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Intimacy and Insight: Jane by Charlotte and Documentary as Personal Care

By James Walsh | 12.08.2022 | Critics Campus Reviews
Intimacy and Insight: Jane by Charlotte and Documentary as Personal Care

Critics Campus 2022 participant James Walsh delves into the revelatory Jane by Charlotte, contrasting Charlotte Gainsbourg’s filmmaking approach with that of Jane B. par Agnès V. director Agnès Varda.

Even our oldest and strongest relationships never stop evolving. The context that forms a connection between one person and another can radically shift with even the smallest kernel of new information, forming a bond anew or shattering its fragile foundations. When that relationship becomes enshrined in art, a threat arises that whatever is captured by the artist becomes the “truth”, eroding the multitudes of possibilities in search of a singular thesis.

In her feature documentary Jane by Charlotte, Charlotte Gainsbourg (Jacky in the Kingdom of Women, MIFF 2014; Melancholia, MIFF 2011) seeks to explore this act of recontextualisation through her relationship with her mother, Jane Birkin – a figure who has become near-mythic through her rendering as one of Europe’s most prominent pop-cultural icons. Over nearly six decades, Birkin spearheaded a multifaceted career involving music, film and fashion that is every bit as eclectic and iconoclastic as contemporaries such as David Bowie and husband Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte’s father.

That mythic stature sometimes threatens to obfuscate Birkin’s artistic legacy as one of the more mercurial figures in both film and music, reducing a career of bold choices and constant reinvention into a two-dimensional (if admittedly iconic) countercultural pin-up. “The idea is to look at you as I have never dared before,” muses Gainsbourg, trying to explain her intentions to a curious Birkin.

Gainsbourg herself has inherited that ease of crossing through artistic forms, with her directorial debut following an already illustrious career as an actor, model and songwriter. To observe Gainsbourg as she photographs Birkin while songs from her album Rest play on the soundtrack (with the only half-joking rationale that it avoids copyright-infringement lawsuits) is to witness someone who exudes authenticity in environments often construed as artificial.

Throughout Jane by Charlotte, Gainsbourg constantly finds intimacy through artifice: interviewing Birkin while sitting atop a cosy queen-size bed in the middle of an industrial photography studio – a tearful heart-to-heart between mother and daughter in which both are shrouded in digital projections of home movies – or touring Serge’s old apartment that has been left consciously untouched decades after his death.

Such abstract settings may have created a remove in other contexts. However, the dialogue between Birkin and Gainsbourg in these moments is every bit as personal and revealing as the stripped-back video diaries recorded at Birkin’s magnificent riverside chateau, where opulence is rendered homely through the presence of Gainsbourg and her youngest daughter, Jo. These moments are captured on small handheld digital cameras, with the occasional snatches of Super 16mm film, which highlights a wilful nostalgia and functions as a reminder that, even in its most seemingly honest form, this portrait of Birkin is still a construction that can never provide a full picture.

However, there is another piece of the puzzle gifted by the great master Agnès Varda, who, decades prior, filmed her own documentary with Birkin as the principal subject, Jane B. for Agnès V. Birkin explicitly acknowledges Varda in Jane by Charlotte, noting during a conversation with Gainsbourg in New York that “Varda was right: you must capture the present.”

The present is not all that Varda had captured. Jane B. is rife with fictionalisations of Birkin’s inner fantasies, involving everything from black and white Laurel and Hardy homages to romantic dalliances with French New Wave star Jean-Pierre Léaud. Gainsbourg’s choice to use projections of family home videos recalls that in Varda’s film, but whereas Varda framed Birkin in front of these projections – her silhouette standing black against the colour footage – Gainsbourg projects them over Birkin’s entire body, her memories literally engulfing her.

Naturally, each director’s unique relationship with Birkin dictates the kind of questions posed to her. Varda, a contemporary and collaborator (a chunk of Jane B. goes into the process behind the creation of Kung-fu Master!, a fiction film starring Birkin alongside Varda’s then-teenage son, Mathieu Demy, that was released the same year), was more focused on the contradictions at the heart of Birkin’s character. “You’re the queen of paradox,” she tells Birkin midway through the documentary, explaining her motivations for making it. “You want stardom and its perks … yet you want to be filmed like people in the street, like those who love you.”

