Actress Charlotte Gainsbourg’s directing debut is an intimate pas de deux between a daughter and her mother, Jane Birkin. But the movie does not take audiences back through a famous family’s history, as documentarian Rory Kennedy did with her mother “Ethel,” the widow of Bobby Kennedy. No, “Jane by Charlotte,” which debuted at Cannes 2021, is more home-movie tribute than a full-blown portrait of the British-French actress-chanteuse.
In her day, Birkin was a gorgeous British gamine who married composer John Barry, an unhappy liaison that produced Charlotte’s older half-sister Kate Barry, followed by a liaison with the love of Birkin’s life, French actor-singer-composer Serge Gainsbourg, who couldn’t have been more famous during the happy decade they spent together before they split in 1980.
They met in 1969 during filming of “Slogan,” in which they had a fictional affair. Per usual, Gainsbourg supplied the soundtrack and dueted with Birkin on the title theme “La Chanson de Slogan”; they went on to collaborate on more movies and songs. In July 1971, Birkin gave birth to Charlotte, who followed her parents’ lead and became a singer-actress best-known among cinephiles for her fearless performances in a series of Lars von Trier films, including Cannes Best Actress-winning “The Antichrist,” “Melancholia,” and “Nymphomaniac Vol. I” and “II.”
Cinephiles may remember Birkin’s appearances in “Blow Up” (1966) and “Death on the Nile” (1978), but that’s not in her daughter’s movie, which shows a few glimpses of home movies with Kate and Serge, used mainly to show their impact on Birkin, who asks her daughter to shut off the video. Photographer Kate Barry died at age 46 in 2013 by falling out the window of her Paris apartment, a likely suicide; that loss is still too painful for her mother to bear.
Still radiantly beautiful at 75, Birkin regards her time with Serge and her two young daughters as happy years. She’s still a popular performer on the concert circuit, often performing songs from the Gainsbourg repertoire as well as her own. I saw her sing charmingly in her trademark blue jeans and white shirt at the Hotel du Cap in Cannes, to celebrate the retirement of French producer Patrick Wachsberger (“CODA”).
The movie starts with a concert in Japan. It’s their first interview. Gainsbourg asks her mother why there’s a certain distance between them. The moment captures the slightly awkward, sensitive dynamic between a mother and daughter who share mutual respect. Gainsbourg took the opportunity to grill her mother for an answer she had always wanted.
“It was a very bad move,” she told IndieWire on a recent Zoom call. “It’s not a bad move now that the film is done, but at the time, because I started so abruptly, jumping into such a personal question — I was trying to be as authentic as possible. I didn’t want to do another documentary on my mom that someone else could do. So I had to put myself into the questions. I didn’t explain that I was going to go there, to her. She thought I was doing a professional documentary about her.”
Gainsbourg could see that Birkin “became very emotional, answering those questions,” she said, “but I hadn’t realized that it had been so difficult for her. And then when we came back to Paris, I asked, ‘Can I continue the film and shoot you in the Carnegie Hall?’ And she said, ‘No. I’m done. I don’t want to continue this film. It’s horrible. I hated it.'”
“So I was a bit vexed,” said Gainsbourg, “that I had made such a mistake. But I didn’t want her to suffer. That was the last thing I wanted. So I had to understand that we were done. Two years pass, and she came to visit me in New York. And I was so ashamed by what I had done that I myself didn’t look at the footage of Japan.”
So Gainsbourg watched the scene with her mother. “It was quite beautiful,” she said. “It was fine. I hate the fact that it was awkward, and I have this shy voice, and she’s all emotional. You can see that something’s not totally comfortable.”
The project was instigated when Gainsbourg first moved to New York, and after two years was missing her mother. “We had lost my oldest sister,” she said. “I had left Paris because I couldn’t cope with her loss. So I was feeling guilty, also the distance was very hard. I wanted some opportunity, some pretext to film her.”
Then Gainsbourg had to figure out what film she wanted to make. “I wanted to do a portrait of her today,” she said. “I didn’t want any archives of the woman that people know from the ’70s, the ’80s. I wanted a portrait with the suffering she went through, but also with her humor; also a portrait of her not being overshadowed by my father. So it was really about her personality. It’s only later that I understood that I was also making a film about a daughter looking for [her father].”
With Birkin back on board, the movie picks up again with a concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre, where the two women rehearse and charmingly perform a song together. “It was so beautiful because she was singing all my father’s songs that related to the love story,” said Gainsbourg, who was more cautious this time when she grilled Birkin, who eventually loosened up. “I was so scared,” Gainsbourg said. “I was going to go to a place where she would be unhappy.”
No question, Gainsbourg was making the movie for herself. “The audience didn’t exist for me at the beginning,” she said. “First of all, I didn’t imagine the format. I didn’t know if it was going to be a 30-minute documentary. Would it be bought by a channel in France? Or was a feature film better? I didn’t imagine anything. So it was really a selfish impulse. Of course, I wanted to make a love declaration to my mother, but, I realized quite late in the process, I wanted her to be beautiful.”
At first Gainsbourg was going to go to England to interview the Birkin family. “It was much more of a general portrait,” she said. “I wanted to film everyone and to film her in every country.” COVID stopped that notion, and Gainsbourg returned with her family to France. “We couldn’t go to England, but then also my little sister [Lou] said, ‘I’m not sure I should be in the film. I think it’s about you and our mother.’ And she was right. She saw before I did that I was doing something personal, and one to one. Then I needed my daughter to come in the story. I needed her for all the banal aspects. The grandmother I wanted to see, also the day to day life in the kitchen, all of that. And she helped me also break the ice between me and my mother, holding the camera.”
Gainsbourg’s editor urged her to get a Canon camera and shoot herself. “We don’t have enough footage, you’re always waiting for the best setup,” she told her. “Don’t wait for the DP, don’t wait for the makeup, and just go film on your own.”
When Gainsbourg came back with the footage, the editor said, “OK, now we have a film.” Gainsbourg agrees. “We needed that piece of not-well-shot footage of something much more personal and familiar, and it’s the mixture of the two that make the film.”
Birkin and Gainsbourg do dig into the sadness of losing Kate, and Serge (who died at 62 in 1991), and the idea that age is encroaching on the 50-year-old daughter as well as her mother. During the pandemic, Gainsbourg went into a “very, very deep depression,” she said. “It was really hard. And that’s when my mother suddenly, she knows what to do. She can be useful. She has a role. She’s always been an incredible nurse. We had scheduled the shoot, so I had to go through with it. She was so helpful. And suddenly, this proximity was so obvious. And because I was in that state, I had no filters. I was talking in a such a free way. So we had that moment, that window of being very close, very intimate, very complete. And then the shoot ended and we went back to our positions.”
In the end, Gainsbourg feels she accomplished something with the film. “For me, it’s a real love declaration,” she said. “And she said to me, which was the most beautiful compliment, because I know how much she loved her mother. She said, ‘I wish I had done that with my mother.'”
“Jane by Charlotte” is now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York and the Landmark Westwood in Los Angeles, and will expand to additional cities in April.
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