Charlotte Gainsbourg

12.13.2011

By Michael Martin

With a new album and a starring role in Lars von Trier's trippy 'Melancholia,' there’s no escaping the versatile French artist this season.

Photography by Alexander Wagner

"It's good to do things quickly, with no follow-up -- in French, you say sans lendemains: with no tomorrows," says actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. She's talking about her new album, Stage Whisper, a compilation of live tracks and new songs recorded on the fly. It’s the follow-up to 2010’s acclaimed IRM, which was produced by Beck, who returns for four tracks here. The result is wonderfully mellow-danceable Sunday-afternoon fare. "Terrible Angels" shuffles and bounces along like an Odelay update, while "Paradisco" mates Saint Etienne with Kylie Minogue. Plus, there's a live performance of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman."

"It's something to do with the past, a little step into the future. It's very en parentheses," says Gainsbourg, herself quite en parentheses -- pausing between a yearlong concert tour and the imminent release of Lars von Trier's Melancholia, in which she plays a woman who grows increasingly hysterical as the planet heads toward Armageddon. "I love working with Lars," she says. "You want to surprise yourself, and he’s always a surprise."

Today, Gainsbourg, 40, sits on a terrace at the Bowery Hotel, looking dictionary-definition winsome in slim jeans tucked into pixiesque suede boots. Around her neck, there's a fabric-wrapped lump that occasionally moves; it's her three-month-old son, Joe. She speaks in quiet, Anglified English. Although her character in Melancholia is a nurturing parent, Gainsbourg found little to like about her. "I was ashamed of her cowardice," she says. "I liked Antichrist [her first film with von Trier] because I was being tough, horrible, and brutal. I was playing the devil at one point -- that was exciting, to be more than human."

In Melancholia, Gainsbourg costars alongside Kirsten Dunst. "Lars asked us to see Ingmar Bergman's Persona and study the relationship between a nurse and patient," she says. "To be a nurse to Kirsten is very easy."

Controversy greeted Melancholia at Cannes, when during an otherwise pedestrian press conference, von Trier called himself a Nazi who understood Hitler. "I was there. I didn't react," recalls Gainsbourg. "I wish I had reacted in a stronger way. I wasn't shocked by it. Of course his comment was awful, and it was just so stupid of him. It was just provocation: He's like that. Like pulling his trousers down -- that's what he does.” As does Gainsbourg, who has never quite shaken the controversy that surrounded the recording of “Lemon Incest” with her iconic father, Serge, in 1984 -- when she was 13. She was asked to play him in a recent biopic, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, but declined. (The movie won the French equivalent of an Oscar for best first film.)

Next, Gainsbourg stars opposite musician and notorious drug abuser Pete Doherty in the romantic costume drama Confession of a Child of the Century. In the meantime, she's still fielding questions about gory scenes in Antichrist.

"I thought the scenes with big emotions were much tougher to go through than any of the nakedness," she says, smoothing the head of the perfectly behaved infant who already has that Parisian-style aloofness thing down. "The scenes of ejaculating blood or hitting his penis with a chunk of wood were quite comfortable to do, because they were so extreme. I love violent scenes because you forget everything else. That's what you want to do when you act."

Melancholia is currently out in theaters and Stage Whisper drops November 29.

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