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Charlotte Gainsbourg.

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Charlotte Gainsbourg on Melancholia and the Emotional Toll of Working With Lars Von Trier

Two years after the shrill histrionics and lurid masturbation sequences of Antichrist, Charlotte Gainsbourg reunites with Lars von Trier in Melancholia, his epic new film about two unhinged sisters — the other played by Kirsten Dunst — facing a pretty grandiose apocalypse. Back for more? Well, you could argue that after all the cliterectomies and genital bashings of Antichrist, acting out the end of the world is really no big deal — but the suffering is just as palpable, the performance just as demanding. Gainsbourg chatted with Vulture about the connections between Melancholia and her new album, Stage Whisper (December 13), von Trier's notorious Cannes faux pas, and his avuncular yet sadistic directorial approach.

This is your second time working with Lars. Were you excited or nervous to do another movie with him?
Both. I wasn’t nervous for the reasons people would expect, of going through suffering again; I was nervous because the first time had been so incredible for me, and I was worried it wouldn’t be as intense. Also, in Antichrist my character was very extreme — not that I understood everything — but in Melancholia, my character was more subtle. I found that it was more difficult not knowing what he was expecting of me. I spent a whole shoot being scared all the time.

Lars was going through a pretty incapacitating depression when he was making Antichrist. Was there a big difference in his on-set presence during the Melancholia shoot?
Oh, yeah. He was the first one to say how happy he was on Melancholia as opposed to Antichrist. I remember during Antichrist he said, “You’ll have to excuse me if one day I’m not here.” But no, no: He was always there. He did have those crises, and all of that physical pain; it was such a burden for him. Sometimes he couldn’t hand-hold the camera because he was shaking too much. That was the only way I knew him. When I saw him on Melancholia, he was much calmer and happier with himself. But he’s still Lars: Even in his merry days, he’s still very caustic.

You’ve said that you didn’t fully understand Antichrist. Did you feel that way about Melancholia?
What I can never understand is where Lars gets his ideas, what’s behind the scene, behind those characters. I went to meet with him in Copenhagen before the shoot, and my script was filled with notes and questions. He saw all the scribblings and said, “Okay. I’m going to have a nap.” He went to sleep for the whole afternoon, then we had a lovely supper that evening. And my questions were left unanswered — just as they were in Antichrist. The thing is, I didn’t need those answers to play the part. It was just my curiosity. And he likes his secrets, I guess.

You had some limitations when you shot Antichrist, like you didn’t want to be visible in the same frame as the porn actor’s penis during the opening sex scene, or seen bashing Willem Dafoe’s genitals with a big chunk of wood. Was there anything like that in Melancholia?
I was pushed to my limit in Melancholia, but I was willing to go there. For the last shot, with me, Kirsten, and the little boy all together, Lars said, “I want to have a bit of an experiment with you. Every morning I’d like to shoot this scene. Again. You can listen to whatever you want, do whatever you need. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but it’s the end of the world and I want to see an expression of something.” It was terrifying, because at a point, it wasn’t acting anymore. The suffering and the cruelty of the moment was horrible. Lars said to me in a very cynical way, “With you it’s like filming animal life: You have to wait for something to happen.”  

Did he ever let up?
Not really. Even after the shoot, when we did the post syncing for the ending, he said, “I need noises. Go in the cabinet. I want to hear something weird.” I was pregnant, so I didn’t want to go through any more suffering, but I did. And he would say, “You’re not suffering enough. Those are not real tears.” You can’t pretend with him.

He is a great director, and really there are not that many. He’s a real artist and doesn’t make compromises. He’s also very human, and very understanding. It’s very rare to find that. I love him very much, very dearly. We exchange text messages quite a lot. We don’t talk very much on the phone.

Why do you think Lars likes working with you so much?
I don’t know! At the beginning of the Melancholia shoot, I thought he was very unhappy with me. I needed his reassurance and he wasn’t giving it to me. At one point I even asked him if he still wanted me in the film or not. And he said, “Of course. I’ll tell you if I’m unhappy.”

But he still never gave you any reassurance.
That vulnerability is something that he likes. I remember telling his producer, “I’m a bit miserable because I feel he’s not happy. Could you tell me if he’s not happy?” And at the end of the shoot she said, “You know when you were feeling that way? I was about to call saying how happy Lars was with your work. And he saw me and asked what I was doing, and I said, 'I’m calling Charlotte to reassure her.' And he said, 'Don’t do it. That’s where I want her.'" He knows how to play with me. There’s a bit of cruelty in that.

Do you think his transgressive comments at Cannes are going to affect people’s perception of the film?
I hope not. He did a stupid thing, but it didn’t shock me because that’s who he is. There’s no way it could have ended well with the way it started. It didn’t affect the film in France when it came out. But we all wished we could have avoided it. At the press conference, when I was sitting next to him — in the beginning I wasn’t hearing, I was in my own thing and wasn’t really listening. And then little by little …  I heard “Hitler,” and then I don’t know, it became worse and worse. I didn’t react because it was so gradual. It was easy to react afterwards and say how stupid he was. I wish I’d said something at the time.

Your album Stage Whisper comes out just after Melancholia opens in the U.S. You’ve said that shooting Antichrist gave you a lot of baggage that was very stimulating when you recorded IRM. Are there any connections between Stage Whisper and Melancholia?
It’s very linked, because I was already working on Melancholia when I was doing those live shows. I’d been in the U.K. performing at a festival, and then jumping on a plane and going to Sweden to start shooting a few days later. For the first time, I saw how different those two jobs are, especially when you’re onstage and singing live: You build up an ego, thinking you’re worth being up there with such crowds. Being an actor with Lars, it’s the opposite.

Photo: Patrick McMullan