Interview: Charlotte Gainsbourg talks von Trier’s “Melancholia”

The Anglo-French singer-actress talks about playing Kirsten Dunst's normal sister, and that famous "Nazi" meltdown

Topics: Movies, Interviews, Lars von Trier, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia, Our Picks,

Interview: Charlotte Gainsbourg talks von Trier's "Melancholia"Charlotte Gainsbourg in "Melancholia"

Lars von Trier’s film “Melancholia,” which is surely one of the most spectacular screen achievements of recent years, is built around a series of dynamic opposites, or apparent opposites. It’s most obviously a movie about love and death: Its first half consists of a loosey-goosey, Ingmar Bergman-style marriage comedy with a large ensemble cast, while its second half is a darker and more intimate drama about a family facing the end of the world. It’s a story about two planets: Our beautiful blue one, home to the only known life in the universe, and a bigger, darker one called Melancholia, which has been hiding behind the sun and arrives to put an end to all that. It’s an allegory about an internal and invisible ailment, crippling depression, and one of the most potent and effective visions of science-fiction apocalypse ever brought to the screen.

I’ll publish a full review of “Melancholia” later this week, but let’s add one more opposition, the one between Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as a pair of sisters whose mutual orbit seems almost as powerful and destructive as the one between Earth and Melancholia. To some extent both actresses are playing against type: Dunst, the beautiful Hollywood blonde, plays Justine, whose wedding comes unglued in the first half of the film, plunging her into a deep, dark depressive illness. Gainsbourg, the dark-haired Anglo-French androgyne known for her work in European art films (and also for her intermittent career as a singer-songwriter), plays Claire, the more conventional sister. A rich man’s wife — her permanently pissed-off American husband is played by Kiefer Sutherland, TV’s Jack Bauer — Claire seeks calm, order and continuity in all things, and completely panics when it becomes clear that the big planet closing in on Earth will render all her plans irrelevant.

It’s Dunst who has the showier and more heroic role. She displays a depth and commitment her previous films have only hinted at, and she clearly deserved the best-actress award she won at Cannes this year. But on seeing “Melancholia” a second time, I was struck by the tremendous courage Gainsbourg brings to the more timid, less obviously sympathetic character of Claire. Trying to keep your family together in the face of imminent planetary destruction is a task doomed to failure, of course. As Gainsbourg herself says, it’s perhaps a pathetic one. But it’s the sort of thing we all do, day after day — we keep on cooking dinner for our families and doing the laundry even as the darkness closes in.

Gainsbourg herself won exactly the same award at Cannes two years ago, for “Antichrist,” von Trier’s previous film. As she explains it, in that violent, divisive, crazier-than-any-loon psychodrama she was essentially playing a version of the Danish director (who has been public about his struggle with mental illness), and this time around Dunst got that assignment. You might expect that the daughter of European pop-culture royalty — her father was legendary French singer Serge Gainsbourg, and her mother is English actress Jane Birkin — might appear chilly or pretentious, but in two meetings I’ve found Gainsbourg a friendly, natural conversationalist. The first time I interviewed her we literally sat on the rug in her hotel room and drank tea. This meeting was a bit more formal in tone, maybe because she had just come from a photo shoot and was wearing a spectacular red gown and high heels. We sat on a white sofa and talked “Melancholia,” the end of the world, and von Trier’s infamous Hitler meltdown at Cannes.

You know, I’ve had a difficult time describing this film to people. I mean, it’s about a wedding and it’s about a planet destroying the Earth, and beyond that I don’t quite know what to say.

It’s difficult to sum it up. I’ve never had to try! I get that Lars’ films are all so personal. Reading the script, I really didn’t know where he was going, or what was behind it. You always want to know what lies behind the thoughts, or how he came up with the story, and Lars never answers any of your questions. So everybody sees what they want and analyzes it in a different way. I’ve never had to go through any analysis for myself. Just having to play the part is enough — you don’t have to understand everything. For “Antichrist” it was the same. I had many questions that were unanswered, but still I could play it.

Your character here is so different from the woman you play in “Antichrist.”

Yeah, completely different. I really had the impression, and maybe it’s trying to simplify it too much, that in “Antichrist” I was playing Lars and Willem [Dafoe] was playing the nurse. In this film, Kirsten is playing Lars and I’m playing the nurse. I really saw it that way.

Do you know, when Lars’ wife saw the film, she said that the scene that touched her the most was the scene in the bathroom, when I’m trying to pick Kirsten up and give her a bath. Because she saw herself and Lars in that moment.

So I think his films are really personal. He’s giving the parts to women, but there’s a lot of himself in there.

