Whisper of the Heart:
Charlotte Gainsbourg, In a Melancholia Mood
On a beautiful cloudless afternoon in early autumn, a mother gracefully, joyfully spins a half-step under the shady trees of MacDougal Street, embracing an infant in her arms as the world passes by. Walk a block in any direction and Manhattan feels half-mad, but only half. There’s a certain special stupid magic about the crisping of the air, the warmth of the sun lingering, a thousand little golden moments possible because everyone comes alive to how good the city feels, how good it feels to be whirling through the middle of it, as if there was no point in being anywhere else. At least, that’s what I’m thinking, watching Charlotte Gainsbourg through the big windows of the SoHo cafe where we had just met. The image called to mind its darkest double, when she first comes onto the screen in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, desperately cradling a little boy as she rushes, in paradoxical slow-motion, towards the imminent apocalypse. Fortunately, on this day, there was not a giant rogue planet on an impending collision course with our own and we were all safe from obliteration.
But those images do sort of bookend Gainsbourg’s particular orbit through pop iconography (even though, in the flesh, she seems the least likely human-of-international-repute to be associated with the phrase “pop iconography,” her soulful down-to-earthness a contradiction to what we’ve come to expect from those born of legend, who come of age in public). She’s the famous child of famous people. Jane Birkin, the English actress and singer who made her unforgettable debut grappling (all so briefly) naked with David Hemmings in Blow-Up, and Serge Gainsbourg, Rabelaisan Frenchman and rogue genius, who commemorated their passion in the horny 1969 ditty “Je t’aime… moi non plus” (“I love you… me neither”). Charlotte came along two years later, and became her father’s duet partner at the tender age of 13, creating a fresh stir with the song “Lemon Incest.” She’s been a star ever since, embodying at first the tomboyish waif or gamine – a deer in the headlights at her wolfish father’s side in a photo from 1986, after she won a Cesar Award – and in later years the unfussy figure of continental cool, her face an unconventional admixture of DNA from the beauty and the beast.
So it wasn’t really a surprise when she won the best actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 for her performance in Lars von Trier’s batshit-crazy Antichrist, a film better seen than described, since the phrase “genital mutilation” tends to derail a lot of people in the course of a serious appreciation of Gainsbourg’s feverishly committed work in a role that demands such extremes. Chaos reigned in real life, too: a 2007 brain hemorrhage, which curiously enough inspired IRM, the performer’s unexpected and terrific collaboration with Beck – one of the world’s biggest Serge fans and someone with his own immediate cultural lineage (father David Campbell. whose string arrangements on “Le Chat Du Cafes Des Artistes” buffer Gainsbourg’s bedtime pillow French vocals with a ’60s pop ballad grandeur). The album’s title track employs the grating rhythm of a magnetic resonance imaging machine (“IRM” in French usage), set against a tom-tom beat and a motorik bassline, which pretty much sounds like the best thing Stereolab never recorded. Gainsbourg experienced the grinding noises as part of the diagnostic process during her encounter with near-death. Most people have nightmares about this stuff. Not her.
“People thought it was weird to have something positive to say,” she says. “I love the sounds. I think they are very energizing. It’s not a bad memory for me at all.” Gainsbourg sounds a good deal more traumatized in her account of facing a concert audience on the road. This was her second album recorded as an adult, but she had never stepped outside of the studio to play the role of real-life chanteuse. But in 2010, Coachella beckoned. If you can survive a brain hemorrhage AND Lars von Trier, what’s so bad about standing up in front of a few thousand of your closest friends and singing?
“It’s very different,” Gainsbourg says. “You have no shield. I’ve done theater once, but even that is different. You don’t look at the public. You’re still in your bubble. You have to play a character. This time, I didn’t want to show up with a character. I wanted to be myself. But I thought it wouldn’t be enough, because I’m not such a singer, I don’t have an incredible voice, I’m not a performer. At the beginning, I thought I didn’t have what it takes. And gradually I took such pleasure doing it and then saw that the people who were coming were not mean people ready to punish me.”
