Now on VOD, Jane by Charlotte is precisely as advertised: a portrait of Jane Birkin by her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who makes her directorial debut with this raw, personal documentary. Birkin is an actress and singer best known for her musical collaborations with French pop legend Serge Gainsbourg; their most famous personal collaboration is their daughter Charlotte, an actress whose filmography ranges from Antichrist to Independence Day: Resurgence. Charlotte works both behind and in front of the camera, interviewing her mother in a manner so intimate and conversational, the film wavers between poignant and indulgent.
JANE BY CHARLOTTE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Jane and Charlotte are in Japan, the former to perform in concert, the latter to roll film. Jane is in her early 70s at the time of filming, Charlotte is about 50. They talk with such subdued voices, the sound of nearby buzzing insects threatens to drown them out. Charlotte states her thesis clearly: to get a fresh point-of-view on her mother, and venture into “uncharted territory.” Jane confesses that she was intimidated by Charlotte as a child, which can be interpreted as the first appearance of the specter of Serge in the film, a near-constant presence. Their talk begins to feel therapeutic – they make connections among events in their individual and collective pasts, and sometimes between their deepest selves.
Charlotte and her daughter Jo visit Jane in her home in Brittany. Jane talks about how she feels like she’s physically aged more recently than ever before. She sits for a still-photo session for Charlotte. She tells a story about how one mirror in her house makes her look so good, she cut her own hair, and was subsequently horrified to see herself in a different mirror. She talks about how she can’t throw things away, even old batteries, and calls it a sickness (which made me recall the two Edith Beales in Grey Gardens); Charlotte and her siblings will have so much fun cleaning all that stuff out, she jokes. Jane thinks the lighting in a room is gloomy, but Charlotte finds it beautiful.
They travel to New York for Jane’s concert at Carnegie Hall (“Anyone can get Carnegie Hall,” Jane quips. “You rent it.”). They’ll perform a song together, a duet; Iggy Pop will also make a special appearance during the show, a fascinating subplot left to dangle. Back in France, they visit their former home, where they lived with Serge, and it appears untouched for decades – an ashtray full of cigarette butts sits on a table, perhaps a reminder that the musical great who lived and worked here smoked and drank too much and died of a heart attack. Everything is so meticulously preserved or restored – by Charlotte, apparently – Jane says it’s “Just like Pompeii.” Later, Jane will continue talking openly and honestly, about her cancer diagnosis, the strange sleeping habits she’s kept for decades, her struggles with insomnia, that she started taking sleeping pills as a teenager, about her late daughter Kate, how sometimes she stays in bed until 3 p.m. She’s at a remarkably reflective stage of her life, it seems.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: With Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley took a similar deep dive into her own family, albeit with a far more focused and creative approach.
Performance Worth Watching: Birkin is shockingly unguarded here.
Memorable Dialogue: Gainsbourg: “The idea is to look at you as I never have before, or have dared to look at you.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Is Jane by Charlotte a portrait of depression, or merely reflecting on a life of great creativity, love and tragedy? Both, perhaps – one doesn’t want to psychoanalyze from afar, and after spending only 90 minutes with a person. But it’s easy to realize how special the film can be, in Jane’s trusting, unfiltered commentary and Charlotte’s compassionate curiosity. Structurally, it’s a hodgepodge, a collection of recollections that eventually grow more intense in subject matter (cancer, death) and maybe, but only maybe, coalesce into something meaningful for the viewer.
I sense that people with aging, ailing parents may feel the Jane and Charlotte’s connection more deeply – they’re more attuned to the ticking of the clock. One might infer that their relationship was previously strained or distant, but that’s never made clear; the film functions behind an ethereal gauze of melancholy reminiscence. Charlotte’s goal of attaining a fresh perspective on her mother appears successful, although it’s hard to ascertain for certain. She’s certainly earnest in her attempt to take care of her mother more, to understand and love her more. If piecing together this film made that happen, then that’s wonderful. It’s hard not to empathize with Jane’s struggles and tragedies; it’s also hard not to see this film as an uncomfortably intimate diary entry.
Our Call: Jane by Charlotte can be lovely, sad and poetic, just like its creator and subject. It’s a compelling watch, so STREAM IT, but it’s hard to argue for it being essential.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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