That Odd-looking Object of Desire

Jon Frosch


The first thing one notices about Charlotte Gainsbourg is her neck. Seen from the side, it slopes down, diagonal and swan-like, connecting her head to her body almost incidentally. After that, one’s eyes drift to the trademark underbite, and the strong, angular jaw that holds it in place. One might also pick up on her biggish ears, the contrast of dark hair against sun-starved skin, the curved imprint around her mouth, or the chin that comes to a rather sudden point. Gainsbourg may not be a conventional movie star beauty, but there’s hardly a more ravishingly odd-looking actress working today.

Her physical appearance is, of course, only one of several things that combine to make her an unusual screen presence: there is her voice, feathery and tremulous, but capable of dips into confidence; her walk, a blend of supermodel poise and adolescent coltishness; the cultural legacy she represents in France—as the daughter of French singer Serge Gainsbourg and English singer-actress Jane Birkin—and her consequent aura of bohemian royalty.

Gainsbourg, who plays Stéphanie in Michel Gondry’s new film The Science of Sleep, has always been an exceedingly low-key performer, sinking into her roles with such little fuss that some might believe she’s not acting at all. Admittedly, her particular brand of charisma—a certain air of stillness and mystery—does some of the work for her. Others might contend that no matter the role, Charlotte Gainsbourg is Charlotte Gainsbourg: whispery, cool and slightly aloof. But looking back at her career thus far, one is struck not only by the quality and consistency of her work—there’s almost never a false note—but also by her range of performances. But most impressively, she is that rare actress who is able to suggest an inner life, often worlds beyond what the director and screenwriter have given her to work with.

Gainsbourg got her first plum part in Claude Miller’s winning, if rather square, L’Effrontée (1985), playing a 13-year-old girl undergoing acute growing pains in a small French town. Even good child performances are often one-trick affairs, but Gainsbourg made her character a tumultuous jumble of conflicting emotions, alternately sullen, charming, brash and tender.

Miller cast her again in his next film, 1987’s La Petite Voleuse (The Little Thief), as a rebellious, poorly-educated shoplifter in early 1950’s France. Instead of invoking a standard movie figure, the wayward teenager, Gainsbourg located the heart of a survivor beneath her character’s lying and stealing. Five years later, she appeared in uncle Andrew Birkin’s suffocating The Cement Garden (based on the Ian McEwan novel). As a girl who essentially seduces her younger brother, the actress pulled off the double coup of introducing the world to her perfect British English and managing to deliver a persuasive, coherent performance in a maddeningly opaque role. Gainsbourg played Julie as a passive predator, provoking the pubescent Jack so casually you almost don’t notice.

These earlier films offered a hint of what would become a near-constant of Gainsbourg’s film career: her characters’ tendency to drive the men around her absolutely mad with lust and longing. The lonely mechanic in L’Effrontée, a middle-aged music teacher in La Petite Voleuse, her own sibling in The Cement Garden—Gainsbourg was, from the very beginning, both a classic heartbreaker and a precociously erotic, or eroticized, screen presence. Whether the latter was born of something inherent, or pinned on her (incited, perhaps, by a controversial 1984 duet with her father, entitled “Lemon Incest,” in which the two sang about the love they’d never make), is not the point; the ability to inspire sexual and romantic fascination would be a crucial part of Gainsbourg’s film persona.

Occasionally this fascination was of a more muted variety, as in Franco Zefferelli’s bland 1996 Jane Eyre adaptation. Gainsbourg’s take on the beloved heroine was nitpicked (too spacey, too remote, not feisty enough) by those who failed to note the steel and conviction in the interpretation. Her Jane was a study in wound-up emotion—all choked-back yearning and swallowed pride—spiked with outbursts that carried a real force. The “I may be poor and plain, but I’m not without feelings” speech to Rochester ranks with Gainsbourg’s best screen moments.

A more effusive Gainsbourg turned up in Marion Vernoux’s Love, etc., a dark comedy based on a Julian Barnes bestseller. Unsurprisingly, she played a young woman, Marie, torn between two men who are both passionately in love with her: a steadfast husband (real-life hubby Yvan Attal) and his unstable best friend (Charles Berling). The film’s love triangle was predictable, but Gainsbourg’s frank, invigorating take on the requisite romantic conflictedness turned her character into a wild card. The moment at which Marie suddenly gives in to a desire she has been fending off was an exhilarating erotic jolt: Marie had not only been fooling herself; but as played by Gainsbourg, she had been fooling us, too.

Even the best actors are occasionally miscast, or confronted with material too weak to be transcended. And so it was with Félix et Lola (2001), in which Patrice Leconte stranded Gainsbourg in the clichéd role of a femme fatale who seduces a hapless amusement park worker. The director was basically asking the most effortless of performers to play a woman who was all mannerisms and come-on—to be actressy—and Gainsbourg seemed ill-at-ease.

