Sometimes, the world is in such a state that you just need the wisdom and European perspective of Charlotte Gainsbourg. Gainsbourg stars in the racy — and confusing — new love-triangle movie, Ismaël’s Ghosts, the director’s cut of which is premiering at the New York Film Festival (after opening Cannes). Gainsbourg plays an astrophysicist whose life is upended when the presumed-dead wife (Marion Cotillard) of her filmmaker lover (Mathieu Amalric) shows up after 20 years to get her husband back. She’s also appearing with Michael Fassbender this fall in the Norwegian crime thriller The Snowman and has created a Nars makeup collection that the Cut’s beauty editor is in love with. We caught up with the now proud Manhattan resident to talk French open relationships, Cotillard, the terror of being 46, and, of course, death.
I love the love triangle in Ismaël’s. There’s a very French presentation of fluidity of relationships that might be a little outre for American audiences, especially with your character. All her previous lovers have been married. Is that a natural part of the culture?
Yes, I think it’s natural. There was nothing shocking in that. We know it exists, those are the choices she’s made, and it’s not such a big deal. That’s the balance she found, so there’s no judgment, there’s no moral behind it. I didn’t judge her for that at all. Now how Americans would see this — yes, there is a completely different moral.
Have you encountered that different set of morals in the U.S.?
Well, I live in New York. So you understand that there’s another language. It’s a different way of projecting yourself. And because it’s not familiar, I notice it. So I feel different. It’s a melting pot and you see so much, but it’s just that I can’t always relate to things.
What’s a way that you’d talk about relationships that people in America didn’t seem to get?
I had a way of openly saying that I had moved there because my sister had died, and I said it because it was a frank answer. And I didn’t want to embarrass people by saying it, but after a while, I felt that I was embarrassing them. It was something that they preferred they didn’t know. You know? The French are shy in a way, but we’re very open about feelings.
My sister was living in Paris, and I had to escape from my life before. The move was an incredible change. So I’m happy. I don’t know how long I will live in New York, but it’s such an incredible city. And to discover it also at my age, and to pack your bags and really move is incredible. Because Yvan [Attal, an Israeli actor and filmmaker, with whom Gainsbourg has three children] and I have been together for ages and we’ve been saying we’d move here for a long time, but we did it. This time, I had to do it and I actually packed. There was no choice. I gave no one any choice. [Laughs.]
When did you do that?
Three years ago.
How does New York feel now? Does it feel like home?
No, we’re still experiencing different neighborhoods, and everything is still so new. But that’s what I like. We’re in Tribeca, but we need to move, so we’ll move a little east from where we are.
East to Brooklyn?
[Laughs.] No. I think you can go to Brooklyn when you’re maybe a little fed up by New York, but I’m not fed up. It’s still very, very beautiful.
About the movie, Marion Cotillard’s character Carlotta cheated on Ismaël (Amalric) constantly, and he talks about it so lovingly and matter-of-factly. Is this normal?
No! It’s not normal at all. And I would never accept this. I don’t think Yvan would, either. It’s true that in the film it’s accepted. It’s very obviously natural. I don’t know what I think of that, but again, I didn’t judge it. That was who she was. I didn’t take it as a stereotype of other relationships and the freedom that some could have. It was very specific for me to that character.
Your character Sylvia’s reaction to Carlotta showing up in their lives taught me that there are limits to openness. She is so tolerant about other transgressions, but this is one that really sparks her jealousy. Explain what is going on with Sylvia?
Well, Carlotta is a ghost [ed note: figuratively not literally]. And you can’t really fight against a ghost. She will always win. That’s the intensity Carlotta has, so Sylvia knows that it’s already lost. She suffers a lot, but she doesn’t really fight. She accepts that [Ismaël] has to go there.
Marion does a great dance to Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” for you. What was that scene like?
I enjoyed it a lot. For the first take, it was a complete surprise and she was actually dancing. It was great that I was able to enjoy the dance, in character. The dance is so puzzling and sort of grotesque, but dangerous at the same time.
Do you think Carlotta is taunting Sylvia?
I think it’s a provocation that my character accepts because it’s just in front of her. I mean, what can she do? A gentle provocation. Only the start.
Sylvia could get up and dance with her.
Oh, no, I don’t feel that it has any kind of invitation. [Laughs.]
I found it fascinating that Sylvia ends up hanging out with this ex-wife of her partner for as long as she does.
