you're the daughter of the world's most notorious maverick and his famous
the burden of expecttion can
outweigh the privilege of fame. Model and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg
reveals haw the legacy of her father Serge still weighs
heavy on her mind.
Her father was a musical genius and her mother the face of a generation.
Together,they staged fetishistic fantasy sequences,
lacing pop music with orgasms and playing out psycho-sexual games in public
that both enthralled and appalled a nation. But
while others worshipped the iconic
singer,Serge Gainsbourg,and his radiant English damsel,Jane Birkin,the
reality of being the
daughter of such
decadence made growing up for Charlotte a media minefield that could have
turned her into a nightmare
primadonna or driven her out of the spotlight altogether.
As if it were'nt enough that Charlotte was born into such an "X-rated"
family,no sooner was she on the cusp of puberty than
she too had been co-opted into her father's non-stop eroti@ccabaret.
Charlotte claims that her appearance aged 13 in the video for "Lemon
Incest" ,in which she writhes against her half-
naked father on a PVC bed,made little impact on her, she was able to play
the incestuous sister in "The Cement Garden"-
derected by her uncle, Andrew Birkin-incredibly convincingly. Indeed,
while her parents were baiting the media with their wild
antics, Charlotte was becoming a child star in her own right, winning
a Cesar( the French equivalent of an Oscar) for her
portrayal of an angst-ridden teenager in "L'Effronte". The film
turned Charlotte into an inadvertent style icon and she was
typecast, in films like "La Petite Voleuse" and "Merci
La Vie", as the eternal teenager of French cinema.
Unlike her parents, Charlotte's reaction to fame was to shrink away from
the public eye. She explains of her father, "He
respected my personality and that way of thinking about the media.
He didn't understand it but in@a way I think he respected I felt. Something
strange that came out of him but didn't look like him. "
Smoking a cigarette
in a cafe on the corer of the bustling street shere she lives near Denfert
Rocherau in central Paris, she
comesacross as reserved but opens up when it feels right. She is quietly
diplomatic about the things she would rather not
discuss. "I have a very selective memory,"
She offers in softly spoken English. "I tend to erase a lot of stuff
and I do know why I do it... I only have beautiful memories, it
was just a simple family life."
Motherhood and the stability of her long-term relathionship with actor
Yvan Attal has seen Charlotte tentatively become more
extrovert. Not least because as a successful, versatile actress she has
appeared in no less than 20 films in 16 years, including
Patrice Leconte's latest film, Felix et Lola and Attal's derectorial debut,
Ma femme est une actrice which finished shooting at the
beginning of this year.
Now aged 29, Charlotte has taken up modeling, appearing in Italian Vogue,
Harper's Bazaar, and Self Service, and has recently
become close friends with Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquiere. The appeal
of acting, modellong and singing, Charlotte points out,
is that she can, under someone else's direction, live vicariously though
the roles she chooses. But having been a perpetual
participant in someone else's spectacle since her early teens, Charlotte
is still trying to figure out where the identity projected
onto her by others ends and her own identity begins.
-What are your first memories of your father?
"It's quite normal chaildfood stuff. Just a father. That's the main
image I have. I do habe the Impression that I've put him, with
reason, on a pedestal. I know tor the work it was diffrent; I remember
Lemon Incest as something completely innocent and easy.
I can't remember anything about the scandals that it made. I think I was
in boarding school and I didn't hear anything about it.
And then I was very proud to do the second album with him. He had a way
of directing the singer in an intense way. I'm really
happy that I did that with him. Charlotte Forever, the film we did together
(following Lemon Incest in 1986, about an older man's
relationship with his daughter) I didn't feel very comfortable with that
because it was a bit too close and I didn't feel comfortable
with showing us together in front of other people."
-How did you reconcile hie private and public presences?
"He was very in control of his image, like his playful, barbaric
alter-ego Gainsbarre, he knew what he wanted to show and he had
fun. I don't think he was ever surpassed. It was a mixture of public and
private and he p;ayed woth that so much; it was part of the
game and it was easy to understand though as a child the alchol and what
it did to him wasn't very pleasant. I can't say I enjoyed that,
it was very difficult. Now when I look at it, it's just normal, it just
happened that way. It was part of him and I accepted it quite easily.
It's easy to say it because he's my father, but he was a fascinating person
and very real, very human.
-Do you think your reluctance to speak to the media, if not the lack of
interest in playing games with the media is a reaction to your
"I know that I didn't feel the same way about the media that my father
felt, I know that when I started to work , he couldn't understand
why I wasn't that pleased to be on the cover of a magazine. With all the
talent he had he could have been so confident in himself, so
blase, but he was never that way. He was alwys like someone making a discovery,
he was very proud of people liking him. And often
the ones that really loved him were kids and he was very excited and touched
-Are you misunderstood because of your parents?
