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‘Jane by Charlotte’ Film Review: Charlotte Gainsbourg Goes Deep With Her Mother Jane Birkin in Riveting Documentary

Mothers, daughters, aging, regrets, and much more are examined in a series of revealing, loving conversations

In 1988, legendary French auteur Agnès Varda collaborated with legendary English muse Jane Birkin on “Jane B. par Agnès V.,” a non-fiction project that explored the nature of Jane’s own image as a music, film, and fashion icon. Utilizing stylized vignettes that drew attention to the filmmaking process and to image-making itself, the film is a playful, mischievous experiment in feminist filmmaking that seeks to look beyond Jane Birkin’s glorious surface and find out what’s underneath, or at least to remind us that an image is always a construction. (Cinelicious Pics released a restoration of the film in 2015, and it’s included in The Criterion Collection’s “Complete Films of Agnès Varda” box set.) 

And now, another non-fiction project, “Jane by Charlotte,” once again takes on the question of Jane Birkin, this time, from the inside out. Her director and scene partner is Birkin’s daughter, the French actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, the product of Birkin’s long creative and romantic partnership with gravelly-voiced French crooner Serge Gainsbourg.

“Jane by Charlotte,” especially in its title, is clearly a nod to the Varda film, and Gainsbourg is similarly interested in deconstructing her mother’s image to examine her life. The result is far more soft, intimate, and revealing. 

At the outset, Gainsbourg tells her mother that the purpose of the film is “to look at you as I never have before, or never dared to look at you before. Filming you with a camera is basically just an excuse to look at you.” And look she does, capturing her mother with a traditional documentary crew, or simply by propping a handheld camera on a kitchen table, behind an artichoke or steadied on a bottle of wine. She films her with a 16mm Bolex camera on a windswept beach and snaps photos of her with a long-lens DSLR and a small Leica. She projects images of home movies against the wall and sets her mom in front of them, prompting her to chat. 

So much of the film’s imagery is of Gainsbourg capturing the image of her mother, as she photographs her luminous, 75-year-old beauty and everlastingly chic style. (As a side note, it’s deeply inspiring to see famed beauty Birkin aging naturally and discussing all the nuances and challenges of that candidly.) Lest you think this is just a vanity photo-spread though, each scene or set-up for the documentary isn’t really Gainsbourg making “an excuse to look at” her mother, but rather to talk to her. For a muse such as herself, the act of being on camera is a bridge for her daughter to connect to her, one that Gainsbourg happily exploits.

In their very first conversation in the film, after some discussion of the filmmaking process, Gainsbourg asks her mother why there’s a shyness, a reservation in their relationship that she didn’t see between her mother and sisters (the late photographer Kate Barry, who died in 2013, and musician Lou Douillon). Birkin admits freely, “you were very intimidating… I felt privileged to be in your presence.” The intimate and revealing conversation that follows, about motherhood, and a mother’s relationship to their child’s growing body, is frank and illuminating and deeply vulnerable. It shows mother and daughter connecting as mothers, which is a theme throughout “Jane by Charlotte,” and it’s emblematic of a certain quality that Birkin possesses, for which her daughter praises her later in the film: her inherent trust and faith in others, which allows her to be this vulnerable and expressive. 

The entire film is these conversations, as Gainsbourg joins her mother for concerts in Tokyo and in New York City at the Beacon Theatre, as they travel the French countryside on a quest to adopt a new puppy, and spending time in Birkin’s coastal home, stuffed to the brim with mementos and artifacts from her remarkable life. They share deep conversations about family, sisterhood, and bodies; about life and death and memory and regret. 

While some of the conversations do meander into the territory of the banal, there’s always some gem that tumbles out between them, or a confession that sparks another conversation, like when Birkin says she doesn’t like to drink wine after her illness, and that the grief over her daughter Kate’s sudden death greatly affected her health. Another discussion of her lifelong insomnia and dependence on sleeping pills leads to a discussion of the stories and anxieties with which we torment ourselves, rewinding and reliving every mistake in life. 

Ultimately, for all the images made in “Jane by Charlotte,” the film is less about capturing the image of Jane at 75 than it is about making manifest the unbreakable bond between mother and daughter.  It’s when Charlotte puts down the camera that things get the most interesting between them, or how Jane responds to all the walks down memory lane. She relishes a chance to visit Serge’s old apartment, preserved as a museum, and tells her daughter, “well done,” but home movies of Kate as a toddler are too painful. “Look away,” Charlotte tells her, and though these moving images of her past are projected across her body, like the memories she constantly carries, she takes the respite to look away for a brief moment. 

The self-awareness, self-reflection, and deep love expressed in Gainsbourg’s directorial debut is a fascinating approach to understanding Jane Birkin, the person, but it’s so much more than that too. It’s a profound love letter from daughter to mother, an expression of a desire to remain close to her, and in fact, a love letter to all mother-daughter relationships that persist in spite of and because of all the flaws, foibles, and fallibility that comes with being human. It’s a portrait of the kind of relationship every person hopes to have, growing older alongside their parents, and the challenging, illuminating, and loving conversations that one should hope to have too. 

“Jane by Charlotte” open Friday in NYC and March 25 in Los Angeles.

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