Charlotte Gainsbourg on "Nymphomaniac": "People who want porn will be really disappointed!"

The Anglo-French pop star and actress on "Nymphomaniac," her third -- and strangest -- film with Lars von Trier

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 18, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Charlotte Gainsbourg       (Reuters/Ina Fassbender)
Charlotte Gainsbourg (Reuters/Ina Fassbender)

You can’t call Charlotte Gainsbourg a celebrity in the normal sense, or at least not in the American context. Her striking, angular appearance stands in opposition to conventional Hollywood standards of prettiness, and her fame in the United States is pretty much limited to art-film devotees and fans of European pop music. In almost any American city that wasn’t New York or San Francisco, she could walk down the street unrecognized. But the 42-year-old actress and singer has been an iconic figure in European pop culture for almost 30 years, since performing a duet with her father, French pop legend Serge Gainsbourg, on the song “Lemon Incest” in 1984. (Yes, the ambiguities in the Gainsbourg family relationship were right there on the surface!) That was the same year Charlotte made her film debut, playing Catherine Deneuve’s teenage daughter in a forgettable French romantic drama called “Paroles et musique.”

Gainsbourg has appeared in more than 30 films since then, in both French and English (her mother is English-born actress Jane Birkin), and has also released three albums since 2006, after a long hiatus from music. She played the title role in Franco Zeffirelli’s mid-‘90s adaptation of “Jane Eyre,” appeared in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ensemble drama “21 Grams,” and starred opposite Gael García Bernal in Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep.” But Gainsbourg’s last-minute casting in Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” after French actress Eva Green reportedly turned down the role, changed the arc of her acting career. Across the course of three films with von Trier – the gender-war horror film “Antichrist,” the science-fiction apocalypse “Melancholia” (with Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst as sisters facing the end of the world) and now the four-hour sexual picaresque “Nymphomaniac” – Gainsbourg has served as the tortured Dane’s mirror and muse, and has challenged him to make more complicated, more adult and frankly better movies.

Few films of recent years have divided critics and audiences the way “Antichrist” did. Gainsbourg won the best-actress prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for her fearless performance as a woman descending into madness, violence and self-mutilation, and the “ecumenical” (i.e., religious but interdenominational) jury at the same festival described it as “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.” My own reaction to that beautiful, grotesque and deeply crazy film was divided, and I still think John Waters got it right: “If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, this is the movie he would have made.” After that film’s release, Gainsbourg often found herself explaining why she didn’t think von Trier was a misogynist; after his spectacular sci-fi allegory “Melancholia,” she got to tell interviewers that he wasn’t a Nazi. (As I have explained before and will explain again, von Trier’s public manner is that of an awkward, rebellious teenager; that whole kerfuffle was the result of an attempted joke gone bad.)

Now Gainsbourg plays the narrator and central character in von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” an endlessly digressive seriocomic fable, constructed almost in the style of an 18th-century novel – complete with moral, religious, farcical and (yes) erotic interludes, seemingly irrelevant discussions of botany and fly fishing, and authorial interventions -- that purports to be the autobiography of a sexually voracious young woman named Joe. (That the character has a masculine name is no accident; nor, perhaps, is the fact that Gainsbourg’s 3-year-old daughter is named Joe.) I’ll have a review of “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” later this week, but as has become customary with von Trier, this isn’t quite like anything that has ever existed before. Despite the director’s gleeful pronouncements that he was making a hardcore porn film, very little of the extensive nudity in this movie is likely to excite the prurient interest. In fact, I’m inclined to argue that Joe’s sexual odyssey is principally a metaphor, although an undeniably provocative one. (For American release, the film has been split into two halves; you can come back for the resolution of Joe’s sex-life cliffhanger when the still more explicit and melodramatic “Vol. II” is released in early April.)

