Slow-moving numbers mimicked an opiated state of convalescence.

Gainsbourg isn’t a technically gifted singer – her sweet, breathy voice is a one-note reproduction of her mother’s – but in Beck’s hands her vocals acquired an enigmatic pull, floating above his lushly orchestrated arrangements. Stage Whisper ties up IRM’s loose ends. It consists of a batch of new songs, several made with Beck during IRM’s recording sessions, and a CD and DVD of live performances from when she was touring the album in 2010. The tour came at the same time as she was making Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia, so she found herself shuttling from “crazy” rock festivals in Europe to the “silent, austere” shoot in Sweden.

“You need to build yourself up to go on stage, to feel you are worth it, but then to go to a film set my ego had to diminish all at once. It’s a funny exercise,” she says. It doesn’t sound very pleasant, I suggest. “No, it’s not pleasant, but it’s good. You juggle with who you are.” Was it odd playing songs about her brain injury on stage night after night? “On the contrary, it was very liberating,” she replies. “I love the sounds of the MRIs. The whole trauma was very exciting in a way.” The haemorrhage was successfully treated by surgery but surely it left her with a sense of the precariousness of life? “No, not at all.”

Gainsbourg, I learn, is prone to breezy remarks such as these. Some sound actressy (“I don’t feel that I have an identity,” she tells me at one point, which is either evidence of a radically decentred consciousness or complete tosh). Others, more sympathetically, suggest a person­ality disposed to put a positive gloss on life’s upheavals – a useful attribute, one suspects, for upbringing in the tempestuous Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin household.

She began singing at 13, making her debut with her father in the duet “Lemon Incest” in which she disturbingly reprised the erotic role her mother played in the Serge-penned 1969 hit “Je t’aime … moi non plus”. The song not surprisingly caused consternation when it came out in 1984.

“The song is very pure and the words are very pure,” she insists. “The lyrics say, ‘The love that we’ll never do together.’ Of course there’s a provocation, but there’s a lot of honesty too. It’s a real love from a father to his daughter, and from a daughter to her father. I’m very proud of the song. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

In spite of, or maybe because of, her background, Gainsbourg’s own private life has been remarkably settled. She began seeing her husband-to-be in 1991; their most recent child was born in July. Yet throughout her work there has been a streak of darkness and perversity. At 21 she made her English-speaking film debut in The Cement Garden, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel about, er, incest directed by her uncle Andrew Birkin. In 2009 she appeared in Von Trier’s sexually violent Antichrist in which her character suffers a variety of extreme degradations including a self-administered clitorectomy.

“I like being an instrument, being manipulated, but you have to want to go that way. So there’s nothing brutal or forced,” she says. During the filming of Antichrist there was a scene when she had to be throttled by her co-star, Willem Dafoe. Out of the corner of her eye Gainsbourg caught sight of her director. There was a strange look of pleasure on his face.

“I think he was understanding my real nature, which is a little masochistic,” she says. “And he said when I was really” – she makes strangulated noises, mimes being throttled – “when I was really in a lot of pain, I think he said, ‘You like that don’t you?’, with a little smile. And I didn’t think it was that funny at the time.” She laughs.

It seems remarkable she should have wanted to team up with Von Trier again, as she did on Melancholia. But Gainsbourg insists she enjoys working with him. “I like Lars’s way of shooting because it’s so unsettling. Because he puts you in that place where you don’t know what you’ve done and maybe it’s completely wrong.”

She has a gentle, softly spoken manner. But beneath her words strange emotional depths seem to stir. She mimes being throttled again when she describes playing the huge US rock festival Coachella on her tour. “When I did Coachella for the first time, I think it was my fifth concert, it was such a big crowd, I got” – she places her hands round her throat, gasps – “seeing all the people, then I felt I was being transported, thanks to them.”

Transportation through asphyxia? In certain respects, and not just the fact she has become a singer, you could say Charlotte Gainsbourg is a chip off the old block.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.