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After 37 years as an actress and singer, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s motivation for making her directorial debut was not professional ambition or artistic longing — she wanted to spend more time with her mom.
“I needed to get close to her, and I couldn’t without an excuse,” Gainsbourg says of her mother, English actress and singer Jane Birkin. “So the excuse was to get a team together and ask her if I could film her. The idea was to be able to look at her really with the eye of a daughter.”
The result is Gainsbourg’s documentary, Jane by Charlotte, an impressionistic portrait of Birkin as a mother, wife and artist, that will screen in Cannes’ new Premiere sidebar before receiving a theatrical release in France (the film does not yet have U.S. distribution).
If American audiences know Gainsbourg, 49, it’s as the daring actress in such Lars von Trier movies as Antichrist and Melancholia, or perhaps for an episode spoofing herself on Call My Agent, the French series that has found a global audience on Netflix. But to the French, Gainsbourg is part of the national fabric, the product of the celebrity marriage between Birkin and French actor and singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, whose suggestive 1969 duet, “Je t’aime … moi non plus” sparked condemnation by the Vatican and mass fascination by the public and seemed to embody the sexual revolution that was underway.
Gainsbourg is interested in a very different side of her mother than the young woman whose beauty and glamour inspired the name of Hermes’ legendary and expensive handbag. Instead, she shows Birkin, 74, padding around her seaside home in Brittany in a baggy button-down shirt, cooking for her granddaughter and answering sometimes uncomfortable questions about their family. “In France, a lot of the footage that happened in the ’70s, where my parents are together, everybody has seen,” Gainsbourg says. “Everybody has an image of her in those years. I didn’t want to have these beautiful but stereotyped images of her. I wanted her today. I didn’t care about what people knew of her or what they wanted to see of her. It was done in a very, very selfish way for my own pleasure.”
Gainsbourg now lives in Paris with her partner, Israeli-French actor and director Yvan Attal, and their three children. She says she enjoyed her first experience directing, “but I’m not sure I’d be able to do a thriller or any genre film. I have to fall in love with a story that would be very close to my own feelings.”
Gainsbourg started making the film in 2018 when Birkin was performing concerts in Japan but paused when her mother found her questions too probing. “She said, ‘I hated what you did in Japan. I hated the interview,'” Gainsbourg says. “I just said to the producer, ‘Well, the film is finished. We can’t continue.'”
At the center of the movie is a profound loss, the death of Birkin’s oldest child, fashion photographer Kate Barry, whom she had with her first husband, English composer John Barry. Kate died in 2013 in a fall from the window of her Paris apartment in what was assumed to be a suicide, and her death led to a gulf between Birkin and Gainsbourg, as each retreated into their grief separately. “I went straight to questions that were important to me but were, for her, very emotional,” Gainsbourg says. “I wanted to understand, why did I feel distance and shyness with [Birkin]? I think she felt it as an accusation, which was not the case. She was very used to talking in a professional way in front of the camera, defending her shows or films she’d done.”
In 2020, when Birkin came to perform in New York — where Gainsbourg was living at the time — they watched the footage together, and Birkin’s position softened. “After a long while, she did understand that it was done in a caring way, that it is a declaration of love for my mother.”
Gainsbourg’s parents divorced in 1981, and Serge died in 1991, but Gainsbourg has devoted herself to preserving both of their legacies — among the more striking moments in the film is a visit to Serge’s Paris home, which Gainsbourg has meticulously preserved since his death and plans to open as a museum.
“In France, he’s so well-known,” Gainsbourg says. “He belongs to everyone. The only thing that was still mine and only mine was his house. I’m not able to go to the cemetery because there are always a lot of people there. I’m able to go to his house and shut the door and just be there for him and for myself. So it means putting an end to that, but I think it’s much needed after 30 years. I have to do it.”
This story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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