Charlotte’s Web

Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte for Ever, 1986, still from a color film in 35 mm, 94 minutes. Charlotte and Stan (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Serge Gainsbourg).

IN 1984, at the age of twelve, Charlotte Gainsbourg, wearing only a blue oxford and panties, lounged on a mattress with her shirtless father for his video of their duet “Lemon Incest”; twenty-five years later, she would give herself a clitoridectomy with rusty scissors in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. As the only child of a legendarily decadent union—the great French desiccated dandy/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and British actress/singer Jane Birkin—Charlotte was born with scandal imprinted on her DNA. But as the nine films in the French Institute Alliance Française’s tribute to the gifted actress make clear, Gainsbourg is more than a provocatrice; her Modigliani face and frame show the subtlest shifts of pain and pleasure, grief and joy.

Her formidable talent is immediately evident in Claude Miller’s L’Effrontée (1985), the third film Gainsbourg made after beginning her career in 1984 and her first starring role. Playing Charlotte Castang (one of three instances in the series in which the performer and her character share the same first name), who rages at the misery of being a teenager stuck in a sleepy town, Gainsbourg appears in every scene. Her adolescent mood swings—one minute erupting into frustrated tantrums (“I wish I wasn’t me”), the next staring with moon-eyed wonder at girl-crush Clara, the visiting thirteen-year-old piano prodigy whom Charlotte hopes to run away with—are agonizingly raw yet expertly calibrated. It’s a stunning, fearless performance (for which Gainsbourg would win a César, France’s equivalent of an Oscar, for Most Promising Actress) that hints at the emotional boldness she would display in Antichrist.

If Gainsbourg’s on-screen collaborations with her father provoke a certain unease—two years after the “Lemon Incest” video, she starred in Serge’s film Charlotte for Ever; they play inappropriately attached dad and daughter—the two films that she’s made with her longtime romantic partner, Yvan Attal, the mediocre writer-director of My Wife Is an Actress (2001) and Happily Ever After (2004), invite other discomfiting questions about where autobiography ends and fiction begins. Attal and Gainsbourg play spouses in both movies, but they are primarily narcissistic vehicles for Attal’s overwhelming insecurities, if not outright hostility about his partner’s success. And yet even in the circumscribed, one-dimensional roles Attal has created for her (particularly as the cipher of the title in My Wife Is an Actress), Gainsbourg finds grace, depth, and humor.

In fact, Gainsbourg is at her best when struggling against bad object choices, enmeshed in impossible romances. As Gael García Bernal’s crafts partner (they play with cellophane strips and cloth ponies) in Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2006), Gainsbourg touchingly, tentatively invites the man-child’s affections and wearily stands up to his passive-aggressive attacks. Beyond the delight of watching Gainsbourg beautifully navigate this awkward flirtation is the immense pleasure of listening to her, as her tongue glides from French to English. This aural intimacy is magically showcased in her most recent film, Patrice Chéreau’s Persécution (2009), during a transatlantic phone call Gainsbourg’s character, Sonia, makes to Daniel (Romain Duris), her difficult boyfriend of three years. “You took me as I am,” Sonia tearfully explains to Daniel when he demands to know why she fell in love with him. Charlotte fans have done the same for nearly three decades.

“Charlotte Forever” runs January 12 through February 23 at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York. For more details, click here.