In the first half of “Nymphomaniac,” a lonely bachelor in late middle age called Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds Joe lying in the street, battered and bruised, apparently having survived a beating by a lover. Back at his apartment, over an endless mug of tea, she begins to tell him the not-necessarily-reliable story of her life, which includes losing her virginity to moped-riding Shia LaBeouf, and a game with a female friend in which they set out to seduce every male passenger on a commuter train. Inside the stories, Joe is played by young English actress Stacy Martin (whom Gainsbourg never met), but the heart of the film is the odd Scheherazade-meets-psychotherapy relationship between Joe and Seligman, a distorted von Trier take on the virgin-whore dichotomy.

Charlotte Gainsbourg was not in bed drinking tea when I met her recently at a hotel in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. She was drinking espresso and eating a sandwich, and wearing a white T-shirt, sweatpants and little or no makeup – all of which she of course managed to make appear a completely considered choice.

So you’ve spent a good amount of your acting career working with Lars von Trier now.

That’s true, that’s true. I’m very proud of that. I’m just a bit sad because I understand that it might be a while before we work again together. Not because we -- I mean, we get along very, very well, but I think he’ll go to other countries.

You mean physically to other countries, or …

I mean other countries meaning other actors. Metaphorically other countries.

Well, that is a bit sad, because he has developed -- it’s not the same cast of characters, but he has this little ensemble at this point. You and Willem Dafoe and Stellan Skarsgård are all back for this one.

Yeah. I was very touched because, before we started, he said, for both characters, Seligman and Joe, I want -- I can’t remember how he put it but it was like, the two actors I love the most. Not love like admiring love, but the two actors that I feel most for.

So it was very touching. Because I’ve grown to know him, but not that much. I mean, he’s still a mystery for me. I don’t think I’m a mystery for him. [Laughter.] But he’s a mystery for me. And so, each time I can have a little glimpse of the fact that he does like me, it’s always quite nice. Because it’s a mystery why he chooses me. I don’t know, I don’t know what he knows of me, what he’s seen. I would never dare ask.

So this is not the kind of relationship where you speak at length about your lives or your taste in art or those kinds of things?

About our personal life, yes. But about films and work, not at all. It’s funny because in the first film, in “Antichrist,” I was -- in the script, I didn’t even have a name. It was “She” and “He,” me and Willem. And because I had come into the game at the last minute, because another actress stepped out, I believe that he took me just because he couldn’t, you know, find someone else! So, I was just quite happy to be there, but didn’t really know if he was that happy about it.

I remember you saying something about how you felt as if in “Antichrist” you were playing a version of Lars, a projection of Lars --

Oh, yes. And for this one too.

Whereas in “Melancholia,” Kirsten [Dunst] was playing that role, right? The Lars role.

Yes, she was playing that, of course. That depression that he had gone through, and his vision on human beings and on society again, that Joe’s expressing in this film. But I think the fear that I hated so much about my character in “Melancholia” -- being so human, I guess, fearing the end of the world -- I feel that that aspect was quite close to him too, in the end.

Whereas Joe, in “Nymphomaniac,” is distinguished, among other things, by almost a complete lack of fear.

A complete lack of fear, but she diminishes herself so much. I mean, she wants to persuade Seligman how bad a human being she is, how responsible she is for all the negativity that happens around her. She just has this disbelief in society and human beings, everything is so extreme and so dark. I didn’t feel that I was agreeing with anything she was saying, but I had so much empathy for her. And I felt so close to that weakness that she had about herself, about disliking herself so much, and the weakness that she feels about having fallen in love, which is the whole thing. All that made me feel for her a lot.

Were those the areas where you could find some identification with her, where you could channel the emotions she was feeling? I mean, if as you say, you don’t agree with her view of the world in any way?

She makes me laugh in the sense that she’s so extreme. I mean not only so extreme but so stubborn, so reactionnaire -- can you say this?

Sure. Reactionary.

Yeah. There’s something distasteful about what she has to say, and what’s interesting is of course having Seligman’s balance, the other side of Lars and, you know, how he can defend a state of mind. So, I could feel close to her in her suffering, even not having gone that way. I just felt empathy for how lost she is, and the guilt she feels. Just easy things that you can relate to, not being in the same frame of mind at all, and not having had these same experiences. Now, the whole episode of masochism [in “Vol. II,” arguably the erotic centerpiece of the whole film], I understand this thing of wanting to suffer that much, or to put yourself through such suffering, in a very weird way.

