I’ve been wanting to see Jane by Charlotte (Jane par Charlotte) for a very long time. It had popped up in an online film festival a few months ago, then again in July when Jane Birkin came to London with her Oh! Pardon tu dormais... tour, but sadly I missed it both times. Being able to see it now at Ciné Lumière, as part of the 30th edition of French Film Festival UK, was a real honour - and it made the wait more worthwhile to be in the presence of the film's director, Charlotte Gainsbourg.
The documentary starts out as a kind of tour film, following Jane on the Japanese leg of her Gainsbourg Symphonique performances, but soon shifts gears as Charlotte probes her mother off-stage about the nature of their relationship. Her first question cuts to the core, and asks why the two of them have such a shyness and awkwardness with one another despite their obvious fondness. It’s raw and it’s candid - and, as it turns out, it almost ended the film. During the Q&A that followed the screening, Charlotte explained how her mother had been scared off by the approach and, although it’s not depicted in the film, there was a long gap between that initial sequence and when she picks things up several years later.
It doesn’t impact on the narrative of the film, but it’s a fascinating bit of post-screening insight. When Charlotte does return, it’s once again on a leg of Jane’s latest tour; but this time it's in New York, which was Charlotte’s home until she returned to Paris during the pandemic. If that was all there were to the film, then it wouldn’t have had the same impact (as her editor said while preparing the first cut) but the real heart of the film lies in the later sequences shot at Jane's home in Brittany with the intimate cast of Jane, Charlotte, and her daughter, Jo. Here, three generations of women come together to grapple with their family and history - the heartbreaks, the triumphs, and the memories - yet unexpectedly, beneath it all, lies a steady stream of optimism.
While remaining a portrait of a uniquely singular and fascinating woman - well, two uniquely singular and fascinating women actually - it’s also a film that captures the intricacies and particulars of the mother-daughter relationship, as seen in both Jane and Charlotte, and Charlotte and her daughters. Despite not appearing on screen, Charlotte's other daughter, Alice Attal, is a strong presence throughout, whose relationship with her mother seems to reflect that of Jane and Charlotte. I would be curious to hear what she thought of the film as a somewhat unwilling participant. Without taking away from this important aspect of Jane par Charlotte, I think it does a good job of capturing the feeling of any child in the looming shadow of their mother. It made me think about my own relationship, and why certain things are the way they are.
The post-screening Q&A was an added bonus, and Christina Newland proved to be a thoughtful host who pursued an ever-more-interesting line of questioning as the night went on. I saw her flipping between notes she’d prepared earlier, while responding off-the-cuff with questions based on Charlotte’s answers, which is a situation I know all too well. I’ve often found myself doing the same - especially when the interviewee is as generous and open as Charlotte proved to be. Despite her shyness, there’s a candour and passion that comes through when discussing her craft. Although she likes to present herself as an amateur - 'dabbling' in music, photography, and cinema - her eloquence belies an artist who cares deeply about their work.
At its core, Jane par Charlotte is a portrait of a woman with an intense curiosity and unwavering trust in the world around her. Despite experiences that would otherwise dishearten others - including the loss of a daughter, and recent health troubles of her own - Jane Birkin's outlook on life remains in the glass-half-full category, and she's grateful for the life she's lived and the people she's loved. I'm glad we got to share this experience, and learn more about this enigmatic style icon and artist through the eyes of her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg.