Charlotte Gainsbourg says Serge would struggle with today's censorship

Philippe GRELARD
·3-min read
Serge Gainsbourg and British actress and singer Jane Birkin in Nice

Charlotte Gainsbourg didn't like discussing her father, the pioneering troubadour Serge Gainsbourg, as she struggled to share her personal grief with a public that still reveres him as the epitome of French libertine cool.

Now, on the 30th anniversary of his death, she is finally letting go, throwing open his home and able to enjoy the flood of tributes coming from artists and fans, young and old.

"I held back from giving interviews about him for a long time," she told AFP from her Paris home. "I told myself the anniversaries were too painful.

"But people weren't waiting for me, which is good. The statements are so beautiful. I told myself: 'Maybe I can speak about it, too.'"

A flood of album reissues, documentaries, books and podcasts have underlined the reverence with which Serge Gainsbourg is still held as France marks the anniversary of his death on Tuesday.

Charlotte was just 19 when her father suffered a fatal heart attack, but if there is one consolation, it is perhaps that he would have been an awkward fit in today's easily offended world.

"He had so many facets. He expressed his dark side. He kept no secrets," she said.

"Today, we live in a world that is so censored -- I wonder how he would have coped with that. Would he have been banned from television? He was such a rich personality, who married a great sensitivity with a great taste for provocation. We don't see that at all anymore."

- 'Such class' -

Charlotte, now 49 and a hugely successful actor and singer-songwriter in her own right, says she has been "incredibly moved" by the tributes, especially from young artists.

"I find that incredible. It's only today that I really realise it. Before I was in my grief, my pain. Now, I realise the impact that he has had on generations and generations, and that it hasn't stopped," she said.

"My father was not trapped in one era because he touched on so many styles, and with such class. He was a master of classical and modernist writing, and he did it with humour. It's what one dreams of being able to do, this refinement, such agile gymnastics. It set the bar very, very high."

Time and distance have also allowed her to complete a long-delayed project to open the family home on rue de Verneuil on the Parisian Left Bank to the public.

"It was all I had left of him, so I held on to it like a treasure," she said.

"But when I left for New York six years ago, I had some distance and I understood that it had to be done -- for the public, but also for my mental health, I need to let go. It needs to be a place of French heritage, that is accessible."

- Stuff everywhere -

The opening of the house, where Serge lived from 1969 until his death, was due to happen in March but has been pushed back towards the end of the year by the pandemic.

"It's him, his personality," Charlotte said of the home.

"We have an image of artists in immense, luminous spaces, but this is fairly modest. It was a former stables so the ceilings are not high -- it's not a classic Parisian apartment. There's a miniscule kitchen.

The atmosphere has been immacutely preserved, from the baroque statues to the ashtrays still brimming with Gitanes cigarette butts.

For Charlotte Gainsbourg, the most moving item is a bust of her mother, the actor Jane Birkin: "It's a cast of her body, it's very, very beautiful.

"During my mother's time, there were not many things. Later, there was more and more stuff everywhere. He transformed it into a museum packed with objects. It became difficult to walk around without breaking something."

As for her own music, she confirms she is deep into her new album, which she started during the first lockdown a year ago.

"I'm very happy. It's starting to take form, finally. It should come out in 2022 -- it must!"

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