CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: The Spectator is a Prince Who Everywhere Rejoices in His Incognito

by Sid Feddema

You know that person in culture who you wish you could “be”? Well, in my imagination that person has always been Charlotte Gainsbourg. As I worked on this feature, I wondered what it would mean to “be” Charlotte Gainsbourg. Would I wake up in the morning and see her face when I look in the mirror? Would I see myself as “me,” but others would see me as “her”? Or would I simply feel the same things her characters feel in films (who are, after all, not Gainsbourg)? Would my mind’s eye see her history, or my own history reflected through her own?

I am surely not the only person thinking through these fantasies. Gainsbourg has an inimitable presence within pop culture and avant-garde circles— a rare combination, to be sure. I came to her work through her brilliant roles in some of the most important avant-garde films of all time (Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac). What Americans may not know is that, as the daughter of French superstars Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, and a celebrated musician, designer, and style icon herself, Gainsbourg is perhaps one of the most visible people in European mass culture, quite separate from her more avant-garde performances. Despite being royalty of sorts in multiple realms of art and culture, Gainsbourg has always been collaborative as well, and her roster of cross-disciplinary involvement makes her so much more than a typical actor. 

My conversation with Gainsbourg about her new album centered on a most embarrassing misunderstanding, but I feel it is generative to recount it nevertheless. She says of moving to New York, “Of course nobody knows me here. I’m completely incognito. It means a whole different life of just being able to focus on whatever I’m doing and not looking at people thinking are they looking at me. It’s a new thing of being able to watch people and know that we’re on the same level.” So I naturally reply that I would, of course, recognize her on the streets of New York. I ask, in terrible French, if she is a flâneur who is free to simply observe and wander. She has no idea what I am saying until I spell it for her, so clumsy at French pronunciation am I, and she graciously explains it away as a bad telephone connection. Then the call drops and I wait anxiously to be reconnected.

What does it mean (beyond mere awkwardness) to be misunderstood, or perhaps overly understood, by someone whose music, acting, and style has shaped me so foundationally? And, in some small way, my own status as a misrecognized admirer might be concomitant with Gainsbourg’s own change of pace necessitated by fame’s ceaseless gazes. She reflects our own fears and desires so precisely and with such empathy in her work that we might view her oeuvre as an extension of our own selves.  

Yet with her forthcoming album entitled Rest and its six self-directed music videos premiering on Apple Music, Gainsbourg had molded her own space quite separate from any external expectations, “It’s true that I have a weird relationship to my own image. It’s difficult because I don’t like watching myself. And so I’ve had—with this album—to start drawing again. I did a lot of auto-portraits, pictures of myself.” Each song is indeed a portrait—a deeply intimate and revealing, yet somehow withholding, poetic feat. “Kate,” for instance, is an ode to Gainsbourg’s sister, Kate Barry, an extraordinary fashion and art photographer who died far too young. Gainsbourg recalls, “I tried to collaborate with the writing and each time I was going back to my own imperfections and the little things that made the songs my own. But I preferred them to not be perfect but to still be my own.” But collaborate she did, with a cadre no less iconic than SebastiAn, Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, Owen Pallett, and Paul McCartney (Gainsbourg also credits her friend, the director Nathalie Canguilhem, as a force behind-the-scenes. I initially thought Ms. Canguilhem was an imaginary inspiration, and not a real person).

Gainsbourg did have some restrictions placed on her directing by none other than her collaborator Lars von Trier, but the music videos are distinctly hers. She has mined a space somewhere between articulation and inexpressibility. Using mostly found footage in her video for Rest’s title track, Gainsbourg says, “I tried to make my own language with what means something to me. Sometimes I chose a shot of something and I couldn’t remember what it referred to. I was getting mixed up in my own language. But it was fun to discover because some of it I had no idea how to articulate.” Von Trier mandated that the videos should be boring and that each frame corresponded one-to-one with a lyric. Gainsbourg certainly did not follow the demand of boredom, though one can certainly see the formal scaffolding von Trier set forth. The video for “Rest” alternates between shots of Gainsbourg in a lonely studio—the image of the genius artist by herself, thinking, which is most often attributed to male artists—and stills from other films, like The Red Balloon and Melancholia. It is arresting in its visual poignancy and sparseness, as is the music on Rest.

One of the scenes Gainsbourg uses in the music video is the moment in Melancholia wherein Gainbourg’s character attempts in vain to flee certain death, her child in tow, as she sinks in slow motion into the manicured grass of a surreal golf course (set in the original to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde prelude, but here Gainsbourg’s own music provides the sonic scaffolding). It is perhaps the most exemplary moment in Gainsbourg’s filmography of her ability to capture an astonishing array of emotion that we have perhaps felt but have remained unable to express. The use of her own filmography is not, however, self-referential in a vain way; it is both nostalgic and indicative of a desire to rework herself, “I think I’m more about nostalgia but, at the same time, that’s why I went and asked for SebastiAn’s help, because I needed another dynamic.”

Speaking of collaboration and The Red Balloon, my phone call with Gainsbourg came back from the transcriber with “The Red Baboon” scattered throughout the text. I suppose when I think about Charlotte Gainsbourg, I think of someone who could not possibly mistranslate me, someone who, like few others, has captured a range of feelings and experiences in music and film that I thought might be illegible outside of my own mind. Balloon or Baboon notwithstanding, Rest, and indeed Gainsbourg’s generous creative spirit, are indicators that in this world that feels increasingly lonely, we might find someone who sees us in the way we wish to be seen. To answer my earlier question, our conversation—insofar as it was haunted by misunderstanding—reminds me that no one can be fully known, no matter how intimately we identify with them or how willing they are to freely share their truest selves, Gainsbourg has always done with admirable courage. This is the paradoxical root of empathy, to realize that no one’s experience can be mapped onto our own.

Written by William J. Simmons