From Gothic domestic dramas to sexual and soul-baring noirs, we take a trip into the dark, wild vein of the British-French actor’s prolific on-screen career
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Charlotte Gainsbourg’s on-screen debut – Lemon Incest, a music video in which a 12-year-old Gainsbourg reclines on a black leather bed with her shirtless father, singing lines like “I love you more than anything, daddy daddy!” in her clumsy childish register – makes for an discomforting prologue for her cinematic career.
There are perhaps obvious parallels. Her inclination to collaborate with an older man with a tendency to work out his agenda on viable female bodies. Her insistence she “(likes) being an instrument, being manipulated”. A masochistic tendency towards roles which require a extreme engagement with physical and emotional endurance. Though this thesis is quickly usurped by the quality which characterises the majority of Gainsbourg’s performances: that of control.
Seemingly drawn to roles which interrogate the savage and base; on paper, these characters are untethered, peculiar, wild. But Gainsbourg dignifies the damaged with resilience, with a sense of measure – there is something achingly humane and empathic about her craft. Here are some of her most intriguing roles to date.
THE CEMENT GARDEN (1993)
Based on the Ian McEwan novel of the same name, The Cement Garden makes Flowers In The Attic look like a whimsical family comedy. After the death of their father and the long-term sickness of their mother, siblings Jack and Julie appropriate the parental roles in their family, looking after their younger brother. Gainsbourg plays Julie: a prudent teen – her dour proselytising on gender makes up the spoken-word intro of Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For A Girl”.
The Cement Garden is a darkly gothic domestic drama-gone-awry; concerned with the claustrophobia and hermeticism of this space, its capacity for fecundity and perversion (and in this case, incest). Gainsbourg’s persistent composure and head girl sensibility forces a sense of almost-normalcy as their world festers and falls apart.
THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (2006)
Michel Gondry’s soft-lensed festival of the surreal depicts the bleeding of the dopily childlike Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal) dream life, imagination and real life. Set in Paris, Stéphane returns to live in his untouched childhood bedroom, complete with all of his erstwhile knick-knacks and toys. He falls for his next-door neighbour, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s indulging and generous Stéphanie, who is equally charmed and made-hesitant by his expansive imagination and sun-dappled demeanour.
Stéphane’s real life and dream life become more liquid as he increasingly loses himself in childhood reverie – The Science of Sleep via Gainsbourg’s Stéphanie taps into something yearning and comfortable but sort of horrifying about regression. For all its pastel hues and Velvet Underground covers, there is a strange vein of anxiety that throbs throughout.
Gainsbourg’s first collaboration with Danish auteur Lars Von Trier; Gainsbourg portrays a woman credited only as “She” opposite Willem Dafoe’s “He”. Antichrist opens as He and She go at it while their tiny child crawls up to the bedroom window, falling to his death. She is crippled with debilitating guilt and grief; he, less so. They retreat to a cabin in the woods where He (a psychotherapist) takes it upon himself to personally counsel her. Increasingly symbolic and surrealist events drive the already manic She to the brink; and what follows is a series of excruciating happenings, in which a self-administered clitoridectamy is not the the most horrifying.
Flagrantly surreal and viscerally awful, this bold and bodily nightmare deconstructs the inherent violence of the patient / doctor dynamic of He and She’s marriage, the screaming cataclysm of grief and the nature of horror itself. In one of the film’s more iconic moments, a disemboweled fox tells He “chaos reigns” - and like, he’s not wrong.
The second installment of Lars Von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” (all of which star Gainsbourg), Melancholia opens as the hopelessly depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her husband-to-be Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) arrive late to their wedding. It finishes with the literal end of the world, as a rogue planet predicted to pass by earth instead obliterates it.
Gainsbourg plays Justine’s tightly-wound sister Claire, the title character of the second half of the film. A quiet desperation cuts through her otherwise still facade; first refusing to accept the planet’s gloomy fate then suggesting they see-in the apocalypse with “wine on the terrace”. There is a sour sense of misanthropy that underlines the film: Justine declares all life on earth to be “evil”, while Gainsbourg’s ramped up hysteria acts as a stand-in for compassion. Her sharply-edged arms grapple for something to cling onto as the end becomes clear; finding nothing, grasping only at the air.
“My name is Joe,” Gainsbourg tells a Sex Addiction Anonymous-style group, with a painfully-attentive delivery. “And I’m a nymphomaniac.” Nymphomaniac is in two parts, punctuated with scenes in which Joe tells the fly-fishing obsessed Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) about her exploits, after her finds her beaten and prostrate, lying in the alley behind his home.
Like Steve McQueen’s Shame, Nymphomaniac meditates on the wretched tedium of addiction – it has a numbing quality, as you are steadily rendered indifferent to the gratuitous smut on account of the sheer and unrelenting volume of it. Gainsbourg recounts stories of threesomes with brothers and paying the roundly terrifying K (Jamie Bell) to violently beat her with a cat o’ nine tails, with a dispassionate self-possession – telegraphing her tendency towards oblivion, her desire to be erased – ultimately, her agency and knowing within it.
Love, etc is the French adaptation of Julian Barnes mostly achingly-English Talking It Over; rich in dialogue and self-reference, Gainsbourg plays the free-spirited objet d'attraction of two squabbling childhood friends. The Intruder is a meandering domestic noir, in which Gainsbourg plays a woman with a specific iteration of imposter syndrome – convinced she is being stalked by her husband’s late wife. And of course Independence Day: Resurgence – because if you’re not a Lars Von Trier fan, you know, why not?