Review: Jane by Charlotte (2021)

Courtesy of Ji.Hlava DIFF

Two women. Both celebrities, singer-actresses. Two mothers, but also a mother and a daughter, who are getting to know each other the way they never did before. Charlotte Gainsburg’s directorial debut Jane by Charlotte, focusing on her mother Jane Birkin is a unique, completely organic viewing experience that defies every single genre convention and trope when it comes to the portrait/biographic documentary filmmaking.

Charlotte Gainsbourg assumes that we already know who the personae dramatis are and how they are related to each other. Apart from two of them, there is also the spirit of Jane’s ex-husband and Charlotte’s father, the late singer, songwriter, actor and filmmaker Serge Gainsbourg that in a way still steers both of their lives. So it is no coincidence that Gainsbourg opens the film with both of them on stage, on a concert, maybe even on a tour, singing a melancholic song.

We are being spared of all the raw factography, years of marriages, divorces and deaths, and the key details are presented casually during conversations (not interviews!) between Jane and Charlotte who is as often in front of the camera as she is behind it. We will get to know that they both still grieve for Serge (there is a scene mid-way through the film in which they visit his apartment that looks like a macabre museum and, although nothing changed there for decades, they are still surprised by what they see), that Birkin had three celebrity marriages and one daughter from each of her husbands, that her eldest daughter Kate Berry died and that it affected her greatly. Birkin also ponders about ageing and the changes that occur to the body and opens up about her life-long insomnia problem, and her sleeping pills addiction.

On the other hand, Gainsburg just wants to know, understand and feel her mother the way she never did before. There is a question about the position of the middle child and rivalry between sibling which made Charlotte feel less loved than Kate and Lou Doillon (the daughter of Birkin and her third husband Jacques Doillon). On her part, Jane sensed the distance and coldness she got from Charlotte who was private and secretive even as a child, calling her the most enigmatic of all of her children. Maybe now, when Gainsbourg is the mother of a teenage daughter Jo, she senses the urge to get to know and understand her mother.

The film travels through places, from Paris to the north-western French shores, Tokyo and New York, times and materials recorded in different formats beautifully blended into the wholesome experience of the film. On the materials from the personal archive, there is a sense that the whole Birkin-Berry-Gainsbourg family was special, but not in the snobbish, on-the-nose way, which is especially highlighted in the scenes set in the present time that radiate with the simplicity of tastes demonstrated by both the mother and the daughter and the focus to the emotions rather than on the material or stereotypical pleasures. Even the reality of the pandemic sneaks into the film, but only as an opener for discussion about solitude.

On the technical and craft level, Gainsburg is improvising and following her instinct pretty much the same way she does in the conversations with her mother. Even the use of the ancient 8- and 16mm cameras she finds in the family collection feels like a decision made on the spot, and it works that way simply because it is unapologetic and sincere. Jane by Charlotte is one of those deeply personal films that can nevertheless transfer their emotion to the audiences.

After its world premiere earlier this year at Cannes, Jane by Charlotte is touring the festivals world-wide and this tour should continue for an extended period of time. We caught it at Jihlava, where it played in the non-competitive Constellations section.

Original title: Jane par Charlotte
Year: 2021
Runtime: 86’
Country: France
Languages: French, English
Directed by: Charlotte Gainsbourg
Written by: Charlotte Gainsbourg
With: Jane Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jo Attal
Cinematography by: Adrien Bertolle, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Editing by: Anne Person, Tianès Montasser
Sound by: Jean-Luc Audy
Produced by: Mathieu Ageron, Maxime Delauney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Romain Rousseau
Production companies: Nolita Cinema, Deadly Valentine
Sales by: The Party