I did, too. And I was puzzled by my character at the beginning. I asked [director] Arnaud [Desplechin], “Why is she accepting it so easily? How come she doesn’t fight? Will I have enough to hold onto, to play this character?” Because for me, she was too good and too kind, and so I was very worried. And Arnaud, he just said, “But you have to understand who she is, and you can’t darken that character. That’s all she is, is that kindness and openness.”
So when I saw him describing her, and he was completely illuminated by this idea of a character, then I understood that it was going a little further than just the being nice or not having enough strength. The strength was somewhere else. It made me finally accept her and love her and want to be her.
What is it like working with Marion Cotillard for the first time? I think people are surprised you hadn’t worked together before.
She worked with Arnaud on one of his first films. I was the only one who had no experience with any of them. It was so, I don’t know, so obvious and so easy to be together. There weren’t a lot of interactions outside of the shoot and it happened really quickly. I think it was a week long, not even, and it was already done. So we didn’t have the time to really build a friendship. But the characters were strong enough to just to have a lot of fun with the scenes.
I first saw Ismaël’s at Cannes and I was also at your 2011 press conference for Melancholia where Lars von Trier made that joke about Nazis and got kicked out of the festival, never to return to France. Since we’re talking about ghosts, does that event haunt you?
The press conference with Lars on Melancholia was a nightmare afterwards and the repercussions were terrible for him, you know, having to leave the festival. So that wasn’t a great experience. But still, I’m so proud of the film.
Well, I was there and he kept saying outrageous things. So many more outrageous things than the Nazi comment.
I didn’t react when he said it. It was part of his character and the provocation that went with that and the uneasiness that transpires from him. So I wasn’t shocked, but then the proportions and the output were so, so intense. I don’t think what he said wasn’t bad. It was really terrible, but the fact that he had to leave — I don’t know. Anyway, maybe that was a disappointment because I really like the film.
How is he? You obviously reunited for Nymphomaniac.
I love him. He’s a wonderful, wonderful director and a human being who [contains] a lot of mysteries for me. I like for it to be that way. The process of working together is very natural and easy. Then the way he wants you to be in order to get into character, that’s intense. That costs you. But in a good way.
Do you talk to him often?
I do. We text each other. And I asked for his advice on a video that wanted to shoot and very sweetly he gave me instructions. He’s sweet.
You seem very comfortable being naked onscreen, at least in his movies, and in this one. Is that ever a struggle?
It depends how it’s done, how you’re shot. For me, it was always okay with Lars to show myself. He asked me to trust him and he said, “I will never show something you don’t like.” So it was a real entent we had. With other filmmakers, I haven’t been asked that that much. With Arnaud it was very discreet and very sweetly done.
I read you’re feeling like you’re done with cinema. Is that true?
I think I was asked questions about the fact that I’m not that comfortable with aging. I always thought that, not being such an obvious beauty, that it would be easy for me to age. You know, when you don’t have your looks that disappear. But I had something else. I realized that I had youth, for a long, long time. And now it’s gone. You don’t want to be reminded that you’re not 30 anymore. I don’t enjoy it.
I’ll sometimes get out of bed and my back will hurt. For me aging is always harshest when you can’t physically do something you think you should.
I don’t have the physical thing. Well, after three babies, I do have a physical thing that I have to hide. But apart from that, for me, it’s really in the face and the fact that aging is not appreciated. We’re in a world where everything needs to be retouched and you don’t accept dark circles and it’s all so perfect that you feel there’s no room for you. So of course you want to age in the most natural way. I’ve seen the most beautiful old women. Vanessa Redgrave is incredibly beautiful at her age. But it’s not that easy. Just to feel confident.
Does the lack of confidence have to do with aging in the public eye?
I think it’s more to do with, really stupidly, having to look at yourself. I was always very shy and I never liked looking at myself but today, on top of that, you can see everything.
It’s so funny you feel this way, because when I asked my editors what to ask you, they said, “Find out how she stays so beautiful and glamorous and skinny.”
[Laughs.] Well, skinny is easy. Don’t eat!
No, no. I don’t smoke anymore. Just don’t eat. [Laughs.]
Wasn’t there that book, French Women Don’t Get Fat?
Oh, yeah, I think it’s a little fake. It’s a trendy idea. Of course you think of French women being sophisticated, but not really caring. There’s something quite désinvolte — not too marked and not too obvious about them. But that’s not really true. [Laughs.] We sort of look alike, women throughout the world. It’s hard to find stereotypes that actually prove to be right.
Would you rather move ahead to age 70 instead of age gradually?
Yes! I think it would be easier! Just have gone so far that you’re accustomed to the new look. [Laughs.]