In my short-lived tenure as film writer for FHM, I interviewed Charlotte Gainsbourg. I always had a job choosing people for FHM because I wanted to be the intellectual and they wanted me to be a Sun reader. But Charlotte was – as a pitch – perfect: the little-known (at the time) French actress who also had tabloid form: as the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, who (in the piece) I wrote established ‘a new screen landmark for full-frontal nudity by stripping off in Blowup’.
It was the first interview she’d done in English, having just learned it to be in The Cement Garden, an adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel
made by her uncle – and she had learned a (for want of a better word) Kensington accent, a little odd for a story of adolescent incest in the Docklands. At the time, I joked (but mercifully didn’t write) that she sounded like Princess Di had had brain damage, so cautiously and carefully did she speak.
In 2006 Charlotte came back into my consciousness as more than just a French actress that I fancied – as a popstar, singing in English again on the CD 5.55. The following year she had brain damage (waterskiing was the cause – so you could call it ‘voluntary brain damage’). I went to see her at the Shepherds Bush Empire in 2010, for old time’s sake, not realising the reality of her injury. She was 38 at the time and wearing leather trousers – still playing the rock chick, in other words. Since she made her film debut at 13, she’d been playing that role for a quarter of a century, and it was tired.
Then, of course, I had brain damage myself.
I saw Charlotte perform at Field Day in Brockwell Park in 2018. Tim took me (another Tim…) and pushed my wheelchair up and downhill. He’s a Park Attendant for Lambeth Council – which means muscles! He’s also the only friend I’ve made since the stroke; he’s just matter of fact, which I love. My right arm and right leg don’t work because of damage in my brain, he says. Brain damage! Anyone who says anything else is just a moron.
Brockwell Park was a preposterous venue for her – she should have been playing in a basement in Pigalle but here she was in the sunshine, having to do quiet numbers against the roar of techno and hip-hop from the other stages.
But she’s ‘come of age’: not 38 going on 19 but 46 going on 49. She looked a mixture of her father, her mother and herself, all at once. She’s turning into a Marianne Faithfull de nos jours (with the added advantage that she can actually sing). What makes this especially gratifying is the fact that – though she’s been a fixture in French cinema for over 30 years – I reckon I’ve only seen her in one genuinely good film*;
I think her singing will take centre stage, as it has for Jane Birkin.
And of course, she’s got brain damage, which makes her ‘special’. She ended up being trepanned when it happened, to let the blood out. I don’t understand it – nothing makes sense to me now. But when she suddenly looks sad or vacant, you have an inkling why.
* Lemming (2005), directed by Dominick Moll