Anglo-French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (“The Science of Sleep,” “The Tree”) is no stranger to working with Denmark’s most famous provocateur, Lars von Trier, having starred in his “Antichrist” and “Melancholia” before playing the adult protagonist in the Danish filmmaker’s latest, “Nymphomaniac.” The actress appears mainly in the film’s “Volume II,” which is now available on VOD and will be in theaters April 4th.
Though apparently entirely fearless as an actress, the first thing that’s striking about meeting Gainsbourg is how timid and almost bashful she is. That said, quite a few actors seem to have chosen their profession as a way to overcome their shyness and Gainsbourg, the daughter of U.K. actress Jane Birkin and the late French singer, Serge Gainsbourg, seems to belong to that group too. For the interview in Copenhagen, during the “Nymphomaniac” press junket, she shows up with a huge pot of tea for herself and immediately curls up on an armchair, almost as if she were a cat, retreating into the safety and comfort of an upholstered cocoon.
Soft-spoken and pensive, Gainsbourg seems to think her job and her quiet demeanor are certainly related: “It’s not necessarily shyness but more being reserved and being more comfortable being quiet rather than being an extrovert but that’s just my nature. So being able, through films, to have these outbursts, is just great,” she explains, before quickly adding: “But that doesn’t mean it has fundamentally changed me.”
Part of her quietness also seems connected to a type of uncertainty about her capacities as an actress, though she’s been getting some of the best reviews of her career for the work she has done with the Great Dane. Says the 42-year-old Gainsbourg: “I take every film with Lars as a different experience and the way it happens is always a surprise. I can’t say I expected him to ask me the second time or the third time. We do have a relationship but it’s still very mysterious and he’s still very mysterious to me.” She’s not even sure if she’s part of his “film family” or not: “Sometimes I have the impression I’m a little bit a part of his family and sometimes… not. He’s very unpredictable so I’m just very happy I was able to do those three films and for him to take me to really different places each time.”
She does admit that it has become easier to open up when working with von Trier specifically: “Yes, I have no shyness. Though there’s still this idea that he’ll judge me even if he has empathy for me and is very loving. There’s still a lot of fear that I won’t be able to do what he wants.”
The London-born, Paris-based actress agreed to play Joe soon after giving birth to her third child with French actor-director Yvan Attal, incidentally also called Joe, in the summer of 2011. Joe is the titular nymphomaniac, who recounts her entire sinful sexual history to Seligman, played by Stellan Skarsgard, an intellectual, asexual and atheist Jew, which is then shown in flashbacks, with Franco-British newcomer Stacy Martin playing Joe as a teenager and young woman before Gainsbourg takes over.
“I think I would agree to do any film with him,” she says of von Trier. “But I didn’t go into this shoot fearless. I was very scared of a lot of things that I’d have to go through. I’d never read a script like that before, it was very unusual but that’s what I love about it, the way this crazy story is being told in a very scholarly way, thanks to Seligman, who has that teacher-like manner. With all those digressions, the material was so rich that it was very exciting. And very scary at the same time because I didn’t know about half the references, so I needed to look everything up, start researching.”
Interestingly, both von Trier and the actress’s father, Serge, built up a reputation based not only on talent but also on a taste for controversy, and Gainsbourg can see similarities between the two men: “Yes, with those provocations and the two being very shy, very uncomfortable with who, well, with the way they are. I don’t know Lars enough but I’d like to think that they’re similar in that way, and these outbursts of provocation are quite similar. But I think my father was a bit more prude, anyway, with women. I know this seems weird with everything he’s done but I think that he was, not old-fashioned but… I don’t know how he would have taken this film.”
Though the current, shorter edit (the two volumes come in at about 4 hours, though the director’s cut reportedly runs 5.5 hours) contains only a few explicit sex scenes, these were all performed by porn doubles. “They’ve done a lot of post-production,” the actress explains. “In the 5.5 hours version, anyway, everything is mixed, with the porn actors having actual sex but with our faces, it’s very well done. But we didn’t do any of it. SPOILER — In the S&M scenes with Jamie Bell it’s not a fake bum, it’s a real woman who was willing to be hit, not with a real whip but still… END SPOILER.”
There was never even any discussion of whether Gainsbourg should do any of the more risqué material: “It was obvious I wasn’t going to do it. That was part of the deal and there was no trying to be manipulated in any way, not at all. It was the only way possible. He was very respectful of all the actors and all the porn actors, too. It was all happening in good spirit.”
