All About My Mother

Charlotte Gainsbourg takes on Jane Birkin in her directorial debut

Jane Birkin on the cover of her 2002 album Arabesque (Image: Discogs)

It isn’t completely surprising that Charlotte Gainsbourg, would make her directorial debut with a documentary about her mother, Jane Birkin.

It would be equally unsurprising if she had made her directorial debut with a documentary about her father, Serge Gainsbourg, except there’s a significant difference: Serge’s life, which ended in 1991, has been more extensively documented. 

Charlotte opens by capturing an engagement in Tokyo where Jane, now 74, performs with an orchestra and signs mementos for fans. During a free moment, Charlotte admits that she initiated the project to get to know her better. They continue on to New York, where the two perform together, and Brittany, where Jane has a home (after spending most of her life in Paris, Charlotte lived in New York from 2013-2020).

Jane by Charlotte film poster (Image: Idmb)

Though I’ve always gotten the impression that the two are close, Charlotte acknowledges a certain shyness on their respective parts; a level of reserve that doesn’t define Jane’s relationships with Kate Barry, her daughter with composer John Barry, or Lou Doillon, her daughter with director Jacques Doillon.

While Charlotte takes pictures of her mother, Jane talks about self-image and the effects of aging. Kate, who passed away in 2013, was a photographer, so it’s interesting to see her half-sister step into that role, at least for the purposes of this film. Jane believes she has aged more quickly since Kate’s passing.

While watching, I was reminded of Celeste Bell’s documentary, I Am a Cliché, about her mother, X-Ray Spex front woman Poly Styrene (née Marianne Eliot-Said). Since Poly passed away in 2011, Celeste presents the film from her own perspective, not counting interview clips and diary entries read by Ruth Negga. 

 

VIDEO: Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché trailer

Celeste, a musician, also made a documentary to get to know her mother better, but Poly was no longer around to respond to her questions. Charlotte, on the other hand, was able to ask her mother whatever she wanted, and Jane doesn’t hedge or deflect. The intimate nature of their conversations reflects their work on screen, on record, and in print by way of Jane’s 2020 memoir, Munkey Diaries 1957-1982, an account of her life from childhood to marriage to Doillon and the birth of daughter Lou.

Another difference: Charlotte is also a mother, so her film involves two sets of mother-daughter relationships: Jane and Charlotte and Charlotte and Jo, the youngest of her three children with actor-director Yvan Attal (just as Jane and Serge never married, Charlotte and Yvan aren’t married).  

During their travels, they also discuss marriage, divorce, sleep, dogs, and the pain of losing a daughter and a sister. In Paris, they visit Serge’s old apartment, which remains exactly as he left it, right down to the cigarette stubs in the ashtray. I’m not certain, but I think Serge may have shot his 1986 film Charlotte For Ever in that apartment, because the interiors look familiar, particularly the book-lined study.  

 

VIDEO: Serge & Charlotte Gainsbourg “Charlotte For Ever”

By the end, it’s hard to tell if Charlotte understands her mother better. They seem closer, but they might have gotten to that point on their own, without a camera trailing after them. I’m enough of an optimist, though, to assume that Charlotte has represented their relationship accurately. I just wish the film didn’t feel so vague and hermetic. Everything they say makes sense, but a lot goes unexplained or unmentioned, like an overview of Jane’s career as a musician and actress and not just a wife and mother.

Charlotte assumes viewers already know these things, and it’s not hard to look up the details online. If that’s the case, then Jane by Charlotte is likely to play more like a hangout film than a biographical portrait, offering a chance to see what Jane’s life is like in semi-retirement and to reproduce the feeling of spending time in her unfussy presence. That’s not an insignificant thing, but I had hoped for more.

In an attempt to meet that need, I followed up by watching Agnes Varda’s Jane B. par Agnes V. (streaming on The Criterion Channel and Fandor via Amazon Prime). The 1988 documentary represents one of three films Varda and Birkin made together, including 1987’s Kung Fu Master, featuring Charlotte as Jane’s daughter, and 1995’s One Hundred and One Nights, featuring Jane amongst a bevy of stars.

 

 

In Jane B., like her other documentaries, Varda avoids conventional non-fiction tropes. She captures her subject talking about her life in front of a slide show, visiting the house where she grew up, posing in a series of painting-like tableaux, and acting out various scenarios, some rooted in fact and others in fiction.

Certain themes appear in both documentaries, like Jane’s insomnia, affection for dogs, and love/hate relationship with the camera. Varda spent a year working on the film, capturing Jane from the ages of 29 to 30, so her hairstyle changes a few times. Jane also admits, towards the end of the film, that she’s no longer interested in posing nude, since her partner (Doillon) “prefers discretion.” Nonetheless, Varda includes several semi-nude sequences, an indication that Jane remains Jane, no matter her partner.

I concluded by revisiting three of Jane’s finest albums: 1969’s Je t’aime… moi non plus (with Serge), 1973’s Di doo dah, and 1978’s Ex fan des sixties, none of which are mentioned in either documentary. For those unfamiliar with her music, any of those three would represent an excellent introduction to her charmingly unpretentious brand of French pop, which isn’t a world away from the music Charlotte would start making when she relaunched her recording career–after a 20-year break–with 2006’s 5:55.  

In the end, it isn’t completely fair to compare a directorial debut to a film made by a veteran director, though Charlotte had previously directed a few music videos, like the B&W promo for 2017’s “Deadly Valentine” featuring Blood Orange. By contrast, Jane B. par Agnes represented Varda’s 12th of the 24 films in her filmography.

I think the best way to look at Charlotte’s film is as a sequel or an epilogue to Varda’s: add the two together–plus the memoir–and you can trace the arc of Jane B.’s entire life. 

 

VIDEO: Jane by Charlotte trailer 

 

 

 

Kathy Fennessy

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Kathy Fennessy

Kathy Fennessy is a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society, an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes, and a regular contributor to Seattle Film Blog. She has also written about film for Amazon, City Pages, Northwest Film Forum, Seattle International Film Festival, and The Stranger.

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