Jane by Charlotte Birkin Gainsbourg

Charlotte Gainsbourg opens up about her mother and filmmaking

We spoke to the actress/singer about Jane by Charlotte, an intimate portrait of Jane Birkin that’s also her debut feature as a filmmaker.

Over the past 30-odd years, Charlotte Gainsbourg has had one of the most enviable careers in entertainment. She’s been a successful musician, model and actress. In film, she’s worked with some of the generation’s most remarkable minds, from Agnès Varda to Todd Haynes to Lars von Trier. In the parlance of Gen X, she may be a “nepotism baby,” the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, but she’s put in the work, crafting an unusual and remarkable career. Her latest project? Her feature debut, which premiered at Cannes last year, Jane by Charlotte, is a documentary homage to her mother. She’s started directing. 

“My mother said, ‘Well, it’s not only a portrait of me. It’s a portrait of you, too. It’s a daughter looking for her mother,'” Gainsbourg explained as she sat in a hotel room in Montreal. The first scenes occur as Jane Birkin does a live show in Japan. After the performance, that first interview didn’t quite go as planned. “I realized,” Gainsbourg says, “that I didn’t explain to her what I was doing.” When they returned to Paris from Japan, her mother asked her to stop. “She hated that I went straight to personal questions when she thought I was doing a documentary of her professional life.”

As Charlotte Gainsbourg describes the project, she uses words like “exploring” and “discovery.” After they shot the footage in Japan, Birkin was reluctant to continue. She didn’t know where the film was going. There was no script. They revisited the footage together a while later, and decided to continue. After that, “She never questioned what I was doing, which was incredible.”

When Charlotte Gainsbourg was just a teen, she briefly appeared in a film by the late great Agnès Varda, Jane B. by Agnès V., which is also about her mother, Jane Birkin. That film, marked by imaginative formalism and the recreations of other great works of art (mainly painting and other films), would eventually lend Gainsbourg the title of her movie. “My mother and [Varda] had a wonderful relationship. I wondered what I would name this film during the shoot, I had no idea I’d give it that name, but it suddenly seemed so simple.” 

Gainsbourg hasn’t seen Varda’s documentary in 35 years and remembers being annoyed by the production. “She lived with us for a year, or what seemed like a year! Each day I’d come home from school, a whole film crew was there. I was not a rebellious teenager, but this was not something I enjoyed.” Gainsbourg’s film touches on many of the same motifs as Varda’s nonetheless; mirrors, bulldogs and her mother’s face. Varda was also as much a part of the film as her mother. The film homages, in particular, were much more aligned with Varda’s than Birkin’s taste. It’s not a solo portrait but a dual one. Gainsbourg uses a more home video approach and brings elements of herself and her sensibilities to the project. 

What Varda and Gainsbourg share is not only a love for Jane but a desire to make her feel beautiful. Charlotte worked with a cinematographer she trusts, Adrien Bertolle, to ensure that her mother was always beautiful and well lit. Things changed, though, when they realized they didn’t have enough footage during the editing. Bertolle was working elsewhere, and the editor Tianès Montasser urged Charlotte Gainsbourg to take a camera herself to visit her mother in Brittany to shoot more footage. 

“I bought a camera and realized I didn’t even know how it worked,” Charlotte says. But, the fear soon turned into an opportunity. The intimacy of these scenes imparts the film with a new closeness that was impossible through a third person. Charlotte also brought her own daughter — “she gave me courage.” The film, which was a portrait of a mother and daughter, becomes the portrait of a grandmother, giving the film more dimension. It becomes a portrait of “girls.”

The camera, which at first felt like an invasion, opened up new opportunities. “I couldn’t have told [my mother] I loved her without a camera,” Gainsbourg says. “I understood quite recently, once the film was made, that was also how my father communicated. He needed a song, an interview, a film to tell me that he loved me. We have the same problem, so I needed that camera.”

Jane by Charlotte (Directed by Charlotte Gainsbourg)

Jane by Charlotte opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 18.

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