“The idea is to look at you as I never have before, or have never dared to look at you,” says Charlotte Gainsbourg near the beginning of Jane by Charlotte. That idea, as it were, is the basis for a famous daughter’s portrait of her famous mother, singer and actress Jane Birkin. And famous is the operative word, as the documentary heavily depends on the perceived interest of the audience in both women.
Jane by Charlotte neglects to find a conceptual framework for its prolonged consideration of Gainsbourg’s eventual revelation: “I have always loved you, but it’s much clearer to me now.” While you never doubt the legitimacy of her claim, the film still has the feel of a mea culpa from Gainsbourg for having taken Birkin for granted, and as such there’s a performative, forced quality to the film that rarely allows potentially more intriguing elements to seep in.
Given the similarity in their titles, one might expect the template for Jane by Charlotte to have been Jane B. par Agnès V., Agnès Varda’s 1988 freeform portrait of Birkin as she was approaching 40. Varda, ever the ingenious craftsman, weaves into her film episodes with Birkin dressed as Joan of Arc, posing as if she’s a component of celebrated paintings, and includes callbacks to Kung-Fun Master!, a previous collaboration between Varda and Birkin.
By contrast, Gainsbourg’s documentary mostly settles into a series of one-on-one conversations between mother and daughter. At one point, Birkin invokes Varda: “[She] was right. You must capture the present.” The comment is practically ironic given that Varda was intent on capturing more than just the present in her films, many of which are multi-layered meditations on life, cinema, and art. Gainsbourg, it seems, took the sentiment quite literally, as Jane by Charlotte is fundamentally a home movie about realizing that certain loved ones are unlikely to be around, whether in mind or body, much longer.
As such, Jane by Charlotte also invites comparison to Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, which largely documents Akerman’s mother’s final days, as mother and daughter have conversations about the past and present. Yet Akerman, by approaching her mother’s final days through the framework of slow cinema, captures time in a manner befitting the subject: The details of her mother’s life aren’t actually the subject as much as Akerman’s reckoning with time’s unceasing march forward. Gainsbourg’s film contains no such conceptual strategies, making the details of Birkin’s life the main attraction.
Birkin explains how aging has affected her, and in one rather notable anecdote, she explains how she craves grapefruit because a certain medication that she’s taking prevents her from eating it. It’s a poignant reminder that the circumstances of a person’s life can shape their desires. In another moment, Birkin admits that she might be a hoarder, because it’s really hard for her to throw things away. These passages, like much of Jane by Charlotte, are somewhat compelling because they’re always on the precipice of arriving at deeper revelations about both aging and the core relationship at the heart of the documentary.
But Gainsbourg seldom pushes beyond the tête-à-tête structure that informs the film, and when she does, it’s in mostly throwaway footage of Birkin performing at the Bataclan or, in a particularly saccharine, final touch, mother and daughter hugging on a sunny beach while Gainsbourg speaks in poetic voiceover. In the end, Jane by Charlotte feels primarily tailored to portray Gainsbourg as a caring daughter who has finally made an effort to understand her mother’s fears, desires, and life. And in the process, it leaves Birkin at arm’s length from us.
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