Cannes: Charlotte Gainsbourg discusses Imcompresa, finding authority and Lars von Trier

Charlotte Gainsbourg appears in Incompresa, the latest feature by Asia Argento, as the cruel mother of the film’s lead character. She very graciously sat down for a chat about the film during the Cannes film festival.

Beyond Incompresa, we also got talking about why she choses certain roles, her experience working with Lars von Trier and the notorious comments he made at Cannes in 2011. She also suggested that they may well not work together again.

On what she brings to this role from her own experience as a mother and how she prepared

I hope nothing [laughs]. I couldn’t refer to myself and my children. No. It’s all imaginary. I hope not stereotypes but the diva mother who is only into narcissism and who only exists through her relations with the different men she’s with. I can’t say I loved her as a character but it was quite exciting to play. It was quite thrilling to be so horrid [laughs]. I worked on my side, preparing as much as I could… Just understanding what she might have gone through. The lack of confidence that could explain how into herself she is, how selfish. And maybe the fact that there’s so much hatred with her husband.

There are obviously lots of explanations that are actually not that interesting. And they are not that helpful, but it’s fun to imagine. Then I had to work a lot on the Italian, because I’m not fluent. Asia did me the great favour of speaking all the lines and so I had those in my head. Rehearing with her in my head throughout the summer. Which was very helpful. For me she was a model, not as a character because she’s not at all like that but the way I felt she would portray that character was my goal.

On what attracted her to making the film

I just love the script. I love the tone. The cynicism and the cruelty. It made me laugh. And at the same time, watching the film I’m very moved by Aria’s character. I know it’s not autobiographical but it’s so personal. I could see that on the shoot, that she [Asia Argento] was so close to Aria. She was living through that character, breathing through her. It was very moving to see both of them perform together.

What attracted me though was reading the script, and Asia, of course, because she’s someone that I really love. We met not a long time ago. We met shooting together, being a couple in a film and it was a lot of fun. So, when she asked me to read the script I was very touched that she wanted to work with me. And then convinced by what I read. It was so original. Then I was really scared that I wasn’t able to be that character. There’s an authority that I believe that I lack. That I was missing that. And the Italian. I didn’t want to screw up the film for her. But she was so convinced that I had to play this that it was lovely to be desired that way. It was great.

On finding that authority

I think I could have gained a little more. There’s something stiff about me. But I like being critical. It keeps me going, for me to think that I can do better. I saw it first alone – well, with my agent and a friend – but no reactions of course. So, I didn’t know if the film was working. I was touched [at the premiere] and it was much darker than I believed it was reading it. But I was very moved. And yesterday I saw people laugh so much but moved at the same time. It was just so enthusiastic, it was wonderful.

On choosing roles that are perhaps more eccentric and bold

It’s more fun. It’s great to go from one to the other. The experience I’ve had with Lars and then to go to comedy, then try to work with Asia. It’s fantastic, it makes it very lively. But I don’t think I’m brave. I think it’s just the directors that make me think that it’s possible and to push in areas that I’m not used to. So it’s wonderful to discover things, to be scared. I was terrified that I could disappoint her. I really wanted her to be happy. I couldn’t judge myself very well because of the Italian… it made it all so artificial for me. I didn’t have my own… so I had to trust her.

On whether she had any concerns about working with Lars following the controversy regarding his comments in Cannes

Not at all, no. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so, I never condemned him for what he said. It was a bad joke but it wasn’t something that’s in him. Not at all. I know what I did and the fact that I wanted to work with him and that he’s someone who I really adore… there’s no battle inside me. Of course it was difficult for me to be here [in Cannes] during the press conference, because you’re part of something that you never asked for. So that’s a little bit tough but apart from that, my choices I would do again.

On the difficultly in perhaps knowing when Lars is joking and when he’s serious

Exactly. And that’s why the press conference was so… He shouldn’t have made that joke but it wasn’t serious. It was in very bad taste. But also, yeah, when he’s talking you never know. There’s a cynicism that you’re never sure of. But at the same time he’s so honest with his emotions. Throughout his films. He really puts himself out there and for that… first of all I think that’s very rare, and it’s done with such an artistic point of view that I don’t think there’s anyone like him. I find him very rare. The fact also that he’s not having fun. Of course he enjoys the noise and the scandal and all of that , maybe I’m wrong but I see him very much as someone who is very complex. Someone who is very, very uneasy with everything that is inside him.

On the use of body doubles in Nymphomaniac

Everything you see is not me, thank God [laughs]. They shot with porn actors, then they mixed the images together. Lars did ask me if I would be bothered.. If the fact that people could believe that I was really doing it would bother me. As I know what I’ve done, for real, I have no problem.

Working with Lars and whether she agrees with him about a lot of things

When I agree to do a film I don’t have the same point of view as Lars, I don’t have the same ideas at all. Does that mean that you mustn’t do a film or that you have to convince the director that he shouldn’t put those lines in? No. I don’t know if it’s a lack of courage – I don’t think so – I think I’m at service. There’s something of a devotion. It’s his right to say… As long as I’m not shocked. It didn’t shock me. I don’t agree with him but I’m not shocked. What he says about women can be tough. [Nymphomaniac] is quite a feminist film but a lot of things that he says are hard to agree with.

On working with Lars again

If he asks me, yes. I’m not sure he will. He’s had enough.

Thanks again to Charlotte for taking the time to talk with me.

Incompresa played as part of the Un Certain Regard strand at the Cannes Film Festival and whilst there is no news yet regarding release dates I am sure there will be some very soon.