Jane by Charlotte

This focus on paradox means that, despite how personal moments of the documentary can get, they are always regarded from a distance, as puzzles to be solved. Varda herself acknowledged the limitations of her questioning, describing proceedings as “a picture with a hole in the middle”. This was most valuable in how it allowed Birkin to define herself, an act of empathy and empowerment that was even more imperative at this juncture in Birkin’s career. European press often focused on the elements of scandal and controversy in Birkin’s life (like her infamous nude scene in Blowup that the misogynistic UK press unfairly sullied her reputation with) in a manner that threatened to take Birkin’s voice away from her. Varda’s loving camera may have gazed upon Birkin’s body in ways that might recall many of the male directors who have also found themselves captured by Birkin’s beauty, but the intention feels unmistakably different. Varda’s gaze feels gentle and celebratory rather than lecherous and commodifying. It would be a mistruth to say that Birkin did not care about her beauty, but the film sought to reveal the multitude of ways she defined and redefined what that beauty was.

Thanks in part to Varda’s efforts to reveal Birkin’s multitudes, and with time removing some of the reductive stings of former controversies, Gainsbourg can presume audiences view her as a complex figure. Unspooling their mother–daughter relationship and understanding it anew becomes Gainsbourg’s goal. There is the sense that, even if no-one apart from Gainsbourg saw the film, it would still be regarded as a valuable act of personal clarification. This diaristic approach, at once deeply revealing and self-contained, helps expose an entirely new element of Birkin’s character: the deep hurts and regrets, the feelings that are impossible to contain in words. Part of this new element could only be born of the decades between each film. What were simply questions and worries about relationships with her children and partners in Varda’s film now have their answers, both good and bad.

In the interim between documentaries, personal tragedy struck Birkin. Her daughter Kate, whom she spoke about with glowing admiration in Varda’s film, died in a fall from her apartment while Birkin was away on tour, a tragedy still under conjecture as a possible suicide. Birkin’s demeanour is weighted with the pain of this revelation, even though it is not explicitly discussed until near the end of Gainsbourg’s documentary. While Birkin still graces stages across the world regularly – we see her perform in Tokyo and New York throughout the film – she no longer feels the need to perform for the camera. The slight reticence that was ever present in Varda’s film has vanished, likely due to the fact that the person asking her the questions is her daughter, someone who would sense any front she might put up. Instead, Birkin attempts to take each question at face value, searching for honesty over what she could have done better or reflecting on dreams that will now never come true. These deeply personal moments get as close as possible to capturing the heart of who Varda had described as a “famous nobody”.

It’s also refreshing to watch a pair of documentaries that acknowledge that, no matter how many layers they reveal, they must ultimately accept there is always more to learn. It helps that, as a subject, Birkin is completely aware of this, even embracing it. “If a painter or a photographer wants to do my portrait, I don’t mind distortion,” she had mused to Varda, who playfully provided an accompanying image of Birkin in a funhouse mirror. Gainsbourg, for her part, is content to let audiences sit without full pieces of the puzzle – no life-spanning voiceover runs through the key beats in Birkin’s life. People are mentioned briefly in ways that only hint at their full relationships with the star. The viewer learns an immense amount about Birkin’s personal traits, rather than her achievements. There’s no superimposed text informing us how many number-one hits she had, nor what movies she appeared in, but we do learn that she has struggled with lifelong insomnia and finds weighing her bed down with suitcases a comfortable riposte to this.

Both Jane by Charlotte and Jane B. for Agnes V. are essential works in their own ways, embodying a unique dialogue between decades that coalesce into something truly multifaceted through their unique perspectives. They call on the observational powers of the documentary as an act of personal care; they notice the small details about someone that might otherwise go unnoticed, and posit that care is an act of personal revelation.

Jane by Charlotte screened as part of the MIFF 70 program.
MIFF Critics Campus is presented by VicScreen and supported by the University of Melbourne. The Music on Film strand is presented by Triple R.

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