French Chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg

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Paul Jasmin

Charlotte Gainsbourg collaborated with U.S. musician Beck on her new album, IRM

In 2007, the French actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg underwent emergency surgery after doctors discovered she had suffered a brain hemorrhage months earlier in a waterskiing accident. While the procedure was a success, Gainsbourg was so rattled by the incident that she insisted on undergoing brain scans for several months afterward to make sure she was all right. To overcome her paranoia, she eventually threw herself into her music, teaming with eclectic alt-rocker Beck to record her third album, IRM, released in the U.S. on Jan. 26. Gainsbourg also took a lead role in the Lars von Trier film Antichrist, which required her to attack Willem Dafoe with a shovel and simulate mutilating her own genitals. For her troubles, she won the Best Actress Award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Gainsbourg — the daughter of French singer Serge Gainsbourg and British model Jane Birkin — spoke with TIME about working with Beck, her father's musical legacy and growing up in one of France's most famous families.

You've said that undergoing a series of MRI scans inspired the title track "IRM" (the French acronym for MRI). How so?
I did a lot of MRI scans to reassure myself after the surgery. I was being cowardly and I needed an exam whenever I thought something was wrong with me. The only way to deal with [my health concerns] was to escape by imagining something. The sounds inside the machine are nasty to hear. They're brutal and aggressive, and rhythmically very chaotic. But they're also musical. I talked to Beck about this MRI idea and made him listen to a whole sequence of sounds from the Internet, and he liked it.

On the album you only sing one song in French. Why is that?
Beck wrote all of the music and lyrics. I love Beck's way of writing. I love his language, his vocabulary, his images. It's like being a character to be able to go into someone else's world. I kept my English accent, and I'm French, but I'm speaking American words. I always like mixtures. Also, with French there's no distance. I have all my father's references. With English, I feel completely free.

A lot of the songs on IRM are tinted with sadness and longing. Did filming Lars von Trier's graphic thriller Antichrist in between sessions with Beck influence your music?
I was in quite a desperate mood after the shoot. I had been isolated in Germany filming for two months. To suddenly go from a place where I had the right to be hysterical and in a full crisis to being normal again was a weird change. It was fun for me to be able to talk to Beck about the shoot and how extreme it had been. At the same time I felt very lonely. Los Angeles is a weird city to be in when you're not in a perfect state. I spent nearly three weeks there without my children and my children's father. That's very heavy.

You just called your partner (French actor and director Yvan Attal) "your children's father." Why haven't you married him?
I'm superstitious. We've been together nearly 19 years, we've never married and we're happy. My parents weren't married so I don't have an ideal image of marriage that I'm hoping for. I like the image of a young couple getting married — there's something jolly about them. But get married at my age? It's too late.

You've said that you accepted the role in Antichrist to help you forget your medical trauma. The script required your character to do extreme things like mutilating her genitals. Did those graphic scenes worry you?
I felt more naked crying and howling than I did showing my bottom.

What about the scene where you had to masturbate completely naked in a forest?
Oh, right, yeah. That was quite comical. We never rehearsed. I don't know how you could rehearse that. [Laughs.] I just had to let go and think of nothing. During the first take I was trying to be a little delicate. Lars only gave me one indication. He said: 'Can't you do it faster?' [Laughs again.]

Do you feel more vulnerable doing something like that or singing?
Singing. I found it easier to be daring with the film because you have a director with you as a guide and it's his work. With music there's more of myself. I feel more responsible.

You're among the most famous women in France. Do you think that growing up with celebrity parents helps you cope with fame today?
When I was starting out, my mother made me very aware that you could have ups and downs. One day you're acclaimed and the next day you're booed. She taught me to never take anything for granted. Never be snobbish about success. And never push people aside.

At 13, you recorded the duet "Lemon Incest" with your father, which critics said encouraged pedophilia and incest. Were you aware that the song would generate controversy?
Well, I knew what I was talking about. It's about the pure love of a father and a daughter. Of course there's the ambiguity in the chorus [The love that we will never make together is the most beautiful.] My father was always attracted to provocation. He didn't have to explain the song. I knew him, and I knew I had nothing to be embarrassed about. Like 10 years later, people asked, "How did you live through the scandalous time of 'Lemon Incest'?" Well, I didn't see or hear anything. I was in boarding school in Switzerland.

Your mother inspired the Hermès Birkin bag. Do you own one?
No. [Laughs.] It would be weird to have my mother's bag. It's so close to what she is and how she is. I'd have the impression I'd be copying. But it is a beautiful bag.