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Eyes of Her Mother: Charlotte Gainsbourg on Jane by Charlotte

Charlotte Gainsbourg began her professional career as an entertainer when she was only 12 but she was already a member of French pop culture royalty before that, being the daughter of the enormously popular French singer Serge Gainsbourg and actress/singer/fashion icon Jane Birkin. Of course, she has long established her own identity as one of France’s most daring and audacious actresses—especially through her controversial collaborations with Lars von Trier on “Antichrist” (2009), “Melancholia” (2011) and the two-part “Nymphomaniac” (2013)—and has also recorded a number of critically-acclaimed albums as well. For her first effort as a director, she has elected to take on that legacy with “Jane by Charlotte,” an intimate documentary in which she trains the camera on her mother. 

However, this is not the standard celebrity documentary filled with archival clips and talking head interviews with various experts. Gainsbourg instead takes a more personal approach that is more interested in looking at Birkin today and exploring the complexities of their own relationship. Locations in the film range from a concert appearance in Tokyo to Birkin’s house in Brittany, where she putters around in good grandmother mode to a joint visit to Serge’s old apartment, which has been left virtually untouched since his passing in 1991. Obviously, Francophiles and fans of Birkin and Gainsbourg will have a field day with it, but even those who are not as familiar with them or their creative legacies will find it to be a touching and engaging observation of the universal parent-child dynamic and how it evolves with the inexorable passage of time.

After making its debut as part of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Jane by Charlotte” is beginning its American commercial run and just before its opening last weekend, she and I chatted via Zoom about the film, the ways in which it is more than just a straightforward celebrity documentary, and how the project almost fell apart completely just as it had begun.  

I have to confess that I have seen the film twice now and it was almost like seeing two different movies. I first saw it back in September when it played the New York Film Festival and approached it primarily as a fan of both you and your mother and of French popular culture in general. Then I rewatched it a couple of days ago to prepare for this interview and during that interim, my own mother happened to pass away. As a result, when I watched it the second time, it now played primarily as an examination of the parent-child dynamic, which I suspect was your intention the entire time.

I am happy that all of these things play because I was wondering how it would play with an audience that doesn’t know my family. In France, they know everything about what we went through and my mother, so it resonates in a certain way because they are very attached to her. In other countries, it does play on another level about this mother-daughter relationship. Sometimes I guess that people have to see something else besides just a portrait of my mom.

What was the original inspiration for making “Jane by Charlotte”?

I had moved to New York and it had been two years. The distance made it harder, of course, for my mother and I to communicate and so perhaps that distance was the first impulse to want to find an excuse to get the conversation going. Then I saw the show she was doing at the time, with a philharmonic orchestra in cities throughout the world. The next one was in Tokyo and I asked her if I could follow her around to shoot the show and rehearsals. The thing is, I didn’t really explain what I was doing. In my mind, I was clear that I didn’t want to do just a documentary about her professionally but I didn’t really explain that and so I guess she thought that was what was going to happen. When we did the first interview in Tokyo, where I was a bit abrupt—going straight to the point by saying “How come you don’t treat me the same as you treat my sisters Kate and Lou?”—and she took it really the wrong way. She thought I was accusing her and asking her to justify herself as a mother. She was so emotional about the whole thing that when we came back to France and I explained that the next step would be Carnegie Hall and asked if I could continue, she said “Absolutely not! I’m done. I hated it and it is not at all what I thought it would be.” 

I was a bit embarrassed but I completely understood and I didn’t want her to suffer, so I really imagined that I had done something wrong. When she came over to New York to visit a few years later, I had not dared to look at the footage because I felt so guilty. When she came, I asked her if she wanted to watch the footage of Japan together and see the interview that was so problematic. We watched it and she then said that she thought it was quite beautiful. It was emotional but there was nothing bad about it and it was original in some way. She didn’t say that she made a mistake but she did say that it wasn’t as bad as she thought and that we could continue if I wanted. 

When you were filming, did you plan to cover certain topics at certain times or did you employ a more off-the-cuff approach to the filming?

I tried to organize it in terms of the different places where I wanted to shoot. The film changed little by little. At first, I wanted to do an entire portrait of her through her family where I would go to England to see where her family came from and interview her brother and sister to get as much as I could about what defines her for me. Then Covid hit and it meant that going to England was no longer possible. Then when I asked my younger sister, Lou, to be in the film, she said “I’d rather not. I have the impression that you are doing something very personal with our mom and that is the way it should be.” All of this made me understand that maybe I wanted more of a tete-a-tete. 

Then my editor, who started with the footage from Japan and New York, told me when we got to France that we were not shooting enough and that for a documentary, you needed hours and hours of rushes and that I wasn’t giving her enough stuff. She told me not to wait for the perfect time with the crew and makeup and the setups that you have used and to film her on my own. I bought a camera and took my daughter, who was eight years old at the time, and asked her if she could help. She understood perfectly why I needed her help. I needed this other layer of something of the banal day-to-day life of her in the kitchen and also her as a grandmother. I saw that I was not only making a film about my mother but it was also about her relationship to me as her daughter and her to her granddaughter. All these little links made me understand the film I was making. When I came back with that footage, not really knowing how to hold a camera, she said “Now I think you have your film” because she understood that was the language that I needed for the film. 

It was a bit of everything—a bit of setups that were planned out and well organized as well as a lot of accidents. I did organize Brittany, where I filmed on my own, and it was very much about her way of life and the fact that she keeps everything and how her place was a mess. It was obvious that we would talk about that but in Paris, when I did that setup in the bed, I wanted to talk about her sleep and the men she had had. With each setup. some of the questions were quite obvious and it was sort of by theme. The editing changed the order of stuff but that was the way I did it. The thing is, it could have never ended and at one point, we don’t want it to end. Although the starting point was really tough, we ended in such a sweet place where it was so easy to be together and talk. 

