Kind Eyes: Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Cinematic Education

Director Charlotte Gainsbourg with her mother and subject Jane Birkin on the shoot for Jane by Charlotte.
Director Charlotte Gainsbourg with her mother and subject Jane Birkin on the shoot for Jane by Charlotte.

Actress, musician and now documentarian Charlotte Gainsbourg on filming her mom, watching films with her dad, and being filmed by Agnès Varda.

Charlotte Gainsbourg has been in the spotlight her entire life as the daughter of prolific actress and singer Jane Birkin and all-around artist Serge Gainsbourg. Her own life in the film industry began at the age of twelve with Paroles et musique, which also featured her musical debut. Since then, she’s gained recognition for her work in films including The Science of Sleep and I’m Not There, along with notable collaborations with director Lars von Trier in Antichrist and Nymphomaniac.

Now, nearly forty years into her career, Gainsbourg has released her directorial debut, a “declaration of tenderness from a daughter to her mother” entitled Jane by Charlotte. She joins Birkin during her world tour—before and during Covid—delving into deeply honest and sometimes painful conversations and dusting off the ghosts of Serge Gainsbourg’s untouched Parisian home (now a museum!) with a relaxed straight-from-home-video scrapbook style.

Jane, Jane, Jane, Jane, Jane, Jane (by Agnès).
Jane, Jane, Jane, Jane, Jane, Jane (by Agnès).

What’s that? Another film portrait of Jane Birkin? You may be experiencing déjà vu to 1988, when Agnès Varda directed Jane B. by Agnès V., a documentary that also covers the genesis of Kung-Fu Master!, conceived by Birkin and starring both Jane and Charlotte. Watching Varda’s mini-masterpiece is the perfect preparation for Jane By Charlotte, giving useful context to Birkin and their relationship—a skim of their Wikipedia pages for biographical details wouldn’t hurt, either.

A startlingly intimate and personal film, Fernanda Renton writes on Letterboxd that Jane by Charlotte “felt like I entered a mom-daughter therapy session by mistake, but instead of leaving the room, I just pulled up a chair and watched…”. Pinpointing Gainsbourg’s direction, Ana sees in this “exactly what a debut feature should be: a raw, intimate, clumsy (not a bad thing) exploration of one’s obsessions, and I hope it’s not Charlotte’s last directorial effort, because she listens deeply and sees people for who they truly are. A very, very soft film.”

Apocalypse very soon with Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire in Melancholia (2011).
Apocalypse very soon with Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire in Melancholia (2011).

Joining Gainsbourg for a video chat (during which she assured Birkin fans that Jane is back on her feet and back on tour after some concerning health issues last September), we traversed her personal favorites from her mother’s filmography, the movies her father introduced her to, and the childhood characters that resonated with her the most.

Welcome, Charlotte, to your Life in Film! So we can get to know you both a little bit first, which movies starring yourself and Jane would you consider required viewing before watching Jane by Charlotte?
Charlotte Gainsbourg: I’d say Melancholia, not for my acting and not to get to know me, because I don’t think it’s very close to who I am, but it’s the film I’m the most proud of. Was that the goal [of the question]? I’m happy about that choice. For my mother, she won’t be happy if I say this, but when she started, she did comedies where she was so stunningly beautiful and sort of played stupid a little bit and she did it with such charm that it was really endearing. La moutarde me monte au nez [known as Lucky Pierre or I’m Losing My Temper] and La Course à l’échalote [The Wild Goose Chase] are films I saw when I was little that I’ve adored for such a long time.

Of course, she’s done more serious work that she would be more proud of. I was surprised not to be shocked or embarrassed by the film Je t’aime moi non plus [I Love You, I Don’t]. It’s my father’s film that he did starring her and Joe Dallesandro and there’s a lot of sex. She’s very exposed, but it’s such a beautiful film. Thank god he was still alive when I saw it at eighteen so I had the time to tell him how much I loved it and how I admired his work. If I want to go serious for her, I’d say Je t’aime moi non plus, and for a not-serious film, I’d say La moutarde me monte au nez.

