In the first half of Melancholia, Lars Von Trier’s Wagnerian domestic drama (opening November 11), Kirsten Dunst’s depressive Justine has a breakdown at her wedding, hosted by Claire, her half-sister, and Claire’s magisterially wealthy husband. This section is called “Justine”; in the film’s second half, “Claire,” the world ends. Dunst won a best actress prize at Cannes for her fevered portrayal of the nihilistic Justine, but it’s Gainsbourg—who won the same prize for Von Trier’s Antichrist—who, while playing a contrasting breakdown borne of objective, exterior circumstance, is tasked with conveying a recognizable human response to the impending end of humanity. She spoke to me last month, while she was in town for the New York Film Festival, and following a brief delay while she tended to her newborn son.
In the two films that you’ve recently made with Lars von Trier, you enact two very different views of motherhood. How much time did you spend thinking about Claire as a mother? How do you play one?
With Antichrist, I didn’t want to think about myself, my experience of being a mother. I didn’t want to think about my own children because of what the character was going through. With this one, I felt that I was portraying a woman I disliked, in a sense that for me she was a fake mother, a fake wife, and she was faking her life in this fancy house. But that was my vision. I don’t know if that’s the way I portrayed her. I felt that she was quite cold, and also not facing reality—in the sense that once she has to face reality, with the end of the world, she can’t cope with it and she collapses. There was something about her that I, I was ashamed of her, this side of her that makes her a bit of a coward, but in that sense she’s very human. So to come back being a mother, I felt that she was pretending to be a mother; because that’s the only way she knows how to do it. It’s trying to control everything, as she wants to control the wedding and make sure that everything goes smoothly. That’s the only thing she knows how to do.
Your desciption of her seems very much like the Claire we see in the first half of the film—seems to be very much the way that Justine sees Claire, and sees through Claire’s pretending to be happy. In the second half, which is nominally about your character, she seems much more authentic.
There’s a real caring and loving part about her, caring about her sister. I find, the thing is, as soon as Justine no longer needs her, and she feels that she’s better, then my character completely sinks and can’t cope with anything anymore once she has to face reality. But I liked that I had not a lot of sympathy for myself. You know, it’s interesting, you don’t always have to love your character. It’s nice to have weaknesses that you’re ashamed of, as you are in real life. So in a way, I’ve very close to who Claire is, but I’m not proud of it. But the caring side was important and that makes her more loving. I remember with Lars we started out working on that. It’s the only thing we worked on, really. We’d just improvise scenes where I was more of the motherly sister nursing her and she was playing the patient, incapable of folding a napkin. That was our exploration, that’s what he wanted to insist on.
You’ve said that there’s not much rehearsal. A lot of the relationships in the film seem fairly allegorical—did you have much backstory in mind? For instance, what does Claire’s husband do, to have all that money? Or, was that something you made a conscious decision not to think about?
The thing is, I knew the money didn’t come from me. So that was quite obvious, and then, you do make up some things, some kind of background. Of course, it’s helpful. But I never discussed it with Lars, because I know he hates that.
I wanted to ask you about the end of the world. How much help did you have on set?
Oh, no help at all. We had to just picture it, imagine. But it was fairly easy, I mean, we’ve all been children.
People have described coming out of the movie feeling ecstatic after witnessing the end of the world. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a validating one in some ways, because people who are depressed in the film, they’re right. Their misery is clarity.
Yeah, they have nothing to lose.
And that’s what I think is interesting about Claire—she’s someone who does. And that’s why we see the end of the world through her, and not her sister.
Yeah, she has a life that she believes is what she wanted and what reassures her. Yeah, she has everything to lose.
You seem like the kind of person who will be asked to be on the jury at Cannes at some point.
I have been asked, a long time ago—well, not that long ago. It was with Liv Ullmann, when she was president [in 2001], and I wish I could do it again, because I didn’t get it at the time. I was embarrassed judging the films, and I didn’t feel I had the right to, or didn’t feel I had seen them properly. I think now I’d have the courage to feel stronger about films, and want to defend a film and want to defend my point of view. Whereas at the time I was a bit shy, and I think that when you are part of the jury, you can’t be shy. You have to fight for what you feel is right.
A colleague has written that you gravitate toward strong collaborators, and the filmmakers you’ve chosen to work with, and the musicians you’ve chosen to collaborate with, reflect a certain sensibility and confidence.
I love working with people I admire, it’s very simple. I find now that I don’t really care about the material, the script. I do care about the director and other actors; the human experience is more important than the rest. That’s what I find today.