Charlotte Lucy Gainsbourg – on THE TREE
interview by Serge van Duijnhoven
On the last day of the Cannes Filmfestival 2010, French actress and singer-songwriter Charlotte Gainsbourg talked to IFA-moviecritic Serge van Duijnhoven about her new and slightly metaphysical movie The Tree (directed by Julie Bertuccelli), her disattachment from nature, the shootingperiod in Australia, her upcoming new project with Lars von Trier, about the parallell but seperate universes of music and movies, Charlotte’s recovery from her cerebral haemorrhage in 2006, her latest concept-album IRM (produced by Beck) that resulted from this ordeal, and the experience of living a life in the shadow of one’s father-genius.
© IFA-Amsterdam – Serge van Duijnhoven 2010
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22/07/2010 – LONDON ENGLAND
Movietrailer The Tree:
Charlotte Gainsbourg has established herself as a talented actress of international repute. Honoured in 2009 with the prestigious Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival for her transcending role as a mourning mother going bezirk in Antichrist, Lars von Trier’s latest production, Charlotte has brought truth and originality to a diverse, and often challenging, array of roles.
Actress, fashion-icon, singer-songwriter, in each of these fields Charlotte Gainsbourg managed to impose her sensibility as a defining trademark. She is not so much impressed by the estafette of successes , as that she finds it all remarkable and strange. Because she did it all “a rebours”’ – much against the drifting tide of her tempers and hesitations. She still is, in so many ways, the pale faced, frail and skinny bodied adolescent girl from L’effrontee. A role she played with so much natural devotion back in 1986.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is known and reknown for her perfectionism. Her in depth preperations of the scenes she needs to play in front of the camera. Her close reading of the script. The research she puts into the study of her character. She seems the kind of woman who is not able to fail, even though she never immediately deems herself high enough to succeed. This attitude is not based on some false humility. All the more, it is based on a character that has sharpened and deepened itself through the years by the shere force of its inherent persistence and the overwhelming drive to methodologically overcome its insecurities. She is a lady who is successfull against her odds, not because of them. Precisely this, gives her character its genuinity and even – the more she comes of age – a glance of heroism. She was able to carefully build an impressive international career as an actress who was lucky enough to have worked with some of the true cinematographical geniuses of the century like Sean Penn, Charlotte Rampling, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, Lars von Trier and John Hurt.
As a singer-songwriter, hesitantly and reluctantly, Charlotte is – just like her father and mother – now proceeding her own path too. Not forgetting about the gravity and uniqueness of her father’s stardom in this field. But for the first time also by performing live on stage without being hampered by the shere force of Serge’s historical reputation. Charlotte Gainsbourg is one of those truly original characters who is becoming more interesting, sincere and profound, the longer one is able to look at her on screen, listen to them on stage, or follow them from nearby. Such as I had the chance at the International Filmfestival in Cannes or at the stage of one of her concerts during her IMR 2010 tour.
“I am not a singer for the masses”, affirms Charlotte Gainsbourg during a round table discussion I had with her together during the latest Cannes Festival with a few other chosen journalists from European, American and Australian origin. “Nor do I consider myself to be a singer or actress destined for obscurity. I am probably one of those people who cannot help but being themselves, whatever role they play or whatever song they sing. The only thing I can do, is to play that role and sing that song the best I can. With all my proper energy and dedication. Now this task, to be myself as much as I can, is not an easy thing at all. Actually, it is horror. I do not know exactly where my inhabitations find their origin. But I do know that, because they exist, I probably do the things I do. And the way I do them. It might be that by trying to master my impulses, I purely follow them. Now that, to me – being a control-freak – is quite a depressing thought, indeed. So I do not try to think about it at all. You know what I mean?”
“It’s strange. I don’t really identify myself with labels like “artist” or “musician.” What I do and the decisions I make – whether to make music or be in a film – are very instinctive and I only understand much later, in retrospect, my reasons for doing things. I try not to be too analytical and try to trust my instincts instead. To trust a bit in fate. The chance of trial and error, retreating and doing it once more in a slightly different way. There is no perfect way to proceed. Not one path towards progress. This is something I have to learn time and again. The only thing that counts, is the action itself. This may sound simple. But it is not. One has to find oneself. That is a huge if not impossible task. Because the self – infathomable as it is – may eventually not even exist. Now fathom that.” She laughs. Rolls her spoon through the plastic cup of her tea – that has cooled off since quite a while. She seems in a dreamy mood. Not very comfortable. Not very concentrated. Avec la tête dans la lune, as the French say so pointingly. With her thoughts somewhere else. To be precise: with her eyes gazing in her plastic cup of cooled off tea.
