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Like Mother, Like Daughter: Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg Talk Risk-Taking at Opening of New Retrospective

Like Mother, Like Daughter: Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg Talk Risk-Taking at Opening of New Retrospective

Over the weekend, the Film Society of Lincoln Center began a 10-day retrospective highlighting the careers of Jane Birkin and her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Entitled "Charlotte and Jane Forever," the retrospective features 19 films, spans five decades and includes works by some of the most renowned international directors of all time, such as Lars von Trier, Jacques Doillon and Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte’s late father.

In the opening night discussion moderated by Dennis Lim, FSLC’s Director of Programming, both Birkin and Gainsbourg appeared on stage to lead the audience through a reflection on their respective careers. The actresses revealed in-depth details about some of their most identifiable works and collaborations, as well as their own personal relationships, to fear when it comes to acting. Check out some of the best highlights from the discussion below.

READ MORE: Exclusive: Jane Birkin Sings In Clip From Agnes Varda’s ‘Kung-Fu Master!’

"La Pirate" and Learning the Language 

The first feature screened on opening night of "Charlotte and Jane Forever" was Jacques Doillon’s 1984 film "La Pirate," starring Birkin opposite Maruschka Detmers and her brother, Andrew Birkin. While reflecting on the film, Birkin recalled how special it was to her.

"It was the first film where I was asked to do things that not many people thought I could, like being dramatic," she told the audience. "I was just known as a sort of funny, comic girl after all the light-hearted movies." It was also during "La Pirate" that Birkin really began taking the French language seriously, and she spent a lot of time and effort to make sure she did it justice.

As to the reason why she was always cast in those so-called "funny girl" roles, she said, "It was probably because of my terrible accent, and it made people laugh, and I thought I was just being comical, but actually they were laughing at the accent as well and getting things wrong like masculine and feminine…I didn’t really think I was that bad, until I did ‘La fille prodigue’ with Jacques Doillon, and there was a hell of a lot of text to say, and he thought that I was pretending to speak French badly to make people laugh."

It was from this point on that she decided she had better learn proper French with a coach. 

The actress also shared  that she never re-watches her films and has only vague memories of seeing her "La Pirate" performance when it first premiered at Cannes. Other than that, she rarely watches her own work because she feels she is a disappointment to herself. Gainsbourg also has somewhat of an aversion to watching herself onscreen for the same reason, but she is learning more and more to live with not being totally happy with her performances, as she is curious to know how her films turn out. 


"Antichrist" and the Power of Provocation

One of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s boldest roles thus far has been in Lars von Trier’s "Antichrist," where she stars opposite Willem Defoe as a mother who becomes sexually volatile while grieving the loss of her child. Recounting the way she became involved with the project, Gainsbourg shared, "It happened like an accident, because I wasn’t supposed to do the film…[Lars] didn’t seem very involved [with my audition], and so I thought he didn’t like me that much."

"He called me back two days later, said, ‘I want you to do it,’ so it was…everything was a surprise. In that film, I didn’t have a name, my character’s name was ‘She,’ and the man was ‘He,’ and everything was anonymous." 

Birkin was happy to see her daughter partnering with von Trier, as she considers Charlotte to be a discreet person, and von Trier is a director who forces his actors to "scream." She said, "Charlotte might want to scream, and to have the opportunity to do it with somebody with whom she had great trust and he with her […] was nice. He was like her father." 

Comparing Lars von Trier with Serge Gainsbourg brought up a discussion about provocation in film and whether or not it can serve more than just a visual, aesthetic purpose.

When asked about its value, Gainsbourg said, "The whole provocation is just a farce…and I don’t think you’re supposed to take it seriously."

She went on to say that for her, there is a certain connection between von Trier and her father, as Gainsbourg was also a provocateur: "There is a link between my father, because he was a provocateur also, and Lars; not in the way [they] provoke, because that’s very different, but there is a link that I find very charming, because it reminds me of my father." For Charlotte, provocation is interesting because of the sincerity that lies beneath it.


Fearlessness in Art

One word that has been consistently associated with Birkin and Gainsbourg’s careers is "fearless." The roles both actresses have respectively chosen have always pushed the envelope in content and character and have defined them as risk-takers.

When broached with this label, Birkin stated that the biggest fear she has when working is to disappoint those who have put their faith in her to portray a certain character or deliver a certain performance. "I’ve always thought that the greatest fear would be to disappoint the person who believed you could do something, the director," she said. "If he believes in you… it’s like jumping; if he believes that you can jump higher than most people, then you’re ready to jump and break your leg…People being disappointed in me is the thing that I find the most painful."

Gainsbourg revealed similar insecurities, but that she does not see her career moves as "taking risks"; rather, she calls them "accidents of moments," things that happen at the right time. She will never take on something she is not attracted to, she says, because she "likes when things happen, and you know you agree and you’re attracted to the project…As soon as there’s a little question, then I’m not sure it’s the right project."

Jacques Rivette’s passing on the morning of the retrospective’s opening brought up a lot of memories for Birkin, who had worked with the director on three of his films. She remembered how bizarre she thought his method of giving actors the script piece by piece was, but later praised it, as it brought about a more real performance in her. Her fond memories of Rivette were funny and warm, and she remembered him as "somebody who seemed to have no use for anything but us actually filming, and that was where he just knew how to direct [us] so beautifully." 

READ MORE: Remembering Jacques Rivette: 6 Essential Films Now Streaming Online

"Jane and Charlotte Forever" continues at the Film Society at Lincoln Center through February 7. Click here to view the full screening schedule. 

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