If you want to put it in psychoanalytic terms, he’s extracting feminine aspects of himself, and projecting them onto the screen.

Oh, really, very, very much. The fact that he could relate to Kirsten, with her depression, that whole side of her character, that’s very important.

This is a bit of a cliché, maybe, but the two of you are playing against type to some degree. Kirsten is blond and fair and basically a Hollywood star, and she’s playing the depressed one. You’re dark and European and artsy, and you’re playing the conventional one.

Yeah, that’s true. My character — she’s not facing reality. She’s very human in a way, panicking and not being able to cope with that disaster. But for the first time, I wasn’t proud of my character. I wasn’t proud of her weaknesses. She can’t face anything, and she’s such a failure! [Laughter.] Even as a mother, as a wife — every aspect of her is so, I mean, sad is not the way to put it. So much the opposite of a heroic character.

I don’t really see her that way. Well, at the end, yeah. Do you mean that in the first half of the film, when Claire is in charge of the wedding, she’s not facing the fact that her sister is really sick, and doesn’t actually want to marry this guy?

Yeah. Now, she does say that Justine was the one who wanted to get married. I didn’t push her to get married. But as soon as that’s what she says she wants, it’s as if Claire has a contract in hand. I think she needs to reassure herself with principles, with things you have to do. She goes through her days like that. For me, it’s like she’s pretending to be a mother, pretending to be a wife, pretending to take care of the house. Nothing’s really truthful. That’s the way I find it, but I don’t think Lars had this vision of my character being so cold and, um — antipathique?

Right, yeah. Unsympathetic or unpleasant.

That was what I felt. I didn’t like myself. It was interesting — not to fight against the character, because I really was her and I felt for her. But I felt ashamed. In those scenes where the end is close and I start crying — the whole thing is about being so naive!

Well, OK. But she wants them to all be together at the end of the world! It’s the most incredibly romantic thing you can imagine.

I know! But it’s pathetic!

Are you saying that if the world really were about to end, you wouldn’t care about that stuff — about facing it with your loved ones?

I don’t think I would. But I don’t know how I’d react. Maybe I’d panic even worse than she does.

The two chapters of the story are also so incredibly different. Did you shoot it in the order we see it?

No, it wasn’t shot in order. But we did start with the wedding scenes, because we had to have all the actors and we started with about 100 extras. We got into the more intimate scenes later on, but for me it was a big, big change because I still had the shoot for “Antichrist” in my head. To go from something so intimate, just being alone in a cabin, totally isolated, to a wedding party with hundreds of people — I didn’t know where to stand. It was very hard, a hard beginning. Also, I didn’t have Lars to myself! I had to share.

Well, I would have to assume you had some pretty large personalities on that set. Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgård …

Everybody was really sweet. With Lars you have to be very simple, there’s no real ego going on. So, yes, that’s true, big personalities, but no crises, nobody felt they had to fight for themselves.

How does Lars manage a large group of people like that?

He doesn’t! That’s his thing. He doesn’t really talk. He lets you deal with the scene yourself, and is interested in getting what he needs. For me those scenes were the hardest, because the script doesn’t say what I’m doing while other people are talking. I had to invent whatever my character was going through. But it’s difficult, when you’re not very confident at the beginning of a shoot, to feel, OK, I’m in this scene and I’m dancing. To improvise for yourself. It was easier for me to just disappear. So it took time for me to figure out what he wanted me to do, and if he was happy or not.

I felt very paranoid, really, because he didn’t have time to deal with me or reassure me. Later on, I asked him if he wanted to fire me. I was so paranoid! Because I had had so much of him before, on “Antichrist.” Even though he said he was going through a very difficult time on that film, and didn’t know whether he would be able to cope with the shoot, still he was there and watching us. He was very present. This film got easier and easier as it went along. It got much closer to what I had already experienced with him.

One thing people may not get is that there’s a lot of comedy in the first half of this film. It’s often very funny: John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling as your impossible parents, Skarsgård trying to get Kirsten’s character to come up with a P.R. slogan on her wedding night.

Well, Lars is a funny man. He is! With that cynical taste.

Even casting you and Kiefer Sutherland as a married couple is already unexpected and funny, all by itself.

Yeah, sure. But Lars has this wonderful thing, in that he attracts everyone. We all want to shoot with him, and it’s really worth it. A lot of times I get asked if it was too difficult, if I would shoot again with him. How did I manage with such a monster! And he’s wonderful!