In September 2006, Charlotte Gainsbourg sustained a head injury while waterskiing. Persistent headaches prompted her return to the doctors, who, after conducting neurological tests and an MRI, discovered a brain hemorrhage that was caused by the accident. The prognosis was serious, Gainsbourg explains: blood clots, and a small hematoma, had gathered around her brain. To save her, the doctors drilled a small hole into her skull in order to release the blood. The procedure worked, and in coping with the shock of it all, the singer learned that maybe those medieval doctors were on to something. “My realization wasn’t that dramatic as the surgery itself,” she qualifies, “but I was very, very close to death. I thought I was very courageous toward life and death, and I didn’t really care, but when it happened, I realized how scared I was.”
“I don’t tend to analyse my behavior too much. After the waterski accident of 2006 and the following operation on my brain, I didn’t consciously go out and say, “I’m going to do an album and call it MRI and it will be cathartic.” It all happened randomly and it was only afterwards that everything made some sort of strange sense. I was thinking about the experience of the MRI, the sounds that surround you when you are in the machine and I wanted to experiment with those. I loved Beck and met with him and it just felt like a natural progression. He had written the lyrics “drill my brain full of holes” without having any idea of what I’d gone through. It was a total coincidence. It was through conversations with Beck and memories of that time in my life that the accident became the focus in some ways of my new music album.”
Serendipity put her in the path of Beck Hansen, whom she met at a White Stripes concert in L.A. She and the singer-songwriter had a brief conversation, initiated by their common bond, producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, U2, R.E.M.), who had worked on Gainsbourg’s 2006 return to music, 5:55, and three of Beck’s most critically acclaimed records, including Sea Change. Gainsbourg and Beck met again, backstage at a Radiohead show in Paris, which prompted her to explore the possibility of making a new record. She called Beck and was soon working with him in his Silver Lake home studio. Casually, the two began to record, minus any concrete expectations.
The sound, as with many of IRM’s string pieces, faintly resembles the sensual, warm string sections of Gainsbourg’s father’s. (Beck, in fact, sampled Serge’s “Cargo Culte” on his track “Paper Tiger,” on Sea Change.) “I think they use strings in an entirely different way,” she says of her father’s propensity to use arrangements as a punctuation, as opposed to the Beck family’s more atmospheric runs.
“My creativity comes out with others,” Charlotte acknowledges. “That’s why it is such a pleasure to be involved with Beck. I can’t do anything on my own. I like the idea of entering someone else’s world. I find more freedom inside someone else’s work rather than being completely free, and able to create anything.”
“I try to combine acting and singing. And not let the one being jeopordized by the other. I had to turn down films in order to do this IRM tour that I am doing now. I regret but that’s how it is. I only will stop my tour on demand of Lars von Trier, who asked me to do a new film with him – Melancholia. And that project I consider to be more important than my music at that time.”
Are you ready for a second Lars experience?
“Oh yes! (laughter) Many people have said, “Oh my God, you’re working with Lars again?” but I’m actually very happy to work with Lars again. I am going into this new project in some ways with my eyes closed. I’ve read the script of course, it’s a very Lars version of science fiction, but I’m not sure what to expect, which is of course very exciting to me. I loved working with him, there were no negative aspects of any kind. He was very sweet. Although who knows what will happen with this next project, maybe he’ll become a monster! No really. His genius, that I want to be close to again. The experience of being directed by him was so special. I really had never experienced something like that before. Now that I’ve done quite a few movies, more than the script, its my relation towards the director that counts in the first place. July Bertuccelli is a very different director than Lars von Trier, of course. For her, sensibility comes up first. It was her I was working for, while doing The Tree. I was not thinking about Lars.”
Was your role as a young but grieving mother in The Tree also a discovery into the realm of family, in some way?
“A discovery not, but exploration yes. I like that aspect of the character that’s she is not coping well with being a mother in the beginning. She can’t cope with that loss. The only thing that brings her to life, after a while, are her children. And that man. I liked that journey. I like the fact that she wasn’t a good mother. I like people’s faults. I got to grow very close to the children that are playing a role in this movie. And also with my own children coming over at a certain stage during the process, we all became like some sort of family as it were. A big group. In the beginning I was nervous that people were not going to believe that I am the mother of these children. These were very small children. But it all became very natural. They all have their own character. Of course we had a lot of rehearsals so that we could all make it work and make it happen. We had the time.”
Last year, when she received the prize for Best Actress in Cannes 2009 for her role in Antichrist, Charlotte Gainsbourg said, addressing her father and looking upwards: daddy, I hope that with this movie I have shocked you…
Do you remember having said this?
“Of course I remember.”
Do you think now a new phase is coming up? You do not have to shock him anymore? You proved it. You can move on to the things you really want to do yourself?
“It was a small remark. I am not living my life mainly or only with that relationship, really. It is important for me, and I had to say this. But I’m not doing films thinking about him all the time. And I’m not doing music only thinking about him either.”
