Famed actress Charlotte Gainsbourg in Israel for Jerusalem Film Festival

International actress Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in ‘The Accusation,’ directed by her partner, Yvan Attal and co-stars with son, Ben Attal. They are here for the Jerusalem Film Festival.

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG in a scene from ‘The Accusation.’ (photo credit: Jerome Prebois/Curiosa Films/Films Sous)
CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG in a scene from ‘The Accusation.’
(photo credit: Jerome Prebois/Curiosa Films/Films Sous)

A waiflike young woman is standing in the Jerusalem Cinematheque lobby during the 39th Jerusalem Film Festival, wearing pants, a tank top and sneakers and waiting to take a photo of a movie poster. The cinematheque now features electronic posters that change every few minutes and she is looking for one in particular. 

When the poster appears for The Accusation, the new courtroom drama about a rape case, which opens throughout Israel on July 28, she snaps the photo and as she turns around, I see it isn’t one of many film students who flock to the festival, but Charlotte Gainsbourg, the internationally known actress who stars in the film. The movie was directed by her partner, Yvan Attal, and co-stars their son, Ben Attal, and the three of them are guests at the festival.

Sitting for an interview two days later, Gainsbourg, who comes from European entertainment royalty – her father was the French singer/composer/playboy Serge Gainsbourg and her mother is British actress/singer Jane Birkin, from whom the Birkin bag gets its name – is effortlessly chic in jeans and a T-shirt, as she calmly sits back and lets her husband do most of the talking about their new film. 

When you have spent virtually your entire life in the public eye, as she has, an interview is no big deal. It’s hard to believe that she is actually 51 and hard to absorb that this low-key woman who speaks English with a honeyed British accent is the same actress who has won such acclaim – including a Cannes Award for Best Actress – and has played in a number of controversial films by Lars von Trier, including Nymphomaniac and Antichrist, and also found time to appear in a film by Israeli director Joseph Cedar, Norman, with Richard Gere. 

She and Attal have been together for many years and have two other children in addition to Ben, and seem to be enjoying launching their new film here. Attal, who was born in Jaffa and moved to France as a young child, started out as an actor but has moved into directing and has made a number of successful comedies in recent years.

 GAINSBOURG AND director Yvan Attal in Jerusalem last week. (credit: SIVAN FARAG) GAINSBOURG AND director Yvan Attal in Jerusalem last week. (credit: SIVAN FARAG)

But he has switched gears with the compelling drama The Accusation, an adaptation of a novel by Karine Tuil. It tells the story of Alexandre (Ben Attal), a young man accused of rape by Mila (Suzanne Jouannet) and it invites the audience into their lives and the complex trial. But, unlike so many movies that focus on rape (especially those made in America), it allows us to make up our own minds about the truth of the accusation. 

The story is set in a very particular Parisian milieu. Alexandre is the son of an infamous media personality (Pierre Arditi), known for his multiple liaisons with much younger women, while Claire (Gainsbourg), his mother, is an outspoken women’s-rights crusader, who has to choose between her loyalty to feminist principles and her love for her son as the trial progresses. Mila is the daughter of Claire’s new partner and has a difficult relationship with her own mother, an Orthodox Jew, which makes reporting the rape that much more difficult and the movie forces viewers to reexamine their loyalties and prejudices. 

For Attal, the complexity of the novel on which the movie was based made it the perfect vehicle for him to switch gears and move into drama. 

“When you’re doing comedy, you’re not taken seriously as a director, you’re always a comedy guy,” he said. “And I was sure that I could direct something else.... When I read the book, I was touched by the story, by the four grownup characters [who are the parents of the accused rapist and victim].... I identified with the parents because I am a father myself, I have a boy and two daughters, ‘What if it’s my daughter? What if it’s my boy?’ And right away I saw it’s a great part for my son and a great part for Charlotte so I had no hesitation to do this film.”

“I wouldn’t have been as interested in making the film if it weren’t for that ambiguous [element], I liked the ambiguity.... The ambiguity for me is that I’m still unsure about what I feel.”

Charlotte Gainsbourg

He and his co-writer wrote the script very quickly, in about two months, and streamline much of what was in the book. Gainsbourg said that, “I wouldn’t have been as interested in making the film if it weren’t for that ambiguous [element], I liked the ambiguity.... The ambiguity for me is that I’m still unsure about what I feel,” feelings that were made especially layered by the fact that the young man is played by her son. 

Ambiguity is a word that comes up often in the interview. 

“It’s complicated, there’s a boy and a girl, you can’t say, ‘She is good’ and ‘He is bad,’” he said, noting that trials of this sort can go for months, even years. “I agree with #MeToo, I didn’t do this against #MeToo,” he said, but noted that in the film, as often happens in real life, it takes the lawyers on both sides 30 months to prepare for the trial. 

“Thirty months to learn the case, to prepare the case, to judge the case, and they are professionals, and [on social media] we want to judge people in one minute.... [The courtroom] is the only place where we can have justice and we have to trust it.” 

Gainsbourg echoed Attal, saying, “I find the #MeToo movement so worth addressing and important,” but noted that she often had doubts about the rush to judgment when accusations are made. “I still feel very French.... I like to be a little measured.”

The character of Mila is from an Orthodox family. 

“I think about [being Jewish] every day of my life and sometimes I’m happy when I don’t think about it,” he said. “Antisemitism is so strong in France that the fact that she is Jewish balances [the story],” he said, making many in France more likely to be sympathetic to the young man, who is gentile. He kept the fact that she is from an Orthodox family in the film, which makes her feelings toward sex more complex, he said. “This made it more rich.”

He seemed to have more to say, but it was time for a press conference and as Gainsbourg and Attal headed toward the cinematheque library for the event, Attal broke away suddenly, heading to the garden, with the very Gallic excuse, “I have to have a cigarette.”