Charlotte comes out of the water, she spent the day at sea with her three children and Yvan (Yvan Attal, his companion, Editor’s note). She laughs a lot, with a childish laugh, very cheerful. She laughs at herself, her fears, admires the beauty and tranquility of her eldest daughter, Alice, tells how she tries to transmit a strong family culture without sinking with it, greedily notes all the titles of the books you advise him.
Madame Figaro. – It is the first time, it seems to me, that I see a portrait of you where you are the adult, the protector, the big one. In a photo intended for the Comptoir des Cotonniers advertising campaign, all you need is one arm to hug your daughter …
Charlotte Gainsbourg. – Yes, that’s right, I was very happy to do that with her. However, I have long been against it. I was photographed a lot as a child with my parents, I didn’t care, it was normal, and then, when they broke up, it was a nightmare. Everything turned against them, against us, we were made to pay for it with paparazzi hiding in front of our house all the time. I told myself that my privacy should be preserved at all costs. So when the children were born, with Yvan, we did everything to hide them. I have toured with my son before, but it was almost underground. Alice, she wanted to. We talked about it. I started working at the exact same age, at 12 years old. It’s kind of his first job, and I was proud to accompany him. My mother came to the session before leaving for a train. She kissed us, happy to see us like this. And I am happy with the result.
Your daughter Alice has a very soft, calm look, very far from yours at the same age …
Ah yes, I was just the opposite! I suffered the photos, it was terrible. I still don’t like to be photographed, and every second photo that is taken of me, I find it a failure. Not by the photographer’s fault, but by mine. There, when I see my daughter so beautiful, I am really happy. She is very quiet, unlike me, she seems to have no worries. But hey, you have to be wary of children who don’t seem to have too many problems, and stay alert! She is also extremely sensitive.
You’ve posed a lot, even if you don’t like it. You are very photogenic. Did you give him any advice?
Alice is very mature and doesn’t need any advice, especially from me. I am her mother and she is a very assertive teenager. What I love about her, besides a thousand other things, is that she is very different from me. She has an approach to femininity that is her own. She knows what suits her, what doesn’t, and it’s not at all what I like or that suits me! She’s really feminine, she loves dresses and wears nail polish, while I hate it. When we go shopping, we are always happy to go together, and it always ends badly. And then, we have opposite tastes. So each one pretends to like what the other likes, even if in real life we don’t like it at all. She feels that I am forcing myself, as I feel that she is making an effort.
Still, I have a lot of admiration for her and the way she behaves. At her age, I was really retarded, especially from the point of view of my femininity. I was a tomboy, bad about myself, very secretive. She’s just as secretive, but she has that sweetness that I missed. When I tell her about me at her age, she finds it hard to understand why I was like this. And today, with a lot of humor, she “sucks” me on my “badly in my skin” side. She asks me why I always dress the same, when she loves to have fun with clothes so much. Thanks to her, I am finally old. This is how she sees me – her old mother! Alice loves everything, she is always in a good mood and enthusiastic. In a photo studio, I am tense. If someone wants me to wear something that I don’t like, there’s no way I can change my mind. While Alice is ready to try everything: makeup, clothes … If she is not convinced, she still tries to see.
Your daughter is also living a childhood very different from yours, perhaps more reassuring?
At her age, I dreamed of being set rules, that my parents set me bedtime, that they ask me if I had done my homework. I was lying (to my friends) to make it look like I had a normal family life. All children dream of having a normal life, right? With us, it was not quite normal! For example, for schooling, my father kept telling me: “Pass your bac! But it was a joke. I had made it a point of honor to pass it. Also, going to school all year round gave me an excuse not to promote the movies I liked to shoot during the holidays.
What did you pass on to your children from your funny childhood?
I try to share with them the culture that my parents gave me, but I find it rather difficult. I don’t have to be very convincing! When I make them listen Les Variations Goldberg, by Bach, performed by Glenn Gould – a must in the rue de Verneuil discography – they laugh at me. When I was a teenager, I followed everything my parents listened to, I made it my own. I especially pushed my children for the films which marked me. I think they keep something strong about it. Musicals: West Side Story, Oliver!, My Fair Lady, Donkey Skin. I tried to insist with Forbidden Games, but they were so upset that I felt kinky for wanting to test them so much!
What do you tell them about your family history?
First, there is Yvan’s culture. The Jewish culture of Algeria. We have big parties. And then, it’s very cheerful. On my father’s side, I have my two aunts left. But this Russian side is less present. On the English side, inherited from my mother, it’s easier, even if I find it a bit artificial to speak to them in English. Now my children have got used to it and they are bilingual thanks to the schools, finally. The great thing we had before was Christmas: a big family celebration where traditions were respected, with “stockings” (tradition of Father Christmas british), turkey and pudding. It was magical. We keep precious memories of our English Christmases. We often talk about it with children. Today, too many people are no longer there. So Christmas also died out …
How do you tell Serge Gainsbourg to your children?
What I try to convey in the first place is the story of his family. My grandmother, my father and his sisters were in the occupied zone during the war. His father had gone to the free zone to work and earn money to support his family. My father and his sisters, at one point, were in hiding. They in a convent, my father in a boarding school. My father, my grandmother, my aunt often evoked this period. Oddly, they talked about it with a lot of excitement, almost joyously, like it was an adventure movie. The episode that came up most often was when the Gestapo arrived at their home and my grandmother sat down on the false papers that could have compromised them. She told it with humor, having had incredible composure and nerve. My father’s family was small, having left everything when they left Russia in 1917. During the war, the five survived, none were deported. My children are very attentive to this part of their history.
Then there is the artist Gainsbourg …
When my son, Ben, was born, I was still missing my father. I found it hard to talk about him. With Alice, it was easier. I made her listen to songs like Comic Strip or Harley-Davidson. By showing, casually, as many photos as possible, so that his face would be familiar to them. I called him “Papy Serge” in front of them – that would have sickened him! I took them on a tour of the rue de Verneuil, to which I continue to cling to in an absurd way. It’s been almost twenty-five years since my father died, and I would like nothing to change about him. I cling to material things, I cannot move an object. Everything is damaged, the paintings are faded. I would like to preserve the place identically, but it is impossible. All these years… and I can’t seem to evolve. It’s silly.
Did you read The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion (2)? She says that a friend of hers, after her husband’s death, couldn’t change anything about them, in case he came back, so as not to be upset.
Oh no, but I have to read it. It’s for me ! I was advised recently A woman running away from the ad, by David Grossman (3): the story of a woman who refuses to hear that her son is dead.
David Grossman writes that putting his own words on what seems unforgivable to you allows you to no longer be a victim of it… Going to New York, writing a new album, is that too, choosing your life?
Yes really. I was the only one who wanted to move. It was Alice, then, who helped me a lot to convince others, to make this possible. What I love about New York is that all cultures, all communities, all holidays are celebrated. I find that insane. When I walk around Brighton Beach and hear my grandmother’s Russian accent, it makes me happy!
Charlotte as the fashion icon
(1) Colombe Schneck has just published Sisters of Mercy published by Stock.
(2) The year of magical thinking, by Joan Didion, Éd. Grasset, 281 p., € 19.20.
(3) A woman running away from the ad, by David Grossman, Ed. Points, 783 p., € 8.90.
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