Celebrated actor and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, speaking to an audience at the Zurich Film Festival, shared her experiences filming Celyn Jones and Tom Stern’s “The Almond and the Seahorse,” the valuable instructions received from Lars von Trier, and the challenges of shooting a documentary about mother Jane Birkin.
Based on the play of the same name by Kaite O’Reilly, who wrote the screenplay with Jones, “The Almond and the Seahorse,” which screens in Zurich’s Gala Premieres section, revolves around two couples struggling with severe brain injuries. Toni (Gainsbourg) is dealing with her partner Gwen (Trine Dyrholm), who no longer is the same person that she was before. She finds support in Sarah (Rebel Wilson), whose husband Joe (Jones) is suffering from a similar brain injury.
Gainsbourg said it was these four characters that attracted her to the film. “There are two couples and the two partners of the ones wounded, the sick ones, end up crossing paths.” The film touchingly examines the plight of the patients but also deals with what the loved ones are going through. “I thought it was a very beautiful perspective of four characters. It was beautifully written.”
The short, 21-day shoot was “a lovely, lovely experience,” Gainsbourg added.
Discussing some of her most impactful work with Danish director Lars von Trier, Gainsbourg said her first film with him, 2009’s “Antichrist,” which also starred Willem Dafoe, was a result of unintended consequences.
“It happened by accident; another actress was supposed to do ‘Antichrist’ and I think she decided not to do it, so there was a bit of a panic on their side because the shooting was about to happen. I think he interviewed a few actresses and I don’t know why he chose me. I don’t know what he knew about me. It was very anonymous. My part was called ‘She’ and Willem’s part was ‘He’. So it was as if I had no past. That was wonderful, to be like this new object that he was modeling.”
Gainsbourg went on to win the best actress in Cannes for the role.
She then starred in von Trier’s 2011 film “Melancholia” alongside Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland. “And then we went to Cannes again and that was a disaster. He said he wanted to do a porn film with the both of us. I thought it was a joke. And then he came up with ‘Nymphomaniac.’
“And of course I’ll do anything with him. For me there’s a before Lars and after Lars. He taught me so much. And such different things. With each film it was a different him. Each time I thought I was going to see the same person. No, it had shifted. It was always interesting. It was always a surprise. You have such freedom with him.”
While von Trier encourages improvisation, one has to adapt to other directors who are more strictly attached to their scripts, she adds.
“All these different personas – that’s what I love with films: it’s entering someone else’s world and being as open as I can, offering as much as I can and then they just do whatever they want in the editing room. I don’t feel that responsible for the films that I’ve done.”
After recording her song “Rest,” from her 2017 album of the same name, she asked von Trier to direct a video for it. “He said no. He said he didn’t have the time. But he said, ‘But I’ll give you instructions and you’ll have to follow the instructions.’ And it was great because it meant that I had the courage to do it, because it was like doing an exercise.”
She then decided to make the documentary “Jane by Charlotte,” which premiered in Cannes in 2021.
“I was living at the time in New York, far away from my mother. We had lost my sister Kate [Barry] and I, it wasn’t out of guilt that I did this film, but I missed her and I thought I wanted to get close to her.”
Birkin was on an international concert tour at the time. Gainsbourg called her and asked if she could join her in Japan and film her for a documentary or short film. “I had no idea where it was going.”
“I did this first interview of her. I had a mass of questions and she got so scared and so distraught by my questions that coming back, she said, ‘Stop, I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
“Then two years went by. She came to see me in New York. We were still of course very close. I showed her a documentary about Joan Didion done by her nephew. And it was so intimate and so touching. And then I showed her the images we had done in Japan and she said, ‘Oh, it wasn’t as shocking as I remembered it. So if you want, let’s go on.’ And so I started again.”
“It was very nerve-racking to shoot without a script, not knowing where I was going. And it all happened in the editing room with a wonderful editor that sort of showed me the way and maybe understood the film I was doing before I understood it.”