She was far more comfortable later in the year alongside her husband in his directorial début, Ma femme est une actrice (My Wife is an Actress). Here, Attal envisioned her as a goddess of elegance and cool—more precisely, an actress whose popularity is driving her husband to extremes of paranoid jealousy. The movie—a love letter to its leading lady with sour streaks of Woody Allen-ish neurosis—made disappointingly little sense as a romantic comedy, and Gainsbourg’s role was far from her richest. Still, it served as a testament to her appeal; playing a smart, kindhearted movie star who cuts through the fuss around her with inimitable grace. She could very well have been playing herself.

Gainsbourg took a break from portraying the coveted in Alejandro Iñárritu’s wrenching puzzle of suffering and compassion, 21 Grams (2003). This time, she was Mary, the jilted wife of a dying man (Sean Penn) who is having an affair with a young widow (Naomi Watts). It was, in many ways, her trickiest role; Mary is relentlessly pressuring her husband to impregnate her before he dies, and Gainsbourg, underplaying delicately as ever, manages to make the instinct both slightly monstrous and deeply human. While the film’s trio of leads—Penn, Watts and Benicio Del Toro—hit Shakespearean notes of anguish, Gainsbourg’s Mary seethed silently.

In 2004, she played another woman spurned, this time in her husband’s thinly written, vaguely narcissistic second film, Ils se marièrent et eurent beaucoup d’enfants (Happily Ever After). If not much else, the film made Attal’s adoration of his wife touchingly evident: the story was essentially about how inexplicable adultery would be if you were married to Charlotte Gainsbourg.

This reverence of Gainsbourg’s feminine power was transformed into fear in Dominik Moll’s mesmerizing psychological thriller, Lemming (2005). Lynchian trimmings aside, the film could be read as a bourgeois nightmare about a man, Alain (Laurent Lucas), who imagines that his domestic gumdrop of a wife (Gainsbourg) suddenly stops loving him after he’s fleetingly tempted by his boss’s stormy wife, Alice (played by Charlotte Rampling). The actress’s natural elusive quality made her ideal for the role of Bénédicte, and indeed her work in Lemming was some of the most exciting of her career. In one extraordinary scene on the shore of a lake, Bénédicte seduces Alain by making him recount, and then herself impersonating, Alice’s advances on him. In mere seconds, Gainsbourg goes from playful to menacing. Bénédicte is a warm, almost maternal, companion, but she is also an erotic force to be reckoned with. When Alain momentarily takes her for granted—starting to cave to another woman before he comes to his senses—she reacts like a scorned goddess.

Interestingly, Gainsbourg is not the immediate target of affection in The Science of Sleep. Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) is initially after Stéphanie’s more outgoing, conventionally pretty friend, Zoé (Emma de Caunes). But if the similarity of their names wasn’t indication enough, Stéphane and Stéphanie soon realize they have a lot in common—namely a passion for creating things out of mundane knick-knacks (this being a Gondry film, what exactly they create is difficult to describe). The potential for romance, however, is complicated by two things: Stéphane’s inexplicable tendency to drift back and forth between dream and reality with no firm grasp on which is which; and that both he and Stéphanie suffer from what one might call severe intimacy issues. Their tiptoeing around the possibility of a relationship forms the heart of the film, which becomes, in its defiantly weird and heartbreaking way, an ode to romantic insecurity.

With slightly stringy hair, no visible makeup and the first signs of her 30s creeping ever-so-slightly onto her face, Gainsbourg has never looked less glamorous. Yet Gondry taps something in her that feels new: a giddy nerdiness. Horsing around with Bernal and their collection of stuffed animals and random objects, Gainsbourg seems to relish the chance to play an oddball; she’s radiant from the inside out.

What makes the role challenging, though, is that in order to sustain the suspense and ambiguity of Stéphane’s and Stéphanie’s relationship, Gainsbourg’s feelings remain to us, as they are to Stéphane, largely unreadable. Does her reluctance to pursue Stéphane, or even meet him halfway, stem from fear of rejection? From wounded pride at being his second choice? From a need for him to prove himself worthy of her? Gainsbourg makes Stéphanie an enigma of tenderness, fragility and defensiveness, as addictive as she is frustrating.

It is crucial to note that Gondry is the rare director to desexualize Gainsbourg. Aside from one passing reference to her breasts, Stéphane’s attraction to Stéphanie is pretty much as chaste as any to be found in a French film since the Nouvelle Vague. As in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the filmmaker is less interested in the nature and content of romantic feelings than in how they operate—playing tricks on us and messing us up. Watching Gainsbourg in The Science of Sleep—filmed almost unflatteringly by Gondry and nearly passed over in favor of her friend by Stéphane—we realize how accustomed we’ve become to seeing her romanticized and eroticized. Gondry reminds us that Charlotte Gainsbourg is, rather, a taste that tends to be acquired, and that this—the discovery of her—is part of what makes her so irresistible.

One cannot pin down, in The Science of Sleep, when exactly Stéphane acquires that taste. There is no “moment”; we don’t know if the feelings are new or have been locked up and suddenly released; and given Stéphane’s inability to distinguish his waking life from dreams, we’re not even sure which state of consciousness it happens in. This is both Gondry’s sharpest perception about the human heart and his greatest insight into Charlotte Gainsbourg. Stéphane’s feelings for Stéphanie seem to seep through him gradually, unexpectedly, like fragments of a past dream, until surprise, surprise: he is in love.