The film also mixes sex and humor in a typically von Trier-ian way, such as when Gainsbourg’s Joe decides to have sex with two African brothers, who come to her room and, once in the buff, start discussing what each one should do in their own language while she’s seated on the bed, with a bouncing penis at either side of her. Similarly, her scenes with Jamie Bell are both shocking and crudely funny. The film has a “weird sense of humor, very disturbing,” says Gainsbourg. “I mean, I was disturbed, embarrassed and a little humiliated but I wanted to go there. He didn’t force me into this film, I was really willing but still, having to do that…”
Of course, playing a nymphomaniac implied being in several sex scenes for the actress, which, though she has done them before, she still finds difficult: “I am uncomfortable being naked. Also, I had just had a child and I was very embarrassed by the way I looked. But when I come into the part, I don’t have that much nakedness to perform. All the beautiful sex is done by Stacy and I do all the nasty stuff that comes after,” she says, suppressing an uneasy giggle.
Indeed, Martin and Gainsbourg, though they play the same woman at different ages, are given very different things to do as Joe matures and explores different facets of herself. “I was worried I’d be jealous of the scenes that she had,” Gainsbourg says of Martin, admitting she’d thought she might think: “‘Why couldn’t I play a little bit younger?’ When reading the script, it didn’t say: ‘This is where you come in,’ so I was really curious to know when I could start with the part.”
With von Trier, who has made a lot of films with female protagonists he then puts through the wringer, the question of feminism (or its ugly counterpart, misogyny) always comes up, as Gainsbourg admits: “I’ve been asked this before and I, I don’t know. I think it’s a film about a woman portraying herself, with all her suffering and all her faults. She tries to portray herself as a terrible, bad human being and by the end, I think she understands more of who she is. It’s a beautiful portrait of a woman but is it feminist because of the way she portrays her sexuality? I don’t know. Maybe because it talks about a woman, that’s feminist enough?”
After giving it some thought, Gainsbourg continues: “For me, the character I play is Lars so it’s hard to only see her as a woman. Lars has put himself, in my mind anyway, in both Seligman and Joe, two opposite characters. That’s who he is and we all have contradictory facets, different faces. So, in that sense, how is it feminist? People have said he doesn’t like women but I don’t see how you can portray characters with such depth and not feel for them, have no empathy? I think he loves women”.
Few would argue that von Trier doesn’t have an original voice and clearly Gainsbourg is attracted to working with him for the same reason: “What I find so terribly rich with him, is he…,” she pauses, searching for the right words, “…he’s an artist who has a compulsion, a compulsive side that wants to show us all the dark aspects of himself. So you have his sense of humor, his cynicism… He’s very generous in the sense that he is willing to show it all. He’s not making any compromises. In that sense he’s very original and a real storyteller”.
The actress also reveals a little bit about how von Trier, who refused to talk to the press after his Nazi comment at the “Melancholia” press conference in Cannes was willingly misunderstood and blown out of proportion, works on set: “Starting a scene, you don’t know where you’re going. It’s all quite scary but Lars doesn’t give you any indication. Nobody knows; the actors don’t know but the cameraman doesn’t know either where to go. Of course the scene is written but you can take it any place. So it’s difficult because you have to dare, you have to dare being ridiculous and being bad and you are quite bad at first but then he comes in and helps”.
She continues: “He doesn’t do it on purpose, to make you uncomfortable at first, but he needs to see it, or that’s the way he calls it, he needs to see it to then be able to articulate his ideas and explore them with you but that’s what’s wonderful, to have his spirit explore your character. He understands every wink you make. It’s like having some read you better than you read yourself. It’s wonderful then to push yourself, for the really hard scenes anyway, to push yourself to these really difficult places, to suffer a little. All of that is very exciting and so uncommon and that’s why I love doing what I do. And a lot of it is thanks to him”.
But working in this way isn’t always easy, as Gainsbourg explains: “For each film, he has put me in a very difficult spot and asked me for something that was nearly animal-like. In ‘Melancholia,’ it was the last scene, he wanted something… and we shot it for three days in a row, just exploring my suffering, which was very painful and puzzling because I didn’t know where to go. And again with this, it was shorter, but for the scenes where I’m recovering my orgasm, with the masochistic part, that again was really embarrassing. You know, an orgasm is an orgasm but when you have someone say: ‘Surprise me,’ I don’t know what to do. That was quite hard.”