I don’t know about you, but expectations have a way of interfering with my enjoyment of a film, so I try my best to set them aside and approach each new movie with an open mind. Still, I must confess that as soon as the 2021 Cannes Film Festival lineup was announced, one selection set my imagination racing: the directorial debut of daring actor Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Jane by Charlotte,” where the Jane in question was her mother, Jane Birkin.
The film’s title was an enticement — a clear homage to “Jane B. by Agnès V.,” a playful postmodern essay-film by the late, great Agnès Varda, in which the two women conspire to deconstruct Birkin’s star status, somehow augmenting her mystery in the process. Would “Jane by Charlotte” succeed in accomplishing something similar, unlocking new dimensions of the French pop icon, with her tomboy style and cultivated accent? (Even today, Birkin speaks French like a foreigner, a cutesy form of “Franglais” peppered with English words like “gloomy” and “poots.”)
The film’s source was a further draw: Gainsbourg may have started her career a “child of” iconic parents (Birkin and French musical genius Serge Gainsbourg), but she has justified that advantage by pushing herself on multiple fronts: as a singer, a photographer and an actor for such envelope-be-damned, push-the-audience filmmakers as Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé. What might this bold performer do behind the camera? The mind pinwheels with possibilities.
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Alas, “Jane by Charlotte” hardly qualifies as a movie. It’s sloppy even by home-video standards, so casual/clumsy is Gainsbourg’s shooting style. The amateurish project has been stitched together from a handful of reunions, in which Birkin responds as sincerely as possible to personal questions. At the very least, Gainsbourg ought to have engaged a sound professional. The image and audio are so compromised in several scenes (like the train ride to a bulldog breeder) that one wonders why she bothered to include them at all.
In France, the public must feel as if it already knows everything about Birkin, a massive celebrity who served as Serge Gainsbourg’s muse. Birkin knew she was beautiful but often doubted her talent. After her partner’s death, she succeeded in giving her singing career a second act by hacking off her hair — a repudiation of the world’s perception of her as a sex symbol — and performing live onstage at Paris’ Bataclan (before that, she’d lip-synced to playback).
Over the years, Birkin has indulged countless photo shoots and interviews, her every move scrutinized by the tabloids. Between that and the publication of her “Munkey Diaries,” what more is there to know? Does Gainsbourg’s portrait add anything, or is it like the mother-daughter photo session observed early in the film, in which she documents Birkin’s wrinkled fingers and liver spots but leaves the rest out of focus, reflected in a broken mirror? It’s hard to say, since I’ve been exposed to just a fraction of all that Birkinalia over the years. (I was caught off guard, for example, by the film’s casual mention of first daughter Kate Barry’s death. But then, I had assumed that Gainsbourg was an only child.)
Like me, the world hasn’t necessarily been paying such close attention, and it’s unfortunate that the film doesn’t spend time educating newcomers on the key elements of Birkin’s celebrity. The whimsical format includes no clips from her films, and home movies play not as B-roll but projected onto her face during one encounter.
The most engaging scene involves their visit to the flat at 5 bis rue de Verneuil, Birkin’s first time back to the Paris apartment she shared with Serge Gainsbourg all those years ago, a black-walled cabinet of curiosities that their daughter has kept practically untouched. For decades, she has dreamed of turning the location into a museum; beyond the “Lying With You” music video, which she directed, few have seen behind the graffiti-covered outer walls.
It’s touching to watch mother and daughter revisit such an important location together, knowing that Serge means something different to both of them than he does to his millions of admirers. The canned goods in the pantry have since exploded, but the smell apparently hasn’t changed. One can still find his Gitanes cigarette butts in the ashtrays and Birkin’s old Guerlain perfume bottles beside the bed.
The movie shares the same sense of casual disarray as that apartment, but not to the degree of Birkin’s own hoarding habit: Gainsbourg doesn’t cram the film with all that much material, and spares her mom the embarrassment of showing her personal clutter. She essentially goes easy on Birkin, asking intimate questions but settling for shallow answers. “Oui,” Gainsbourg whispers constantly, encouraging her mother to share more. But the responses reveal very little. If you want to know Birkin, search her lyrics. She’s been an open book her entire life.