Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Family Affairs

01/12/2010 11:00 AM |

Charlotte Forever
Tuesdays in January in February at the FIAF

Charlotte Gainsbourg won the genetic lottery in 1971 when she was born into fame to the gorgeous English model/singer/actress Jane Birkin and French icon (and not uninteresting-looking) Serge Gainsbourg. At age twelve, she began the simultaneous careers that have continued to this day; she made her first onscreen appearance, in a film with Catherine Deneuve, and she recorded her first song, a duet with Dad called “Lemon Incest.” The latter was made during Serge’s electronic and new wave phase, and its video features the shirtless father in jeans lying on a bed with Charlotte, in underwear. The song and video stirred some baffled outrage, but it was completely in line with Serge’s long reputation for prankishness and punnery (the French title is a play on “a zest of lemon.”)

Mr. Gainsbourg returned to the theme shortly afterwards, when he wrote, directed, and starred in Charlotte for Ever (also the name of her debut album), about an alcoholic and suicidal screenwriter who finds solace for his grief over his wife’s death with their daughter, played by Charlotte. The film is full of much provocative cuddling and commingling, but Charlotte’s sturdy, creditable career since this initial baptism belies worries that the songs and film were autobiographically trauma-inducing. The rarely screened, “notorious” film is part of FIAF’s latest CinemaTuesdays series, dedicated to Ms. Gainsbourg and featuring nine of her movies. It comes on the heels of perhaps her biggest year yet; in 2009 she released her Beck-produced album IRM, and was a generally acknowledged bright spot in the otherwise violently divisive Antichrist, the Lars Von Trier film in which she played a grieving, genital-mutilating mother.

Her acting career has proven to be, in my opinion, much more interesting than her musical one. With three albums produced over 24 years, the latter is sporadic, and her somewhat tentative voice lacks the clarity of her mother’s. She’s also been entirely reliant on collaborators, from her father to Air and Jarvis Cocker to Beck—like Björk, but with nothing like the same vocal talent and innovation. Onscreen, however, she’s displayed an original and can’t-remove-your-gaze presence almost from the beginning. Combining her mother’s long brown hair and puffy mouth with a tomboyish, Patti Smith-like figure, she’s also one of the more untraditionally pretty of modern international stars.

The earliest selection from the Charlotte Forever series, L’Effrontée, might also be its most delightful. It was directed by Truffaut protégé Claude Miller, and like any good French film about childhood it borrows liberally from The 400 Blows. The 14 year-old Ms. Gainsbourg stars as Charlotte (a recurring character name for her) Castang, a motherless kid leading a stifled existence in rural France. When adorable piano prodigy Clara, who is Charlotte’s age, rolls into town for a concert, Charlotte finally glimpses a better life. Scheming her way into her house, Charlotte is flippantly offered a chance to manage the pianist; Clara is half-joking, but for Charlotte it immediately hearkens the end of her life with her earthy, stepmotherly housekeeper and sickly only friend. It ends on a note of ironic optimism. Gainsbourg won a well-earned “Most Promising Actress” Cesar award for her work here, in which she captures the eternal poutiness of youthful dissatisfaction. Three years later, she appeared (confusingly) as Janine Castang in Miller’s The Little Thief, adapted from an original Truffaut screenplay, essentially about a female Antoine Doinel.

Many of the ties binding these films are familial. 1992’s Lover was directed by Jacques Doillon, who at the time was married to Jane Birkin. The role of the older man with an interest in Ms. Gainsbourg’s young Marie is played by Yvan Attal, the actress’s husband in real life. In the series are also two films directed by Attal and starring the couple, My Wife is an Actress and Happily Ever After. The similar films are romantic comedies about infidelity, both potential and realized. In both, Gainsbourg plays Attal’s wife, and is distracted by sexy Englishmen (a particular insecurity of the director’s?). The movies are reasonably fleet but enslaved to formula, especially the stale thinker-womanizer-pushover male friend triumvirate in Happily Ever After. Attal’s music cues, too, are lazy; it’s “London Calling” when he hops a train to London in Actress, and there are no less than three Radiohead songs in Happily, including an incredibly odd in-store listening of “Creep” by Gainsbourg, who is joined via headphone by a cameoing Johnny Depp.

La Bûche is a robust tale of three sisters who reunite during the holidays to ail their grieving mother and, naturally, work through some of their own adult complications while they’re at it. In its setting and tight focus on emotional family nuance, it’s a worthy precursor to Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. The first film in the series is Michel Gondry’s underrated Kafkaesque nightmare-romance, The Science of Sleep, in which Gainsbourg plays the always out-of-reach and more practical Stéphanie to Gael García Bernal’s dream-drunk Stéphane.