Artistic dynasties are no new phenomenon — even before televised entertainment families of performers have forged careers together and separately, building on training, connections, and (perhaps innate) talents that such a blessed upbringing offers. And even with outrage over show business nepotism, these families are endlessly fascinating as they create modern mythologies. Charlotte Gainsbourg was born at the height of her parents’ fame and notoriety: French musician Serge Gainsbourg and English actress Jane Birkin were frequent partners on — and offstage, making headlines for their artistic collaborations as much as for the love life that seeped into these works. Charlotte appeared on her father’s songs by the age of 12, and today she is widely known for her renowned acting career under the Gainsbourg name. But in her directorial debut, she turns the camera onto her living parent in a series of intimate conversations and snapshots.
Jane Birkin — muse to Gainsbourg and Hermes, consummate performer and professional — emerges as an astute, humorous, and humble commentator on her life and legacy. Her conversations with her daughter do not delve into biographical detail — those are well chronicled. Instead, revelations and musings unfold on a terrace over a cup of coffee, backstage as a band rehearses, and in Jane’s father’s house left unvisited for thirty years. Those looking for a tell-all will be disappointed; those looking for a exquisitely loving portrait of a mother and daughter will leave with hearts full.
The filming across locations and several months makes Jane By Charlotte feel an organic affair, arising from natural situations rather than one staged conversation (this is, of course, an illusion — every shot is beautifully planned, framed, and lit). The result is a remarkably unforced, but always focused, tone to Birkin’s contemplations and conversations. The easy rapport she has with her daughter is palpable, amplifying the poignancy of even the silliest observation.
Gainsbourg often commands the camera from in front of it, setting shots to frame her as guide and interviewer as Birkin discusses COVID-19, growing older, and the ever-present stage fright with a knowing laugh. Birkin is the luminous centre of all shots, emphasised when Gainsbourg picks up a camera of her own and begins snapping stills as the film camera circles them both. These camera shutters and still images compound the intensely personal nature of this project. At the same time, such moments illuminate the constant lens Birkin and Gainsbourg have shaped their careers under. Both women are intuitively conscious of the power of images, and Gainsbourg’s painstaking framing is the idol at rest, approachable and adored.
As insecurities, lost love, and last chances are shared in these frank exchanges, watching a legacy play out in such a personal way feels a privilege. Jane By Charlotte does nothing to redefine the craft of documentary filmmaking or the celebrity biopic (indeed, those knowing little of Birkin’s life outside the documentary may leave with more questions than answers), but what it does, it does magnificently.
Jane by Charlotte opens Friday, March 18th at the Quad Cinema in New York and March 25th at the Landmark Westwood in Los Angeles. It expands to additional cities in April and is available on Digital from May 6th
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie