Charlotte Gainsbourg Turns Her Father’s House Into a Museum

PARIS Ever since Serge Gainsbourg’s death in 1991, fans have flocked to his house in Paris, plastering the walls with scrawled tributes. Now his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg is opening the doors of the residence to the public, as part of a cultural institution that includes a museum, café and concept store.

Starting Sept. 20, visitors will be allowed into the 1,400-square-foot maisonette, which the actress and singer has preserved as a kind of mausoleum for her father, a seminal force in French culture best known for his erotic 1969 duet with her mother Jane Birkin, on “Je t’aime…moi non plus,” a song banned in several countries due to its overtly sexual content.  

When she inherited her childhood home at age 19, Gainsbourg would go there to mourn her father privately, since his grave at the Montparnasse cemetery was always mobbed with fans.

“I didn’t want to touch anything. My goal was to keep everything frozen,” she told reporters on Wednesday at the Gainsbarre café, which turns into a piano bar at night. “Everyone naturally wanted a piece of my father, and I had to deal with that, but at least I had this door that I could close. Everything stood still, as if he were about to come back.”     


The exterior of Serge Gainsbourg's former home in Paris.

The exterior of Serge Gainsbourg’s former home in Paris.

Alexis Raimbault/Courtesy of Maison Gainsbourg

Packed to the gills with objects and memorabilia, the house provides an extraordinarily intimate glimpse into the private life of the French singer-songwriter, actor, composer and director, who penned songs for everyone from Brigitte Bardot to Catherine Deneuve. The sofa still bears the mark of where he sat, while an ashtray overflows with the butts of his Gitanes cigarettes.

Still, it took Charlotte Gainsbourg more than three decades to turn her vision of a Gainsbourg museum into reality. At one point, she fantasized about opening a themed hotel around the house. At others, she was tempted to throw in the towel, defeated by the technical challenges of welcoming visitors to the cramped space.

In 2008, French luxury magnate François-Henri Pinault offered to help, introducing her to architect Jean Nouvel, who proposed an audacious concept that would have showcased the rooms in glass boxes. But with a film, an exhibition and a book about her father released in rapid succession, Gainsbourg felt overwhelmed by the weight of her heritage and stalled.

Eventually, she could no longer stand to see the place abandoned, and the current project took shape. Maison Gainsbourg is operated by Arteum, an entity that specializes in museum gift shops, while the bar is managed by Paris Society, the hospitality group behind Paris restaurants Girafe, Bonnie and Monsieur Bleu.

The Maison Gainsbourg museum designed by Jacques Garcia

The Maison Gainsbourg museum designed by Jacques Garcia.

Alexis Raimbault/Courtesy of Maison Gainsbourg

Famed interior designer Jacques Garcia conceived the modern annex, which can be visited jointly with the house or separately. When the first batch of tickets for the house went on sale in April, they sold out within seven hours. Slots are fully booked until the end of the year, with additional tickets to be released periodically.

With its walls clad in black canvas and its vast collection of esoteric objects, the interior of 5 bis, Rue de Verneuil was amply documented during Gainsbourg’s lifetime. From his Steinway grand piano in the living room to his library and closet, everything is intact (there’s even a packet of Yes sponge cakes, since discontinued, in the glass-doored fridge.)

“We stuck to a road map, and fans or visitors who are particularly attentive will, I hope, find things where they belong,” said Anatole Maggiar, director of content and programming of Maison Gainsbourg.

During an inventory of the house’s contents, he catalogued 25,000 documents and objects, of which 450 are displayed in the museum located at 14 Rue de Verneuil, whose design mirrors that of the house. “I felt a little bit like Howard Carter discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb,” Maggiar recalled.

The living room of Serge Gainsbourg's home in Paris.

The living room of Serge Gainsbourg’s home in Paris.

Pierre Terrasson/Courtesy of Maison Gainsbourg

Only 10 people are allowed inside the house at any one time, making it a privileged moment — and one that visitors are asked not to record. They’re guided by an audio experience, designed by Soundwalk Collective, that mixes Charlotte Gainsbourg’s reminiscences with vintage snippets of everyday life in the Gainsbourg-Birkin household.  

It makes for a poignant experience. In the bedroom, visitors hear her account of how she lay down alongside her father, who had passed away in his sleep, with her sister Kate Barry and his last partner Caroline von Paulus, better known as Bambou, as fans sang in the street outside. “Time stood still for what felt like days,” she can be heard saying.

Gainsbourg presented a documentary about her mother at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but has rarely discussed her father, with whom she recorded the controversial song “Lemon Incest” when she was only 12.

“We waited for 32 years, but the floodgates really opened. It’s amazing what she managed to share. It’s not easy for her,” said Sébastien Merlet, the scientific curator of Maison Gainsbourg and author of “Le Gainsbook: In the Studio With Serge Gainsbourg.”

Serge Gainsbourg

Serge Gainsbourg

Tony Frank/Courtesy of Maison Gainsbourg

Charlotte Gainsbourg herself sees it slightly differently. As the daughter of two national institutions, she’s used to living her life under a microscope. “I’ve always been both extremely private, which my father was too, and extremely shameless, which my father was equally,” she said with a laugh.

“I don’t feel particularly like an exhibitionist and at the same time, I’m putting people in the position of being voyeurs and I’m aware of that, but it doesn’t bother me at all, actually. I also have my share of secrets. Of course, there are things that I don’t talk about. It’s not like I’m an open book,” she added.

The actress, who has pushed boundaries herself with films like “Antichrist” and “Nymphomaniac,” embraces the edgier side of her father, who in his later years was overshadowed by his drunken alter-ego Gainsbarre, who once set fire to a 500-franc note to protest against high taxes, and lewdly propositioned Whitney Houston on French TV.  

“It’s not up to me to judge him. I have my memories, I have my own take on what he left me that I want to keep intact,” she explained, adding that she’s always had to address questions about “Lemon Incest,” which she firmly describes as a product of her father’s imagination.

"Je t' non plus" on the front page of Melody Maker in 1969

“Je t’aime…moi non plus” on the front page of Melody Maker in 1969.

Alexis Raimbault/Courtesy of Maison Gainsbourg

“He liked to provoke people and court scandal. It’s part of who he was and I really respect that. At a time when personal expression is being curtailed, fortunately there were people like him, even if people find it offensive today,” she added.

One aspect of Serge Gainsbourg’s heritage that everyone can agree on is his enduring style influence. His dandyish wardrobe, in fact, consisted of a handful of shirts, jackets and jeans, four T-shirts and four pairs of his signature white Repetto loafers, always worn without socks — even on a ski holiday.

“People are always talking about his Pygmalion relationship with Jane Birkin, as if he had created her, but in exchange for the songs he wrote for her and that she performed brilliantly, she played a crucial role in shaping his style, because she arrived straight from Swinging London in the ‘60s,” said Maggiar.  

It was Birkin who encouraged Gainsbourg to grow a three-day beard, unbutton his shirts and wear jewelry, he noted.

The French musician Serge Gainsbourg with the actress Jane Birkin in their Paris home

The French musician Serge Gainsbourg with the actress Jane Birkin in their Paris home.

© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In the gift shop, visitors can buy a copy of his frayed Lee Cooper jeans, wraparound Pierre Marly shades, Zizi Oxford shoes and even a limited-edition Saint Laurent-designed replica of his favorite pin-striped women’s jacket, bought at London’s Portobello market for 2 pounds.

A style muse herself, Charlotte Gainsbourg enjoys a close relationship with Saint Laurent creative director Anthony Vaccarello, and the luxury brand, owned by Pinault’s Kering group, is the official partner of the museum, which expects to welcome 100,000 visitors a year. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” she said.

Having lost her mother in July, she briefly considered delaying the opening but finally decided to forge ahead. Her husband, director Yvan Attal, and their children were among the first visitors. “People find it really moving, but I’m still surprised by the reactions and I’ve found it very soothing,” she said.

She’s already thinking about what comes next once the initial flood of fans has subsided. “We’ll have to keep the place alive for future generations,” she mused. “It’s quite exciting to think that yes, I’m turning a page, but it’s not completely over. Perhaps there is more still to do.”

Serge Gainsbourg's favorite jacket

Serge Gainsbourg’s favorite jacket.

Alexis Raimbault/Courtesy of Maison Gainsbourg

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