Charlotte Gainsbourg Takes a Closer Look at Her Relationship With Her Mother Jane Birkin in New Film


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Charlotte Gainsbourg has been on a lengthy press tour for her directorial debut “Jane by Charlotte,” ever since the film arrived at Cannes last year up until now as it makes its way to digital platforms. Yet she still finds it strange to discuss it. For starters, it’s far from the one she intended to make — and the international attention was never something she pictured.

“Jane by Charlotte” started as a quest to document her mother Jane Birkin’s life and history, and over the course of five years turned into a very personal look at their mother-daughter relationship.

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“What’s strange is that the film is very sentimental in a way that I authorized myself to be, whereas in my family I was always taught that you shouldn’t be too sentimental,” Gainsbourg says. “And I find it more embarrassing to talk about the film than [it was to make it]. To a certain degree I’ve controlled the sentimentality of the film, but I’m not in control of the interviews and the way I talk about it.”

Gainsbourg first interviewed her mother for the film in 2017 in Japan, and it was nearly the end of the project.

“I thought that because I was starting with this first interview, I had to be as personal as possible, and that it had to be… I didn’t try to be original, but I tried to be as truthful and sincere as I could,” Gainsbourg recalls. “So I went straight to the point, asking a question about our relationship. ‘Why were we shy of one another? Where does it come from? And how come she’s not the same way with my sisters?’ And she took it as though I was reproaching her, asking her to justify herself now with the way she was as a mother. And she took it so badly that you could see in the film…it is in the film. And she’s become so emotional and suddenly says, ‘Oh, God, it’s such a nasty start.’”

Gainsbourg was planning to continue filming when Birkin was to sing at Carnegie Hall in New York but Birkin declined.

“She said, ‘No, I am done. I want you to stop the film.’ So I stopped. And we stopped for about two years,” Gainsbourg says. “And she came to see me, and I asked her, ‘Do you want to see the footage of the interview that we did in Japan, so that maybe you’ll feel differently?’ And we saw it and I hadn’t dared to see it because I was so scared of having done something wrong. So we watched it together and we realized it was really quite beautiful.”

She traces her desire to direct a film about her mother back to the passing of her sister, Kate.

“I lost my sister. So [my mother’s] first daughter, Kate, maybe eight years ago. And I decided I couldn’t cope with her loss in Paris, I needed to run away. So I did, and I came to New York. And for me it was the only way, it was a way of escaping and breathing again. But for my mother, it was really hard because I completely abandoned her,” she says. “So I guess, the distance had made it… I missed her, I’m sure. I missed her, I wanted to feel close. So I’m sure I had an urge to film her, but it was more than that — it was just to try and be close.”

She had been inspired by the shows Birkin was doing around the world called Le Symphonique, and as she was about to come to Tokyo to perform, Gainsbourg got the idea to film her there. She’d then had hopes of traveling to England to visit where her mother was brought up to paint a complete image of her mother, but then the pandemic happened and they were stuck in place.

“It narrowed it to just us. And then my sister, Lou, who I asked if she would agree to be in the film, said, ‘I feel that you are doing something really personal with our mother. It’s not my thing.’ In the end I had to realize that she was right, that it was about my mother, me, maybe my daughter, and to have that three-generation look.”

Her biggest surprise coming out of the filmmaking process was the ability to see her relationship with her mother as its own thing, whereas growing up she was so used to being the center of her father Serge Gainsbourg’s universe, given she was his only child.

“Doing this film was also a quest to see where I positioned myself at. With my father, it was very obvious. When [my parents] split, I had my father to myself. With my mother, it was different. It was a new family, recomposed, a whole house. And it was easier to have doubts. Before it was as if I didn’t value the relationship [my mother and I] had because we are distant and we have a shyness and there is something a little awkward. That for me had no value because it was not affectionate enough. Today, I understand that it is very affectionate and that it’s just the way we are.”

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