This was happening during Covid, so there really was nothing happening and so we would have these wonderful meetings. Also, I was not in a very good state coming back from New York and trying to escape the pandemic. It was a really tough time for me to go back to France and I was under a heavy depression. She suddenly knew how to handle things and that is what she always said—she is a wonderful nurse and she knows how to help and wants to feel useful. At that point, when you are in that state, you have no filters and at that time, I was asking everything that I wanted without thinking about whether they were subjects that I should avoid. She didn’t feel uncomfortable about any of it and she was so helpful at the end of the shoot. 

Were there any documentaries that you looked at as a sort of guide for what you wanted to do here? For example, while the film that Agnes Varda did about your mother, “Jane B. by Agnes V.” is ultimately quite different than yours, the two still complement each other in a number of ways.

It was more of an homage though the title but then my mother very acutely said that in the same way that “Jane B. by Agnes V.” was not really a portrait of my mother but more of a portrait of different characters that Agnes loved. “In this case,” my mother said, “this isn’t just a portrait of me. It is a portrait of you and a portrait of a daughter looking at her mother that make it not only about me.” I think she was right about that. Once we stopped after Japan, I showed her this documentary about Joan Didion that was made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. It is a very moving documentary because it is made by someone who loves her and who is obviously very close. That is what I wanted my mother to understand—I was coming from a very good place and I would not show anything that she did not want to have shown or that would make her feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. This documentary was very kind and her nephew had only delicate things to say about her and to show about her. Of course, “Grey Gardens” is the crazy documentary about two crazy women, a mother and a daughter—I wasn’t going there but you have to take that into consideration because it does ring a bell.

The focus of the film is almost entirely on the present, to the point where there is pretty much none of the kind of archival material that one might expect to find.

I didn’t want any archival stuff because everyone said that if you are doing a documentary about your mother, you have to take all of these archives of the shows that all French people know and all of my father’s songs. I didn’t want that because I didn’t want to see footage of her when she was young and her today—that was not the point. I wanted a portrait of her today with what she has gone through with her fantasy and her craziness and the sufferings she has had. That was very important and a real intention. Then, I didn’t want my father to be too omnipresent because when he died in 1991, she started touring with his songs, first as a sort of homage. Throughout the years, she kept on singing his songs and she was sort of undermining herself by being under his shadow all that time and I didn’t want that for this film. Of course, I wanted a few songs of his and I wanted him to be present in a way but it is more like his ghost is present than what we are used to.

There is one key sequence revolving around the father and that is the one where the two of you go to visit the apartment where he used to live, which has been kept exactly as it was at the time of his passing. What was it like to shoot there for the two of you?

I have lived with this house and the way it is today and I intentionally didn’t move a thing. I was only 19 when he died and I bought the house from my brothers and sisters. I really had the impression that his house was already a museum and that was what he wanted. I have tried for 30 years to convince the various ministers of culture that it was necessary to make it a museum and everybody was always convinced that it was worth it but the house is so tiny that it was difficult to imagine. I kept it for 30 years because for me, it was reassuring to go there, close the door and sort of have the impression that he could come back at any time—that time had not moved—and it was painful to come back out into reality. The moments that I have had in that house have always been magical. Now I am about to open it up as a museum and I wanted my mother to sort of validate it and I sort of understood that she had not been there for more than 30 years becauseI never invited her. I never thought that she would want to go because i thought she would find it painful. That is the sort of miscommunication that we have had all our lives.

“Jane by Charlotte” is your directorial debut. Do you see yourself continuing to direct in the future or would it need to be something really specific and personal for you to consider doing it again?

I don’t feel that I have the shoulders of a director in terms of being on top of things like the language of cinematography. This film is kind of a patchwork of all kinds of elements from Polaroids to video to 16MM. I did a bit of everything because I felt this film was one that could have been called “Looking for My Mother” and any kind of media was going to give me something and for another film, I am not so sure. Also, I always feel that I go into things by accident and that things happen when I am not in control. I don’t see that as a real quality for a director. I would love to do another film—I just don’t know how and it would have to be a subject as powerful as this one. Also, I would not want to do another documentary, so it would have to be mid-roads between documentary and a fiction film. I am thinking about it but I just don’t feel brave enough today.

Obviously, the fame of your parents in France has always been considerable. Was there a point that you can recall when you first became aware that they were more than just your parents and that they meant so much to so many people?

It came very gradually. I feel very lucky today because I was able to do my first song with my father, which was called “Lemon Incest,” when I was 12 and to have my first experience in a film without my parents that same summer when I was turning 13. My mother was the one who suggested going to this casting to try to get that part because she thought it would be good for me to have my own path that would have nothing to do with my mother or my father as I was going to release this song. It is true that shooting films was like a second family—I would be off every summer doing a film and it was my own world. At the time, I never felt myself thinking if I was good enough to do this—I was a kid, so that wasn’t important. As I grew older, that is when I became more self-conscious. I used to listen to my parents’ songs all the time—my kids do the opposite—but we were really raised with our parents’ work. It was a part of our lives. I loved their work but I can’t remember if I loved it as their daughter or if I loved it already as a listener. When my father died, it was like a national grieving and then America was suddenly curious about his work—the curiosity was coming from everywhere. He sort of became a god for French people. I didn’t need that to put him on a pedestal but I am sure that because I had such esteem for his work, I was notable to actually write lyrics until now. I’ve done an album now and in the end, i didn’t care if I was as good or not as good but until that moment, it was very paralyzing for me.  

"Jane by Charlotte" is now playing in theaters.

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

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