“Jane by Charlotte”, the directorial debut of actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg (“Antichrist”), is a meandering and elusive documentary portrait of Gainsbourg’s mother, Jane Birkin. Birkin, an “It” girl of the 1960s and 1970s, is known for starring in daring arthouse films (such as “Blow-Up”) and for her romance with Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she collaborated on a hit album before started her solo singing career.
Gainsbourg pays tribute to Agnès Varda’s 1988 docudrama, “Jane B. par Agnès V.”, which captures Birkin, aged 40, given her status as a muse and icon. Seeing Birkin at age 74, “Jane by Charlotte” picks up on her fixations evident in that earlier film — her love of bulldogs, photos, and motherhood — as well as her ideas of femininity.
In contrast to Varda’s metanarrative approach, Gainsbourg’s is straightforward, switching between elegantly staged mother-daughter conversations and home video-esque footage of Birkin’s daily activities — such as performing her music in Japan, gardening with her granddaughter, and visiting a bulldog breeder.
Gainsbourg claims to look at her mother as she has “never dared before,” hoping to close a rift between them. Birkin speaks, rather obliquely, about intimate subjects such as her lifelong dependence on sleeping pills and her maternal insecurities – the untimely death of her first daughter, Kate Barry, looms up in the film.
Clearly a pet project for Gainsbourg (whose own electronic pop songs feature prominently in the soundtrack, clashing with her mother’s classic tunes), the documentary is defiantly insular and lacking in context.
For example, when Gainsbourg and Birkin visit Serge’s famous black-walled house in Paris, the quirks of the residence are taken for granted. (The house has remained largely unchanged since Gainsbourg’s death in 1991 and is now turning into a museum.) Those devoted to the Gainsbourg-Birkin universe may enjoy the miscellanea presented here, but Gainsbourg has no interest in displaying it. her mother’s life, or their relationship, accessible or particularly fascinating to the uninitiated. This makes for a sometimes trivial experience, but you feel Gainsbourg doesn’t care – she may not have made the film for anyone but herself.
Jane by Charlotte
Not judged. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes. In theaters.