Charlotte Gainsbourg is turning thirty six today and since I have been meaning to post a longer piece on for awhile, I think this seems to be a good time for it. One of cinema's most reliable actresses and now acclaimed singers, Charlotte has been in the public spotlight for her whole life, something which I am sure hasn't always been easy for her.
Charlotte was born in London (not in Paris as many assume) in the Summer of 1971 to Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. Because of her parents, specifically her fathers, notoriety stories about Charlotte and her photograph immediately began appearing in French papers and magazines. It is said that Charlotte's school years were very difficult due to the fact that the other kids constantly made fun of her due to her famous parents.
At the age of 13 Charlotte made her first move in following in her parents footsteps with a small role in the film LOVE SONGS opposite Catherine Deneuve and Christopher Lambert. This relatively minor Elie Chouraqui work would already show Charlotte's remarkable flair for creating memorable supporting characters, something she has continued to do throughout her distinguished career.
A small role in one of stepfather's, Jacques Doillon, films would be followed by an important leading role in Claude Miller's charming 1985 film CHARLOTTE AND LULU. Besides giving Charlotte her largest role to date, the film would also give her the opportunity to work with French New Wave icons Bernadette Lafont and Jean-Claude Brialy.
Charlotte would win a Cesar for CHARLOTTE AND LULU but it was her work on her father's LEMON INCEST single and video that really had all of Paris talking. The song would close her first album, 1986's CHARLOTTE FOREVER, and would cause a great controversy. The album, written and produced by her father, is an infectious if dated work that would show that Charlotte had inherited her mother's charming and lovely voice. The video for LEMON INCEST caused major problems and was banned from some French channels but was still a sizable hit in 1986.
1986 would also mark the release of the Serge written and directed CHARLOTTE FOR EVER that would give Charlotte another leading role. This sad little film is very effective and seeing Charlotte working with her father, in what was an obviously autobiographical film, is very touching.
Charlotte would then make the solid Agnes Varda film, the oddly titled KUNG-FU MASTER. Outside of giving Charlotte the opportunity to work with the great Varda, it gave her the chance to work with her mother and talented sister, Lou Doilon. Birkin herself came up with the idea for the film and she gives one of the best performances of her career in it.
After offering support for her mother's powerhouse performance in Varda's film, Charlotte would give her own great leading performance and have her first international success in Claude Miller's THE LITTLE THIEF. The film, taken from an unfilmed Francois Truffaut script, is a real charming tale of a teenage thief desperate to find herself. Charlotte is positively radiant in this role and injects the part with real humanity. It is undoubtedly the best of her teenage work and would garner her much praise and would give her another Cesar nomination.
Everyone though that Charolotte would have went directly into another high profile starring role after THE LITTLE THIEF but instead she appeared in two films playing the kind of supposrting characters she had already perfected before her twentieth year. These were 1990's AUTOBUS (which would team her with future husband Yvan Attal), and NIGHT SUN opposite Nastassja Kinski.
Bertrand Blier's acclaimed and award winning 1991 film MERCI LA VIE gave Charlotte another opportunity to shine in a starring role as did Jacques Doillon's 1992 feature LOVER. It was really her English language performance though in Andrew Birkin's THE CEMENT GARDEN that would show Charoltte as one of the best and most dedicated young actresses in the world.
THE CEMENT GARDEN is a sadly undervalued film and features one of Charlotte's great performances. Based on a solid Ian McEwan novel with confident direction by Birkin, THE CEMENT GARDEN is one of the early nineties best films and deserves a larger audience.
Another smaller role would follow in Michel Blanc's entertaining GROSSE FATIGUE but it was Charlotte's stirring work in Franco Zeffirelli's JANE EYRE that would make her an international star, even though the film itself perhaps didn't get as much acclaim as it deserved.
After the mixed reaction to Zeffirelli's powerful literary adaptation, Charlotte went back to France to make two lower keyed films before returning to the English language market with David Bailey's bizarre THE INTRUDER, again opposite Nastassja Kinski, in 1999.
Charlotte would give a splendid performance in Daniele Thompson's dysfunctional Christmas film, LA BUCHE, just after THE INTRUDER. LA BUCHE is one of my favorite films of Charlotte's career and she easily steals every scene she is in which really remarkable considering she is working with powerhouses such as Emmanuelle Beart and Francoise Fabian. LA BUCHE is a lovely and honest little film that is among the best French films of the nineties and Charlotte won a very much deserved second Cesar for her work.
More films would follow before Charlotte appeared in her husband's charming International hit MY WIFE IS AN ACTRESS, a film that would give her the opportunity to work with the great Terence Stamp.
For English language audiences it was her surprising and searing supporting turn in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's pulverising masterpiece 21 GRAMS in 2003 that would have everyone noticing her. As Sean Penn's estranged wife, Charlotte gives a moving and emotionally vulnerable performance that adds even more punch to this wrenching film, which is easily among the decades best.
Much like after her high profile role in the English language JANE EYRE, Charlotte would return to France after 21 GRAMS to make a series of memorable French films. Her refreshing uninterest in mainstream Hollywood really distinguishes Charlotte from many of her contemporaries and her career continues to be one of the most intelligent in all of cinema.
Charlotte suddenly exploded last year with two projects. The first was a role in Michael Gondry's ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND follow up film THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP opposite talented Gael Garcia Bernal, and the second was Charlotte's return to the music world.
THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP was one of the best reviewed films of 2006 and if it didn't have the power of ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS it at least showed Gondry as not being a cinematic fluke. Charlotte's performance is key among the films many charms and her scenes with the beautiful Bernal are among the best of her career.
The real jewel of 2006 though was the album 5:55. Working with a series of musicians who idolized her and her parents, including Air, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon, 5:55 was a smash hit in France and one of the best reviewed albums of the past several years. This hypnotic and immaculately produced work is among my favorite albums of the decade and Charlotte is spellbinding throughout with the audacious kick off single THE SONGS THAT WE SING recalling her father's greatest work from the early seventies, while other tracks like THE OPERATION sound extremely progressive.
Charlotte would also snag another Cesar nomination for last years PRETE-MOI TA MAIN, a film that unfortunately I haven't been able to see yet and she will soon be seen in Todd Hayne's sure to be controversial Bob Dylan biopic, I'M NOT THERE.
There is a real dignity to Charlotte Gainsbourg and it comes through in all of her work whether it is in a small supporting role, a lead or in a recording studio. She is one of the most intelligent and honest actors of the past twenty years and at only 36 she shows no sign of wavering. I really admire her a lot and have no doubt that her future will bring many more great films and hopefully albums.