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Charlotte Gainsbourg on Making the Deeply Personal Jane by Charlotte: “It’s Nerve-Wracking”

The actress, director, and musician reflects on making the documentary tribute to her mother Jane Birkin

Charlotte Gainsbourg Interview
Jane by Charlotte (Utopia)
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    Charlotte Gainsbourg is no stranger to filmmaking, with an acting resume of nearly 40 years at this point — including a Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actress in 2009’s Antichrist. But she’s moved into the director’s chair with Jane by Charlotte (also known as Jane par Charlotte).

    The documentary, which debuted during last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is near and dear to Gainsbourg’s heart. In French with English subtitles, it’s what Gainsbourg calls “an open love letter” to her mother Jane Birkin, an actress and singer like Gainsbourg herself and the longtime collaborator and muse for her father, the late Serge Gainsbourg. The film – which will be available on digital platforms in time for Mother’s Day weekend — is built on intimate and sometimes difficult conversations between the two, emotionally poignant and at points quietly cathartic.

    “It was tricky,” Gainsbourg tells Consequence about the project. “I wasn’t clear about it at the start. It was, like, an excuse to be close to her, to film her for the first time. Because I had made my music videos, maybe I was a little more assured that I wanted to continue [directing]. It wasn’t as if I had done nothing before.”

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    The impetus for Jane by Charlotte came after the December 2013 death of Gainsbourg’s older half-sister Kate Barry, a noted celebrity photographer and the daughter of Birkin and her first husband, filmmaker John Barry. Barry, who’d struggled with substance abuse and addiction, fell from her fourth-floor apartment in Paris, and Gainsbourg has always termed it an accident rather than a suicide.

    Following the tragedy, Gainsbourg moved from France to New York, but felt distanced from Birkin. “I felt a need to be close to her again,” Gainsbourg says, so she began the film process in Japan during a stop on Birkin’s Le Symphonique tour, performing the songs Serge Gainsbourg wrote for her with a full orchestra. Birkin, who was with Gainsbourg from 1968-80 but never married, said yes at first but then had a change of heart.

    “I don’t know how I presented it, but it was very vague,” Gainsbourg acknowledges. “Now I know that she said ‘yes’ thinking I was going to do a documentary maybe about her career or something professional… But when it was time to interview her, I really dived in. My first question was about why did we have this shyness towards one another? Why was it not the same with her with Kate and not the same with Lou [Doillon, Gainsbourg’s younger half-sister]? How can she explain that? She took it so badly, and we stopped.”

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    As Gainsbourg continues, “She said afterwards that she thought I was asking her to justify herself as a mother, for all the mistakes she had made. She was horrified.”

    The project was revived two years ago, however, when Birkin visited Gainsbourg in New York and agreed to watch the footage her daughter had shot in Japan along with the interview.

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