It’s interesting. That episode is disturbing, but so profoundly human. I honestly had the reaction in that scene that anyone who can’t identify with that fantasy to some degree – the fantasy of surrendering control – is probably kidding themselves. I feel like it’s part of the human experience.

Yes, the whole point, for Joe, is to get sensation back, to have feelings again, to put yourself into such an extreme situation. I do understand. I do understand the mechanism.

A lot of people are obviously going to focus on the presentation of sexuality in this film, on the level of nudity, but it seems evident to me that it’s really about a whole lot of other things.

Yeah, I don’t think it’s about sexuality really. I mean, I know Lars himself presented the film as being a porn film. But it’s not -- I mean people who want to see a porn film will be really disappointed! For me it’s the portrait of a woman, through her sex life, of course, and through the extremeness of the sex she puts herself through. But it’s more to do with her point of view on society, with the fact that she doesn’t feel that she can be a part of society. That’s the source of her frustration. And then there’s all the humor in the film. Because I don’t think he could have spoken about all those subjects without his sense of humor. And that’s a big part in the film.

I think that’s true. I was struggling after seeing “Vol. II” to figure out what the whole thing reminded me of, and I think it was a certain kind of 18th-century novel, the picaresque novel, where a character has a whole bunch of adventures and it’s meant to be morally instructive, and there’s humor and philosophy and religion but not all that much of a plot in the modern sense. Like “Don Quixote,” or, in English, I guess “Moll Flanders.”

I didn’t know that word, but I think that’s true, that’s true. It’s a real portrait throughout those – all the things she picks on the wall [of Seligman’s apartment]. And all the lies, because she’s a liar.

That’s right. We never can be 100 percent sure that what she’s saying to Seligman is the truth.

No, but it’s a dialogue, it’s a real dialogue between two completely opposite characters. And the fact that they keep their position, and, I mean, by the end of the film, I do believe that she has traveled on a journey, that she’s reached a place where she’s more moderate about herself. Of course there’s this last pirouette at the end but, just before that, I think she’s at peace with herself. Which maybe is not the purpose of the film, but is one of the problematics of the film. I think she’s reached something by the end.

I want to go back to what you said about playing a character who’s so close to Lars in some ways. One of the things about the film is there’s a certain amount of gender confusion. That’s such a trendy thing to say, but to start with she has a man’s name, spelled like a man’s name.

Yeah, and that was so important for him. I wanted him to change that name because my daughter is named Joe, and she had just been born [in 2011]. I thought the coincidence was too much, but he didn’t want to change it, of course for that reason.

And her behavior will strike some people as being more stereotypically male -- the way that she sees herself as a sexual predator and even an exploiter, rather than a victim. You could easily make a film about a man with this many sexual relationships, and it feels different, even today.

Yeah, yeah, sure. I believe that if she had been a man, people would have accepted her behavior in a much more reasonable way. The fact that she’s a woman is so shocking for most people.

You know, I’ve always thought -- Lars would not be terribly happy to be described as having feminist inclinations, but feel like there’s that current in his work, struggling against other things. He doesn’t want to be seen as politically correct, obviously [laughter], but he is very concerned, in a non-stereotypical way, with the role of women, right?

And the fact that he does portray women so often, and, I think there is a confusion there. I mean, I can’t say it differently than he is portraying himself so -- the confusion is there, I think. He has a great love for women, and at the same time maybe some kind of fear. I can’t explain, you know. I can’t. I’m not him, I can’t explain what his vision is about women and I don’t know. But I don’t -- I’m not sure there is this perversion that everybody talks about and his misogynistic traits. I don’t believe that’s who he is at all.

I agree, although he is obviously provoking us to have that reaction. I mean, when he invites the audience to watch a women being whipped until her ass is bleeding, he is daring us to form that opinion of him.

Sure, sure. Yes. But at the same time he assassinates Seligman’s character in a quite dramatic way also. He’s not tender with any gender. And having men be just objects, you know, sexual objects for the most part, especially in the first half of the film. Her exploration about sex is not saying tender things about men either.

