Ask the actress and singer-songwriter Charlotte Gainsbourg about her home life and you’ll discover she’s the proverbial rolling stone. She was born in London, but her early childhood memories are of her father Serge Gainsbourg’s house in Paris, where she lived with her mother, Jane Birkin, and her half-sister, Kate Barry, until she was nine, when her parents separated. “We had another house in Normandy which was my mother’s. My parents did their own thing with their houses and her home was very English, a cosy cottage with tapestries on the wall,” she says.
Much can be said of Gainsbourg’s drama-filled domesticity during her teenage years. There were kidnap plots and controversy, and the twists and turns have continued in adult life. Gainsbourg and her partner, Yvan Attal, the French-Israeli actor and director, have been together for 30 years but she admits they have moved house almost yearly for much of that time. “I don’t know why, I guess it was just our way of exploring Paris,” she says. The couple relocated to New York with their three children in 2013 following the tragic death of Gainsbourg’s sister Kate in Paris. She welcomed the change of pace and scene. “It was what I needed – specifically not to feel at home,” she says of their six years in the city. The couple returned to Paris only this summer.
It is Gainsbourg’s latest creative project that sparks her reflective mood: a cinematic black-and-white film, written and directed by Fabien Baron for Zara Home as part of its autumn/winter campaign, in which she plays an actress absorbed in her own egocentric world. She is seen on screen compulsively snapping self-portraits with her camera. “It’s about self-obsession, a trait I hope I don’t share,” she says. Gainsbourg has worked with Baron before, who asked her to watch the 1978 classic Eyes of Laura Mars to get a feel for his concept. She loved the movie but, as with most of her projects, found the challenge equally appealing.
“I was so excited to do something that was commercial but had nothing commercial about it,” she says. “I was nervous. I thought I might be too self-conscious as there was a script but no dialogue. But in the end it was fun to be very free, and to have the camera follow and capture that.” It was also something of a creative stress-reliever for the actor. “I did it in between a film I was working on with my partner, Yvan. It's always difficult for me to be directed by him, even though we love working together. You just have to deal with the tension,” she explains.
Despite working on projects with Attal, Gainsbourg does not readily mix her creative pursuits with family life. “Work for me has always been in a music studio or on a film set. I’ve never really been able to work at home. That’s why it was so much easier for me to be creative in New York; it wasn’t home, it was a bubble,” she says. “I treasure those six years. I began to draw again and take pictures, but now I have to find a way to make it work in Paris. I wish I felt the same freedom, but the city is still about old lives for me. It’s a city of memories, somewhere that has a lot of charm but is also very sentimental – a little too much so.”
Photography has become a hobby, which began for Gainsbourg as a teenager when she had use of a dark room in her mother’s garden. “I wasn’t very good but it was exciting,” she says. “Of course, much later on, my sister became a professional photographer. In New York, I bought an old Polaroid and then an automatic, and I started taking snaps of the city and the cemetery where my sister is [buried] in Paris.” Those images became the basis for a book complementing her 2017 album, Rest. “It started something new. I was exploring and being very free, not judging myself and not feeling I had to be a professional. I wasn’t trying to be a real artist but hopefully I have my own aesthetic – although I’m never really sure about that.”
Film, on the other hand, is integral to her life. “I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t know if I could live without it,” she says. She confesses that there have been moments when she has thought about not acting again. “Sometimes I think I don’t want to age on film and it’s time to stop, but then I miss it, so I do feel like I need it,” she says. Music is also in the blood. “I still feel a little awkward about my music because I don’t have a routine of writing – it’s very accidental. But I would certainly miss it just as much if I could no longer do it,” she adds.
She admits a love of “working intensely” but equally values the time she spends with her children – and this is what home really means to her. “I’ve just got my third child with me now, because the others have grown up, but I love taking care of her, doing the cooking, all those things,” she says.
So what is next for Gainsbourg? “Apart from Yvan’s film, I’ve been working with Benoît Jacquot [the French film director and screenwriter]. It’s a piece by Marguerite Duras called Suzanna Andler and is very special because it’s a play, which we shot in around five days.” Gainsbourg has also worked on a movie with Michel Franco, which is waiting to be released. “I’m writing another album and there are more film projects to shoot,” she says, revealing that she always has new projects on the boil. “I have to look forward – I find it terrifying not knowing what will happen next.”
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