She pulled it off, too. Stage Whisper, which comes out Dec. 13, mostly documents the tour with a collection of live performances (and some bonus material left over from the IRM sessions) that test out the songs beyond the bubble of Beck’s control room. Sometime they flourish, sometimes you miss the screwball little touches that don’t quite fit in with a live band situation. The infectious bounce of “Heaven Can Wait” has a much lighter vibe that seems to liberate Gainsbourg’s performance of it, unswamped by all the ornamentation. Her phrasing has an accent whose contours are properly those of England, yet never seems like “English English” at all, which combined with her usual breathy, or at least soft-spoken, delivery has the effect of pulling someone in closer. And when the sound is stripped down, as on Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” (a flashback to her work on Todd Haynes’ Bob-ographical fantasia I’m Not There), it’s pristine and soulful. “It was a bit instinctive,” she says. “Of course, he’s so alive in those songs, it’s difficult not to hear him while you’re doing it, or not hear his phrasing. But I felt because I was a woman it gave a different perspective. And I really enjoyed getting into that character. It was fun.”
She’s much less compelled to revisit her father’s legend, turning down an offer to play him – in an either inspired or crazy casting gambit – in the baroque French bio-pic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. “It was after I’m Not There and I thought, well, it is possible to play a man, why not?” she says. “I refused to see any footage of my father since he died. I mean, not refused, like a big thing. But if I can avoid it I feel better. So I thought if I was able to play him maybe I’d finally be able to see him and watch him and copy him. I thought about it for one month and then turned it down. I couldn’t. And then I had my accident, which meant anyway I was on another planet.”
And so we turn to yet another complicated male figure, von Trier, the Danish director who seems to attract famous actresses to his sets like moths to flame. Usually, they get singed and flutter away forever. But as Gainsbourg says, she couldn’t wait to re-enlist after Antichrist, in which her character goes insane after the death of her toddler, subjecting co-star Willem Dafoe to all manner of (prosthetic) torture, as well as herself, before things really go haywire. In the new Melancholia, though, she plays the “straight man” to a bipolar-as-fuck Kirsten Dunst, who gets the “Lars” role as a morbidly depressed new bride whose erratic behavior turns a grandiose wedding reception into a dysfunctional family cataclysm. The cosmic joke is this: The world really IS about to end.
“Because the first one was such a great experience for me – I loved it – I was nervous that it wouldn’t be as good,” says Gainsbourg, who had arrived in New York early in the week for the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival. “And it was very, very different. The fact was that the first one, with only Willem and me, felt so intimate in this cabin in the woods. And suddenly we started this second film with a wedding with 100 extras and a crew that seemed so big. It was good that it was different but it was so much different. I couldn’t reach out for Lars in the same way. And gradually we went into the more intimate scenes and then I found him again.”
At the risk of derailing everything, I have to ask about the director’s infamous “Nazi” discourse at the Cannes press conference for the film. The incident is up there on YouTube in all its squirm-inducing glory: An amazing piece of accidental performance art as compelling, in its blunder-headed way, as anything von Trier ever put on screen.
He said he’s never talking to the press again.
Well, after the incident in Cannes.
“Well, that’s his fault.” [knowing laugh]
How did it feel to be up there at the press conference?
“It was embarrassing, really embarrassing. But I wasn’t shocked by what he had said. It seemed like so much what he would do. In his own provocation – being stupid and going too far, deeper and deeper into his shit. That’s the way he is, and um… sabotaging himself.”
Not unlike Kirsten at the wedding.
“No. It wasn’t a big surprise, but it made such a fuss afterwards. During the conference thing, well it was embarrassing but it wasn’t dramatic. Then it became dramatic afterwards. He felt terrible, but like a child would feel terrible after a big mistake. [laughs] It’s not to say that what he said was not really… it’s not ‘worse,’ very bad. Stupid. He’s always trying to make fun or be very cynical. He’s always putting on an act. So that was a bad act.”
And another facet of the process. Gainsbourg seems to surf the drama with aplomb and compassion.
“The relationship is very simple,” she says earlier. “There’s something so obvious. He knows what I get from working with him. It’s so exciting. The process is really gratifying. It’s difficult at the same time. It’s not something you do… It costs you. But I just love him also, him as a human being. And the more I know of him and his family. I find him very touching.”
Photo by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.