Jane by Charlotte (2021) DocLisboa 2021

October 30th, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir/Wri: Charlotte Gainsbourg | Doc, 86′

In his rather tricksy biopic singer, photographer, actor and now director Charlotte Gainsbourg (1971-) attempts to unveils her legendary mother Jane Birkin (1946-), model, actor and enigmatic star of that kinky song “Je t’aime, moi non plus” by her rakish father Serge.

Keen to retain her mystique, Birkin smirks winsomely behind a tousled mop of hair, murmuring breathy soundbites to retain her allure, her daughter tentatively teasing out episodes past and present to avoid embarassing or disrupting the fragile facade that created her mother’s original elusiveness. The two speak French, Birkin sometimes breaking into ‘Franglais’. Meanwhile we desperately clutch at straws hoping for a meaty backstory, something more tangible to feed on; not so much of that flirty love affair between Birkin and Gainsbourg but of the essence of Birkin herself, and how she came to be celebrity muse to maverick star Serge Gainsbourg.

Many of her fellow female celebrities of the sixties: Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Marianne Faithful, and the like, have retained that place in history, seared to our collective consciousness as legendary icons. But was their legendary status justified; did it have ballast – or where they just lucky to be around to capture the essence of a time when this cloud of creative counterculture known as the ‘swinging sixties’ burst onto the scene?.

The legendary Agnes Varda had a go at revealing Birkin in her upbeat film essay Jane B. by Agnès V. but managed to keep her friend under wraps. Will Charlotte do the same, or will her piece a ‘peek behind the scenes’ that manages to find something more intriguing. Sadly no.

Loose and louche, this turns out to be rather sketchy, to say the least. Mother and daughter potter around in the garden of Birkin’s picturesque seaside home accompanied by various small kids, the veteran star, now 74, attempting to be edgy by admitting to hacking off her hair in a flattering mirror, catching sight of the finished result in a less attractive reflection, and is horrified. But the stunt gave her singing career another lease of life when she performed onstage at the Paris Bataclan, proving she did have a real voice. Previously she had lip-synced to a playback tape.

From her various interviews over the years, and searching on Wikipedia, we know that Birkin was married to prolific film composer John Barry and had Kate who later committed suicide in 2013. She then gave birth to Charlotte with Gainsbourg and  Lou Doillon with Jacques Doillon. The Hermes ‘Birkin’ bag was named after her and she wrote the “Munkey Diaries”, but what new gems are uncovered here? Not a lot in an arcane outing that feels like an intensely personal vanity project with its family footage and hushed mother/daughter chats, but nothing else. There are no archive clips or film excerpts to enrich the film for the entertainment and enlightenment of audiences young and older. Just a rather ‘off the cuff’ sortie that plays out as a series of snapshots of the two spending time together. They are clearly close, touchingly so, but also respective of one another’s talents and Charlotte never pushes the boundaries into real intimacy.

The most fascinating scene sees Jane and Charlotte swinging by Serge’s flat in the rue de Verneuil (Paris) which has remained untouched with his white shoes – even Gitane cigarettes and old cans of food (many having exploded!) – there for all to see. But that’s as interesting as it gets for the outsider. Another missed opportunity. MT

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