Daughter of the Revolutionary

Photo: Serge Leblon/Courtesy of Atlantic Records

Charlotte Gainsbourg at ten in the morning is as long and lean as an haricot vert. Seated at a banquette at Bemelmans Bar, she asks the waiter if she can smoke. The answer is no, of course. She shrugs and settles in for an hour of green tea and deferred desire. She has impeccable manners, after all. In town to promote her new CD, 5:55, which went platinum in France, she is very polite rather than very chic or very louche. “Where would you like to sit?” she asks.

Her politesse was taught to her by Serge Gainsbourg, her Pop Rabelais of a father, who, in spite of his often risqué music and feral grooming, was “very, very strict about manners. When I was a child, there was no talking at the table, or putting your hands on the table,” she says, in her disturbingly lovely voice, that of a drowsy British schoolgirl on the brink of losing her innocence in an unsavory fashion.

The fact that Gainsbourg and I are talking about her father at all is surprising. For years, she acted Garbo-like in interviews, a delicate privacy hound. She particularly disliked speaking about her dad, who died at 62 in 1991, and also seemed to avoid discussing her mother, Jane Birkin, the British chanteuse–actress–dolly bird and namesake of the handbag.

But now, at age 35, things have changed: Gainsbourg is a pop star as well as the most prominent French actress (The Science of Sleep, 21 Grams) of her generation in America. She stars in not one but three upcoming films—as Sarah, Bob Dylan’s wife, in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, as the younger mistress of a great author in the James Ivory movie City of Your Final Destination, and as a degraded aristo in the Italian film The Golden Door. And it seems that she is finally warming up to that American pastime, the personal revelation. She now talks about her father a lot.

She discusses her haute bohemian Parisian childhood with no prompting, a time when her parents were living legends, having sung duets such as 1969’s scandalous “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus,” an almost literally orgasmic piece of music. “They had such a public life,” she says. “I woke up at four when they were coming back from the discotheque. Then they slept. It wasn’t a normal education. They took us out all the time.”

Her adult life is still very much shaped by her father and her mother, the beauty who was twenty years his junior. She attributes her professional habits to Birkin, whom she remains close to but describes as “a workaholic”: “She can’t just stand still and not have twelve projects in line. It’s quite hard to see her.”

Her aversion to marriage has to do with her parents’ never having married; she lives with the father of her two children, director-actor Yvan Attal, in Paris and has a superstition “that everything would break apart if we did get married.”

“Lemon Incest,” which Charlotte recorded with her father at age 13, caused a stir—and went to No. 1 in France.

And of course, her CD bears the distinct influence of Serge. “The atmosphere in the studio made me think about my father the whole time. The only studio I had witnessed was with my father.”

She is referring to the song “Lemon Incest,” which she recorded with her father at 13. It caused quite a stir, with lyrics like “The love that we will never make together is the most beautiful, the most violent, the most pure, the most heady” and an infamous video, which featured Serge and Charlotte lying in bed, barely dressed. It also went to No. 1 in France.

Coming of age is hard enough without an entire nation speculating about whether you and your father are lovers. And at the time, she says, she “hated doing promotion. I didn’t want to see myself in magazines. I felt very embarrassed by how I looked. I was physically very, very shy. My father didn’t understand why I wasn’t proud of being on a magazine.”

But if she has any lingering resentment about the experience, she doesn’t express it: “I loved working with him, and when he died, doing something without him didn’t make sense. He was my only link to music. Without him, I didn’t feel authorized.”

The CD 5:55 is the result of her return to music after a long absence. It’s a peculiar but lovely album whose songs tell of erotically anguished late nights and early mornings. There’s a storytelling quality to it, which Gainsbourg says was influenced by Serge’s “thing of talking and singing” at the same time. She wanted her music—whispery electro pop—to be “intimiste,” the tracks to sound like dreams.

Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg on the set of their "Lemon Incest" video, 1985.Photo: Tony Frank/Sygma/Corbis

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.”

Daughter of the Revolutionary