Review: Jane by Charlotte
by Kaleem Aftab
- CANNES 2021: Charlotte Gainsbourg makes a poignant personal essay about her mother, Jane Birkin
In Jane by Charlotte [+see also:
film profile], Charlotte Gainsbourg mixes new footage, photographs and interviews to create a portrait of her mother, Jane Birkin, that is light on biographical detail but heavy on emotional connections. Those looking for a biopic, or facts and figures, should search the internet. Birkin also released a fascinating book about her life, her regrets and her insecurities, including how she felt the week that both her ex, Serge Gainsbourg, and her father died, as well as the tragedy of experiencing the death of her eldest daughter, Kate Barry. Director Gainsbourg seems to have been spurred into action to make this portrait, playing in the new Cannes Premiere section of the Cannes Film Festival, by her mother's recent brush with cancer.
The film opens with a concert where Birkin is singing the lyrics, "Those little things I got from you," and thanks Serge Gainsbourg when talking to the audience. It sets the tone for a film that assumes that the audience watching this already has enough information on Birkin and Gainsbourg to get these references, as the first-time director doesn't waste her breath on facts and figures. The main thrust of the movie is to give Gainsbourg the occasion to "look at you [Birkin] in a way I never dared to before".
The first question she asks her mother seems abstract and self-absorbed, as it's about whether mum treated her middle child, Charlotte, differently, but it is clever, as it allows Jane to mention Kate and her youngest child, Lou Doillon. Primarily, it allows the director to reveal information about herself without saying it or being the central focus. The film is as much about the director as it is her mother, focusing on the bonds between them. There is a conversational style to the questions, making it feel like the audience is getting a peek into a private conversation at the dinner table, rather than a traditional, journalistic interview.
In keeping with the director's on-screen comment that both she and her mother are humble people, she neglects to sing the praises of all the great things they have done in their careers. Birkin talks about ageing, living with wrinkles and the work needed to combat them, and the change in her physical condition over the past two years. Charlotte takes photos of her mother as the film keeps up the visual interest by constantly moving locations and often having the duo do something together or with the family, rather than just talk to each other over a table. It's the age of Instagram, where superstars use social media to show off the best of their lives, so it's nice to see Birkin doing everyday tasks, such as cooking, gardening and playing with her grandchildren. It turns out that Birkin is a massive hoarder of everything from dead batteries to children's drawings.
The film moves to New York, where Birkin is hosting a concert. Backstage, there are insightful musings on performance anxiety. There is topicality, as Birkin talks about how she and her pet dog put on weight during COVID-19. The film shifts up a gear when the director takes her mother to her father's old house, which Birkin hasn't visited in 30 years. It looks like a museum and throws up memories.
The final conversation is the most interesting in terms of biographical detail, as Birkin opens up about her addictions to sleeping pills and alcohol, and how her mindset framed her feelings about the relationships she had with the three men with whom she had children. Gainsbourg shows promise as a director in a movie that’s trying to be bigger than just being one for the fans.
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