Charlotte Gainsbourg Discusses Working with Lars Von Trier

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Jan. 15 2012 9:47 AM

“I Like Being Manipulated”

Charlotte Gainsbourg discusses her music, her father, and her work with Lars von Trier.

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“The song is very pure and the words are very pure,” she insists. “The lyrics say, ‘The love that we’ll never do together.’ Of course there’s a provocation, but there’s a lot of honesty too. It’s a real love from a father to his daughter, and from a daughter to her father. I’m very proud of the song. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

In spite of, or maybe because of, her background, Gainsbourg’s own private life has been remarkably settled. She began seeing her husband-to-be in 1991; their most recent child was born in July. Yet throughout her work there has been a streak of darkness and perversity. At 21 she made her English-speaking film debut in The Cement Garden, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel about, er, incest directed by her uncle Andrew Birkin. In 2009 she appeared in Von Trier’s sexually violent Antichrist in which her character suffers a variety of extreme degradations including a self-administered clitorectomy.

“I like being an instrument, being manipulated, but you have to want to go that way. So there’s nothing brutal or forced,” she says. During the filming of Antichrist there was a scene when she had to be throttled by her co-star, Willem Dafoe. Out of the corner of her eye Gainsbourg caught sight of her director. There was a strange look of pleasure on his face.

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“I think he was understanding my real nature, which is a little masochistic,” she says. “And he said when I was really” – she makes strangulated noises, mimes being throttled – “when I was really in a lot of pain, I think he said, ‘You like that don’t you?’, with a little smile. And I didn’t think it was that funny at the time.” She laughs.

It seems remarkable she should have wanted to team up with Von Trier again, as she did on Melancholia. But Gainsbourg insists she enjoys working with him. “I like Lars’s way of shooting because it’s so unsettling. Because he puts you in that place where you don’t know what you’ve done and maybe it’s completely wrong.”

She has a gentle, softly spoken manner. But beneath her words strange emotional depths seem to stir. She mimes being throttled again when she describes playing the huge US rock festival Coachella on her tour. “When I did Coachella for the first time, I think it was my fifth concert, it was such a big crowd, I got” – she places her hands round her throat, gasps – “seeing all the people, then I felt I was being transported, thanks to them.”

Transportation through asphyxia? In certain respects, and not just the fact she has become a singer, you could say Charlotte Gainsbourg is a chip off the old block.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT's pop critic.