Celebrated actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, speaking to an audience at the Zurich Film Festival, shared her experiences filming “The Almond and the Seahorse” by Celyn Jones and Tom Stern, the valuable instructions she received from Lars von Trier and the challenges of filming 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 is screening in the Gala Premieres section of Zurich, revolves around two fighting couples against serious brain injuries. Toni (Gainsbourg) is dealing with her partner Gwen (Trine Dyrholm), who is no longer the same person she once was. She finds support in Sarah (Rebel Wilson), whose husband Joe (Jones) suffers from a similar brain injury.
Gainsbourg said that it was these four characters that drew her to the film. “They are two couples and the two couples of the wounded, the sick, end up crossing each other.” The film poignantly examines the plight of patients, but is also about what loved ones are going through. “I thought it was a very beautiful perspective of four characters. It was beautifully written.”
The brief 21-day shoot was “a lovely, lovely experience,” Gainsbourg added.
Speaking of some of his most impactful work with Danish director Lars von Trier, Gainsbourg said his first film with him, 2009’s “Antichrist,” which also starred Willem Dafoe, was the result of unintended consequences.
“It happened by accident; Another actress was supposed to do ‘Antichrist’ and I think she decided against it, so there was a little bit of panic on her part because the shooting was about to happen. I think she interviewed some actresses and I don’t know why she chose me. I don’t know what she knew about me. It was very anonymous. My part was called ‘She’ and Willem’s part was ‘He’. So it was as if he had no past. That was wonderful, to be like this new object that I was modeling.”
Gainsbourg won the best actress award at Cannes for the role.
He then starred in von Trier’s 2011 film “Melancholia” alongside Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland. “And then we went back to Cannes and it was a disaster. She said that she wanted to make a porn movie with the two of them. I thought it was a joke. And then she came up with ‘Nymphomaniac’.
“And of course I’ll do anything with him. For me there is a before Lars and an after Lars. He taught me a lot. And so many different things. With each film he was a different him. Every time he thought that he was going to see the same person. No, he had moved. It was always interesting. It was always a surprise. You have so much freedom with him.”
While von Trier encourages improvisation, one has to adjust to other directors who are more strictly attached to their scripts, he adds.
“All these different people, that’s what I love about movies: going into someone else’s world and being as open as possible, offering as much as you can and then doing what they want in the cutting room. I don’t feel as responsible for the movies I’ve made.”
After recording her song “Rest,” from her 2017 album of the same name, she asked von Trier to direct a video. “He said no. He said he didn’t have time. But he said, ‘But I’ll give you instructions and you’ll have to follow instructions.’ And it was great because it meant he had the courage to do it, because it was like doing an exercise.”
He then decided to make the documentary “Jane by Charlotte”, which premiered at Cannes in 2021.
“I was living in New York at the time, away from my mother. We had lost my sister Kate [Barry] And me, it wasn’t my fault that I made this movie, but I missed her and thought I wanted to get closer to her.”
Birkin was on an international concert tour at the time. Gainsbourg called her and asked if he could meet her in Japan and film her for a documentary or short film. “I had no idea where she was going.”
“I did this first interview of her. She had a lot of questions and she got so scared and distressed by my questions that she, when she came back, she said, ‘Stop, I don’t want to do this anymore.'”
“Then two years passed. He came to see me in New York. We were still, of course, very close. I showed him a documentary on Joan Didion made by her nephew. And it was so intimate and so moving. And then I showed her the pictures that we had done in Japan and she was like, ‘Oh, it wasn’t as shocking as she remembered it. So if you want, let’s continue. And so I started again.”
“It was very stressful shooting without a script, not knowing where I was going. And it all happened in the cutting room with a wonderful editor who showed me the way and maybe understood the movie he was making before I understood it.”