He’s a wonderful human being first. I really like him, not knowing a lot about him, but he’s someone that touches me very much. And also working with him — once you’ve worked with him it’s very hard to be satisfied with another way of working. There’s so much exploration, nothing is established. You explore the scenes, you never do the same thing again, continuity is no matter. When you go back to a more classical way of shooting, it seems weird.

Does he do any kind of rehearsal?

No, not at all. He shoots the rehearsal. I know that other actors love that thing of just jumping in, and I always felt it was very intimidating. Not to know what you’re expected to do, and then having the courage to do what you want to do. And then to hear Lars say: “This was a catastrophe! This was so wrong!” But then he blames himself as well. He’s not nasty about it. He’s just being honest. You have to dive into the unknown, and I sometimes find it really hard. But that’s part of the work, to accept being that bad at the beginning, and gradually finding your way.

Even the cameraman doesn’t know what to expect, or where to go. And the light is what it is. I remember a scene where we shot at night, where we were just shooting with lamps. We shot the first take, and either I could go and do the scene close to the lamp, if I wanted to be seen, or I could do it in the dark. But I had to choose. And it’s a weird thing, having this responsibility.

But then he takes the responsibility back. He’s always so right in his way of hearing the words and the honesty that you put behind it. You won’t get away with it if you’re not honest with him, or truthful. Or trying to be truthful, anyway!

Arguably, this movie isn’t really about an unknown planet coming and destroying the Earth, but all the same, I found that literal aspect profoundly emotional and difficult to deal with.

Yeah, well, we were just playing the situation, which is the end and death and fear. With Lars, I find that it always has to do with fear. It’s strange being scared all the time. My character, after a while, is scared all the time.

In a strange way, it’s a very unselfish film. It reminded me that it is much more frightening to think about the destruction of the entire planet than just about my own death. I’m going to die one day, I’m mostly OK with that. But the world and other people will still be here.

Yeah, to think about all the nonsense of everything, all of life, being gone. That’s very weird.

I was in Cannes for Lars’ famous press conference, and I can tell you two things about my reaction. First of all, I more or less knew — or thought I knew — where he was trying to go with those remarks about Hitler and the Nazis, and then it was clear to me that he was making a joke that went badly off the rails. Secondly, there were journalists in that room who should be ashamed of themselves, because they reported the event in bad faith to make headlines. But you were on the podium right next to him, which must have been different. Did you have any idea what he was talking about while he was saying it?

No! [Laughter.] No! I’m always quite nervous at press conferences. It’s not an easy thing to do. So I was inside my bubble and not realizing what he was saying. Then suddenly the words got through a little and I said, yes, he is talking about Hitler! My God! Then I was a little bit ashamed of myself for not having reacted. You don’t know what to do in that situation, so it was quite painful.

But the thing is, I wasn’t shocked by him. You know, it was a bad joke, a very bad joke in bad taste. But he’s done other stuff with us. I remember him and Willem Dafoe getting naked before we shot, and always talking about dicks. That’s just him. I’m not saying that sex and Hitler have anything to do with one another, but he’s got a certain type of humor.

It strikes me as a teenager’s sense of humor. A desire to shock people.

Exactly. And then he got deeper in his caca. It became worse and worse and worse. But what I want to say is that he’s still my friend. It wasn’t out of character, I’d have to say that too.

He also says he wants you and Kirsten to do another film with him, which he at first said would be hardcore pornography and then said probably wouldn’t.

It is true! You never know, but he has sent me a synopsis and I really want to do it. I don’t know what it’ll be like and maybe he won’t ask me in the end. But for the moment, yeah, I’d be really happy to work with him again. The most precious thing you can get is to collaborate and continue collaborating. It doesn’t mean you get better, but when you admire someone you just want to go on. It’s as simple as that.

You know, I have to go, but I want to thank you for helping me understand the film better. I can tell it’s not that easy to talk about.

I feel very comfortable talking about Lars’ way of working, but not what the film means. Also, I don’t have a clear point of view, having played in it. I don’t have the distance that I’d like.

It’s funny how reviews come in waves. Everybody who saw it at Cannes pretty much loved it, and then after the New York Film Festival I read a couple of reviews that said it was too dark or nihilistic. Everybody’s going to have their own reaction, of course, but that’s such a limited way of looking at it.

Yeah. You know, Lars is saying that it’s the most optimistic film he’s ever made.

I think I agree with him, even though I don’t really know what he means!

I don’t know what he means either. I sort of get a glimpse of something, yes. But I couldn’t explain it.

It’s so spectacular. It’s hard to be depressed by that.

Maybe it’s just the beauty of it, yeah. That might be it.

“Melancholia” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.

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