Gainsbourg has long wrestled with her trajectory, following in the footsteps of her famous parents, English actor and singer Jane Birkin and French musician provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, before she’d hit her teens.
At times, she feels like an imposter who has never really earned her stripes. At times, she yearns for the struggle. She thinks of actors such as Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, real professionals earning a real living, and puts herself in a different category. Of the many hats she wears – actor, singer, fashion muse, France’s most well-know daughter – none has ever felt quite right.
But, as she sits in the Marlon Hotel in New York’s Greenwich Village just before Christmas, everything about her oozes a sense of long-awaited, celebrated calm.
Tellingly, she booked the table under her own name. No one in the plush hotel restaurant and lobby looks twice at her, something she has relished since leaving Paris for New York in 2014 with her three children and partner, French-Israeli actor and director Yvan Attal.
She hurries in, laden with shopping bags and dressed in a denim shirt, jeans and black pistol boots, the kind of effortless bourgeois-boho dress that has made her a style icon to a generation of French women.
Gamine and understatedly beautiful, she has an intense demeanour. As she sips on a green tea, she speaks with startling openness and humility about her father, her grief, her complicated relationship with France, and how good it feels to finally come into her own.
“I think it’s only in another country where I feel completely free,” she says in a prim English accent, peppered with French words that she can’t translate perfectly. “For me, even going in a studio in France has to do with my father because that’s how I started and because everything I learnt was through him. Going in a studio here, I’m free.”
Gainsbourg’s family might be the closest thing to royalty in France. Her parents enthralled and shocked the nation with their turbulent relationship and songs such as 1967’s Je t’aime … moi non plus, so sexually explicit that the Pope denounced it and English radio stations refused to play it. Lemon Incest, Serge’s duet with his 12-year-old daughter about incest, stoked the controversy further, made all the more weird by his uncomfortably long kiss on Charlotte’s lips when she won a César Award (France’s Oscars) at 15 for most promising actress for the film L’Effrontée. Stomach-churning scandal has become a theme in Gainsbourg’s work, from her uncle Andrew Birkin’s 1992 film about sibling incest, The Cement Gardener, to the soul-peeling Lars Von Trier films she has starred in, like sado-masochistic horror film Antichrist, dubbed the sickest film in history by some but one for which she won the best actress award at Cannes in 2009.
By 1980, her mother left Serge for the director Jacques Doillon, giving birth to half-sister Lou Doillon, but the separation led to alcoholism and Serge died of a heart attack in 1991. But things didn’t end there: Gainsbourg suffered a near-fatal brain haemorrhage in 2007 after a water-skiing accident. Then, more tragedy in 2013 when her half-sister Kate Barry (from Birkin’s first marriage to composer John Barry) died by falling out a window in Paris.
It propelled Gainsbourg to uproot from the grief-drenched city “in order to build my mind again”. On the other side of the world, living in what she described as a bubble where no one knew her, out poured song lyrics about her father, her half-sister, alcohol abuse, motherhood, grief, loss, sadness and searing anger.
The songs formed the well-received album Rest, the first she’d ever written. (1986’s Charlotte For Ever was written by her father, 2006’s 5:55 by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Air, 2009’s IRM by Beck.) With her unconventionally breathy voice layered over disco-pop beats by producer SebastiAn, she sang about sharing the dead body of her father and willing her sister to grow old with her.
“Gainsbourg doesn’t just reveal her pain, but monumentalises it, lays out a red carpet, and invites people to watch,” Pitchfork wrote in an album review. “Few things are more terrifying than exposing our bruises to others, knowing that they could misunderstand, or prey on our vulnerability.”
A year on, she’s too scared to read the reviews. But, in a new city, after touring the album that was finally hers, she’s not scared to be herself.
“When my father died … everybody had the impression that their father had died, that this was as big a deal for them as it was for me,” she says.
In France, they know everything about my father, my mother, both my sisters. So I feel much more needing to defend my secrets.
“And it’s not something you want to compare or put on a scale but I couldn’t deal with that. It was a nightmare for so many years. And then when my sister died … I was much more mature but the fact that I came to New York and nobody knew anything about what had happened, it made me want to talk about her all the time.
“In France, they know everything about my father, my mother, both my sisters. So I feel much more needing to defend my secrets.”