Last time I was in Paris, there were posters everywhere for Gainsbourg Vie heroique, the movie of Joann Sfarr about your father. Was that a difficult time for you to be around in your city?
“No, I wasn’t in Paris at that time, which was quite helpful. I didn’t see the film. I didn’t want to see it. In the beginning I had a lot of contact with director Joann Sfarr, yes. He even wanted me to play the main role. But than I decided not to. I could not be involved in all of this. It is too close to my blood, my own life, my mother. To me.”
Still, you are following in the footsteps of your father and mother, by performing live on stage with a band and making studio albums…
“It is something that is very exciting and that I have only discovered quite recently because I rarely did it in the past. I had little experiences in January in New York. But then we stopped and I started again in April, in Canada and the USA. It’s a whole discovery and so different from anything I have experienced before.
It is very very extreme. Just being in front of a crowd. I can’t even remember how it was like once it is done, because of the intensity one tends to forget. Or one thinks: was it but a dream? So I have to go back on stage to make it feel real. I am panicking a bit already. Because of the oblivion. That I cannot remember exactly what I did or how I did it last time. But it is fun – a lot of fun.”
With the huge palmares that you have at the moment of having made so many outstanding movies, do your very first movies – like L’effrontee – still mean something special to you.
“O yes! Well, specially those films. L’effrontēe and La petite voleuse. Because they were very important films to me. I suppose it is a bit like a novellist who thinks very tenderly of his debute, no? I like being that age I was in then. Experiencing shoots along with the naivity. I remember them very precisely, even they are the films I shot the longest ago.”
Charlotte Gainsbourg – “I understood why we went that far for filming The Tree all the way down in Australia, once we got there. Once I saw the landscape, that tree that July Bertucelli had looked for for so many months. And that house. Then I really got it. And I understood that part of the story that is so important. The tree that we pictured in the movie, is a real character for himself.”
The main character?
“No not the main character. A symbol of life and a symbol of death at the same time. The power of nature.
The nature over there is so powerful, so overwhelming. When it starts to rain, it is like heaven coming down. Not Europe rain. Everything is very intense. It did make sense. Because of the story. It was very helpful. I was reluctant to go there in the beginning, because it was so far away from everything. From my own children, their school. I am also a mother, you know. With her peculiar concerns.”
What is your own relationship to nature? In the movie there is a line: that there is a limit to nature.
“I feel quite distant. I am not that close to nature. I love being in the country side, taking holidays. I can very often be, like in the film, completely disconnected. So being forced to have this relationship with nature in the film, was very new. It was a discovery, a process I liked. Leaving all that behind, after the shooting, was also very strange. Also because of all the people I was leaving. Knowing that I would not come back very soon. And during the shoot, one became quite close attached to one another. Especially the children. I like that idea of being in disbelief. And then the development of the tale. That she could have dialogue with her deceased husband through that tree. I liked the fact about not knowing whether to believe or not.”
So to you this is not a movie about reincarnation, or life after death?
“Not really. Well of course there’s this possibility of reincarnation. But to me, I find it more interesting to go with each character and what they want to believe. It was my first time in Australia. It was sort of a country shock. A nature shock. Because I live in Paris, I am always travelling to cities. For the first time I spent three months really in the middle of nowhere. Because that is where we were. It was very strong for that story. We needed that. The fact that I went there without my own children. Without my husband. We were three women, the producer and July the director. Three women without their children, no men around. Because of the story, it did make sense. I was very scared of the red bugs. The creatures all around in that Australian environment. Rattle snakes. The flying dogs. At one instant I even met a snake.”
What did he tell you?
“I will never tell you!”
– end of the talk –
Dawn and Peter O’Neil live together with their children, on the outskirts of a small country town. Next to their rambling house stands the kids’ favorite playground: a giant Moreton Bay Fig tree, whose branches reach high towards the sky and roots stretch far into the ground.
Everything seems perfect until Peter suffers a heart attack, crashing his car into the tree’s trunk. Dawn is devastated, left alone with her grief and four children to raise.
Until one day, 8-yearold Simone, reveals a secret to her mother. She’s convinced her father whispers to her through the leaves of the tree and he’s come back to project them.
Dawn takes comfort from Simone’s imagination, and the tree starts to dominate their physical and emotional landscape. But the close bond between mother and daughter, forged through a mutual sorrow and shared secret, is threatened by the arrival of George, the plumber, called in to remove the tree’s troublesome roots.
As the relationship between Dawn and George blossoms, the tree continues to grow, with its branches infiltrating the house, its roots destroy the foundations.
Feeling increasingly isolated, Simone takes refuge in her beloved tree, refusing to come down.
Dawn is forced to make an agonising decision. But as the heavens open and nature takes over, she may have left it too late.
SvD – IFA-Amsterdam
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