"No, I don't really feel misunderstood. People don't know me, I'm
not showing that much sbout me in films. I like having secrets, knowing
that people don't know about me. It may be a reaction to my parents but
I don't know. I didn't suffer much because of being famous. At
school sometimes children could be horrible and say horrible things about
my parents. Maybe that's why I protected myself very early
on from people saying nasty things. I do have a memory of when he burnt
a 500FF note on TV. I was at school and I was working with
some older children, I must have been about 13, and a boy burnt my work.
That was the sort of thing that happened. But it was no
drama, not that big a deal.
-What was the motivation behind your father's tireless provocation?
"For me, it was the complexity of someone terribly, terribly shy
and yet also the other extreme. It's very obvious, that combination.
The fact that he hated his faces, that he thought he was ugly. People
were quite brutal about his looks in the beginning. He just
assumed it afterwards and having beautiful women with him was arevenge.
I can understand why he always attracted beautiful woman.
He was very charming. That's what he had; charm. He suffered a lot at
the beginning of his career because he didn't have much
success then. His success came very late and when it did, it was huge.
He didn't particularly want revenge, he wasn't aggressive in
that way. It was just something that happened."
-What did you make
of his highly sexual music and public appearances when you were a tennager?
I did understand it. When he did "Love On The Beat" I knew it
was Bambou ( his partner after
Jane Birkin) screaming on
the record. He could be cruel sometimes; I remember he told very rude
jokes at dinners and I always laghed witout understanding them.
He would turn to me and say
"Why are you laghing?" So maybe I didn't understand everything!
I remember watching "Je T'aime
Non Plus" as a little girl and loving it. I was never shocked by
what he did, never ever"
ever rabel against your father?
"No, and I
don't think it's a good thing not to have that period where you're against
your parents and all that. I didn't have that so I had
to fight other things later. It's what happened when I put him on such
a pedestal. I didn't have a rebellious period, but I was very sulky.
My father was easy to manipulate. He was like a child, if he was against
me over some children thing I always knew how to get him
back. He was easy-going, But at the same time he was very rigorous and
strict about certain things. Very precise things, like the way
you are and the way you were at the dinner table, that the forks should
be like this, that may sister and I shouldn't talk. Now I like the
fact that he had principles, that he felt very srtongly bout manners.
At the same time I remember at one time I would say rude words
but very shy rude words, like damn instead of shit, and he used to say,
"Don't say that! Say merde! Don't be shy with those words!"
So it was very contradictory."
-What effect do you think having such a charismatic and complex father
has had on your life?
"I think the main thing is not being able to think on my own and
always judging myself through him, though what he did. I find it very
difficult to have my own taste. And at 29 I should be able to decide for
myself what I like, but I find I still go from his taste. His taste
for beauty, books, films, art-everything was so strong and so very modern.
He wasn't soft on one period, he was always changing, so
I can't even say being in 2001 his taste is old fashioned for me because
it's not. In fasion, I have my own taste but even that is to do
with him. But I'm not that happy about it, because I don't feel very free.
And it's not something he forced on me, it's just me and how
I deal with that.
-coming from a family of actors and musicians, did the decision to become
an actress come naturally to you?
"I can't remember a time when I really said to myself that's what
I wanted to do, that I would go to acting school and all of that. It
all happened very early; I don't really think at 12 you really know what
career you wanto to have. When I acted the first time, in "Paroles
Et Musique", I did it as a game. It was with "La Petite Voleuse"
that I got more of a feeling that I was doing something for me, rather
than just to please the director. I haven't done that many films. I've
never done one after the other without stopping. I built up my
confidence during a school. The thing with stopping is that it takes all
my confidence out and it's very hard to get into another project.
I'm working on it but it's not working that well."
-How do you deal with your lack of confidence?
"Very stupid things like getting to know people and trying to forget
the feeling of being judge, of not being afraid of being ridiculed. I'm
hoping to get more free with time but I'm not really getting that close
to it. I still get the impression that I'm holding on to something.
It's a bit boring-I'd lie to change that. I thought it would changeas
I got older but it hasn't.
-Did you enjoy your first steps into the world of modelling?
"It was fun but at the same time I thought; "What am I doing?"
It's a world that has nothing to do with anything; it's no real. When
the photgrapher and people looking at the polaroid because it's very important,
Because it's for this magazine or that, it makes me laugh.
I have no cofidence in myself and I don't like the way I look. It's fun
just putting myself in the hands of people and just letting go, seeing
what happens. People told me they were happy and it gave me confidence.
-At 29 you've already accomplished a great deal- you're an established
actress as well as a mother. What do you hope to have achieved
in ten years time?
"My praivate life is very important. It's more important than my
work. Even though I know that if I'm unhappy with my work, I'll be
unhappy with my life. I just want to bloom and not regret anything. I
don't want to say it's too late to do anything I want to do. I've often
thought about what I could do if I wasn't an actress , if one day I was
really unhappy doing that. What could I do, I still don't know.
Hopefully I'll find something.