The shadow of her lineage still looms large over Gainsbourg’s life; she was so painfully self-aware that it took her decades to write her own music or consider herself a professional actor and singer. But then she met Connan Mockasin, a 35-year-old, peroxide-haired, psych-funk musician from New Zealand who composed a song for her for an album of live recordings.
The pair bonded instantly and later spent six weeks on a small island off France’s Brittany writing songs in what Gainsbourg describes as an epiphanic experience that planted the seed for Rest. She connected with his modesty and positivity. Like her, he often seemed embarrassed to share his work.
“But at the same time he couldn’t care less,” she says. “I think he made it possible for me to be a little less self conscious, to let go of my own censorship.”
Mockasin, a kooky quiet achiever who has been feted by Radiohead, James Blake and MGMT, says they spent the time drinking wine and singing. When they got bored, they’d take a boat out or ride bikes.
“She was always quite nervous, especially when we first met, and I get quite nervous too,” he says. “[But] it was really nice. I felt quite inspired being out there.”
He says he loved Gainsbourg’s vulnerability. “With her singing in particular, I like her fragility, I like how… her voice, especially in certain ranges, really struggles. I think her dad did that brilliantly [with her] when she was young.”
However, he says Gainsbourg’s record label didn’t like the direction of their work and SebastiAn ended up re-doing most of the album.
“I really love those recordings, I wish they were released for people to hear. They were more spontaneous, the opposite of polished, without any aim to be anything rather than just, you know, what you make when you think it’s never going to be heard or released.”
Gainsbourg says it was the starting point. “It made it possible. I didn’t love what I did but it was one step forward.”
To borrow a word she draws on to describe her music, Gainsbourg is an intriguing exercise in contradictoire. She is intensely shy and unsure of herself but unfazed by a nationwide incest scandal (she was in boarding school and missed the fuss of Lemon Incest) or tackling some of the most macabre film projects.
She has mega-star status but has shunned Hollywood blockbusters or A-list glamour for independent films and ripped jeans (“I don’t think I fit Hollywood,” she says). She seems delicate and cerebral but loves blustering rappers such as Kanye West and Cardi B, and has a sceptical take on the #MeToo movement that is the antithesis of a wallflower.
“I like provocation and for me, it’s easier when it’s someone else’s provocation and I sort of play along with it,” she says, as she laments that the space for provocation is shrinking in an age of political correctness.
Von Trier, who was recently accused of sexual harassment by singer Bjork, was declared persona non grata by the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 for comments about sympathising with Nazis (in an odd parallel, Serge made a concept album about Nazis). A comedian she loves, Louis C.K., has been outcast over sexual harassment allegations too. Likewise, the French author Céline, whose work she admires, has been tainted by accusations of anti-semitism. She was even asked recently what her opinion of Kanye West was after she covered his song, Runaway, on her EP Take 2. The answer: she doesn’t know, or care!
“I’ve heard terrible things he said, the fact he was pro-Trump and said things about slavery that felt completely crazy. But I don’t know if he’s a provocateur, if it’s part of the character, if he’s stupid [or] if he’s this terrible guy … It doesn’t mean that I don’t listen to him and feel that he’s so talented. I feel like he’s a real genius. Do we go into the museums and take down all the art pieces that were done by people who’ve done so-so things?”
The shrinking space for controversial work like her father’s has been accelerated by the #MeToo movement and rise of political correctness, she believes.
“I find it very scary,” she adds. “I feel that it’s working in the opposite way now. Because people are not trusting women anymore, they don’t want to take risks with women anymore and you’re either a feminist or a whore. It’s so hard because I don’t want to be all black or all white. I’m a mix of things and it’s not for me.”
If her father planted the seed of unorthodoxy and creativity, releasing Rest was like welcoming its harvest, her mother Jane Birkin recently said. She described the album as a brave endeavour, like Gainsbourg ripping the bandages off her own prudence.
Her daughter is more direct.
“I think I just stopped caring,” Gainsbourg says. “I don’t care about just being who I am. It’s, umm, I sort of accept myself a bit more.”
I comment on how great that must feel.
“Well, it was about time, you know,” she jokes, cracking just a hint of a smile.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Take 2 EP is out now on Because Music / Caroline Australia.
Rachel Olding is a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in the United States.