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Daughter of the Revolutionary

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Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg on the set of their "Lemon Incest" video, 1985.  

The project began when Gainsbourg met Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel from Air, the French band that made French pop seem stylish again, especially in boutiques. There were struggles in ethereal hipsters’ paradise, though. “Air said, ‘We don’t care about the lyrics; for us, it’s the music,’ ” says Gainsbourg. “But I wanted to be proud of what I was going to say.”

So Jarvis Cocker, who led the darkly witty British band Pulp, was called in to play lyrics doctor, along with the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, a master of tear-drenched whimsy. The result is wordplay like Our love goes under the knife / The heart was rejected by the host, from a song called “The Operation.” “Air loved what Jarvis did in the end,” she says. It helped that all the gathered musicians shared an influence: her father. “We had this person in common.”

Gainsbourg is simultaneously a daughter still in thrall to her father—she thinks of him as a genius, mentioning that critics have compared him to Émile Zola—and an actor who has navigated the child-star (and child-of-stars) issue better than most. Her provocative parents, in many ways, were not always taken as seriously as she is. And if she is the latest French starlet to gain indie fame in New York, she has achieved this distinction not just by being pop royalty but also by being fresher and frankly cooler than a Julie Delpy or Emmanuelle Béart. She has avoided the typical pitfalls of being a frigid Parisian beauty or a Betty Blue–style enfant terrible. Instead, she is melancholic, alluring, and ultimately highly competent, more in the manner of a young Jeanne Moreau.

Yet always, whether with music or acting, she returns to Serge and Jane. “I think that a lot of sympathy people have for me is due to how much people like my parents. They could have slaughtered me,” she says and then knocks on the table’s wood, laughing, “and they have not … yet.”


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