How much did you work with Stacy Martin, who plays “Young Joe” in the first section?

We didn’t do anything together! Nothing. Lars didn’t believe that it was interesting to try to mimic any resemblance. I mean the only thing we did was makeup because she had a beauty spot put on here [her chest], because I have one, and I had one of hers put on my bum. It was a joke, really. The accent maybe was something that we had in common and that was helpful. But for the rest, nothing. I wasn’t there when she shot, and she wasn’t there when I shot.

So when you’re doing the voice-over in “Vol. I,”  you hadn’t actually seen the scenes that you’re narrating?

Nothing. I think the shot lasted three months and for two months I did my bit -- all the action, all the scenes [in “Vol. II”]. And she did quite a lot there too. But then I did the talking part with Seligman. That lasted maybe two weeks, and, no, I was talking about things I hadn’t seen for real. Of course, I knew on paper what was going on, but it didn’t matter. It was explicit enough, I mean just to have to play the scenes with Seligman was so hard. I had thought that acting through all the action scenes was hard enough, but then going into all that talking was horrendous! Just so much memorizing! We weren’t able to go into Lars’ usual method of work because we couldn’t explore the scenes. Usually, you know, he makes you go in all kinds of directions, using different words, trying things out. But with this we had to be very specific, the words had to be there. I mean, all the ideas were so precise that it was like being in school.

Yeah. The relationship between Joe and Seligman seems so clearly to suggest the therapeutic relationship, even the fact that she’s lying down like in an old-style Freudian psychoanalysis. Is that something you ever talked about consciously, or was it just there?

No, I mean, it was very obviously there, but it was very funny. The real thing was trying to explore all the positions I could have in bed.

You know, I hadn’t thought about that: She’s in bed, but in a very different context than in the rest of the film! And I assume you had a lot of makeup to put on every day.

Yeah, all that bruising, all that punching. It was just a lot of fun to be able to work in that way with someone that I know a little bit better now. I mean both Stellan and Lars. That – it’s like being part of his family. Everything seemed so intimate in a very sweet way. It was wonderful. He’s just a great guy to work with.

Well, I’ve only met Lars once, but he’s just so funny and so intelligent. He seems like he’d actually be a lot of fun to hang out with, which is maybe not what people on the outside would think. He jumps around in conversation, he cracks jokes, he’s very well educated.

He’s very, very humorous. But at the same time, he’s a very suffering man. I mean, you can see and you can feel all the discomfort and really it’s hard to watch sometimes. On “Antichrist,” I was really troubled by how honest he was, also showing himself and saying that he might not be there the next day because he was in such a bad state. On “Melancholia,” he was much happier and I think his depression was gone. And on this one -- I don’t know, he touches me and I have such sympathy for him. There’s this mixture of humor and great discomfort.

You know, of course it would serve my interests if he agreed to do interviews. He makes great copy! But at the same time I can completely understand where he’s coming from. If I were in his position, especially after the ridiculous reaction to his jokes at Cannes, I don’t know what I would do. I don’t blame him for feeling burned by the media. Maybe he’ll feel that he can trust people more in the future.

Yeah, I hope that he will, because he’s suffering from, from the fact that he’s staying silent. I think he enjoys interviews, he enjoys all the provocation, the chance to have things in his hands, the chance to play. But I think, yeah, he believes he needs to be silent, so -- and I’m unhappy having to take that on. I can’t talk for him. Neither of us can talk for him so it’s –

Do a lot of people expect you to speak on his behalf?

No, not really. But still, you can see that everybody’s frustrated, not having responses. Even though I’m not sure that he would come up with answers. When I first met him for “Antichrist,” I tried asking him questions, to try to understand some things in the script, and he would never answer.

"Nymphomaniac: Volume I" opens this week in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Providence, R.I., San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Seattle and Washington. It opens March 28 in Albuquerque, Detroit, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore., St. Louis and Austin, Texas, with many more cities to follow. "Volume I" is also now available on-demand from cable, satellite and online providers; "Volume II" is on-demand this weekend and opens in theaters April 4.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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