The new film follows closely in the footsteps of Jane B. by Agnès V., possibly operating as a quasi-sequel. Can you talk about the importance of the late great Agnès Varda in your life, both as a person and as a filmmaker?
The first film I saw of hers was Sans toit ni loi [Vagabond] with Sandrine Bonnaire. I adored this film. I saw it when it came out so I must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time, and it came out before Jane B. by Agnès V., so I admired her work before she entered our lives. Then I discovered a film that I loved called Cléo de cinq à sept [Cléo from 5 to 7] and I was just stunned by the film itself and Agnès’s personality. I was a teenager when she started shooting the documentary on my mum and I just hated the fact that there was a film crew in our house, morning ’til night, every day for a year. It was so painful. I remember just shutting my door and hating the whole thing. So I hated her for that. But in fact, she was quite funny.

Joan Didion gears up for Griffin Dunne’s documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017).
Joan Didion gears up for Griffin Dunne’s documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017).

Besides Varda’s films, which documentaries mean the most to you? Were there any others that you used as points of reference when approaching Jane by Charlotte?
The one I think of because of the mother-daughter relationship is this crazy Grey Gardens. Thank god we’re not the same characters. I love that documentary and I did watch it again. The documentary that helped me during the shoot of mine was a documentary that Griffin Dunne did about his aunt Joan Didion. I’m not familiar with Joan Didion in the way American audiences are, so I discovered her work afterwards. It’s such a moving documentary because it’s her nephew filming her and you can see that there’s a really kind eye.

When I was first shooting my film in Japan, we were at a breaking point and [Jane] said “I hated this experience, I want you to stop.” So I stopped, I respected her choice, but I didn’t understand what I had done so wrong. A few years later when she came to New York to visit, I showed her the footage that we shot for the Japan piece and she saw the emotion that you could clearly see was interesting. You could also see that there was something really awkward about it, but it wasn’t bad, and it certainly wasn’t unkind, so then she said okay, let’s start again.

It was thanks to watching the footage and also the documentary about Joan Didion. It helps when there’s a kind eye—there’s something very touching about the proposition.

Do you have any films that you have fond memories of watching with your mother or father?
I was taken to the cinema in London by my mother with my sister Kate when I was four to see Jaws and it’s the most terrifying experience because I was so young. To this day, I can’t really swim in the sea. It was the most horrific thing she could have done. She didn’t realize that it was a horror film, I don’t know what she thought. Anyway, she and Spielberg are responsible for my fear of the deep sea. Even swimming pools, sometimes. That’s the horrible thing about it, is that I’m a very good swimmer but not in a natural habitat.

That was my very fond memory of my mother taking me to the movies. My father never did. He was very famous, so going out was always a big deal. We went to restaurants and the stores, but never to the movies or theater. When my parents split in 1980, that’s when VHS started, and in his bedroom, he put a large screen that looked like a movie theater, it was so big. At that time, it was such a discovery to be able to pick films and what seems so banal today was incredible then.

He showed me every classic, every film that meant something to him. The Disneys too, the old ones that he had seen as a kid. The strongest memories I have are also of horror films, because he was very fond of horror, so we watched The Shining when I was quite young—I must have been nine or ten—and Carrie, A Clockwork Orange. Anyway, it was mostly horror movies, and mostly American and Italian films.

A beach that doesn’t terrify Charlotte Gainsbourg featured in Some Like It Hot (1959).
A beach that doesn’t terrify Charlotte Gainsbourg featured in Some Like It Hot (1959).

What are some films that we wouldn’t expect you–Charlotte Gainsbourg, the star of tough-to-watch arthouse Lars von Trier movies, and a survivor of horror movies inflicted upon you—to love?
Some Like It Hot is on the top shelf of comedies, I have a passion for Billy Wilder. [I also watch] all sorts of comedies that are done nowadays. Films that I can watch with my children mean a lot to me. My youngest is at an age where it’s incredible to start her film journey, to show her stuff that she’ll remember. I’m trying to navigate through the masterpieces—not too many masterpieces at once—and then the shitty stuff that’s always good to watch. My favorite film when I was young was always Grease and it’s a film I’ve shown my three children when they touch that age when they could be real fans. That’s a classic for us.

What coming-of-age film characters did you relate to the most growing up?
I was very affected by the children that I had seen in films. Taxi Driver of course. I don’t relate to [Travis Bickle]—it’s [Robert De Niro’s] performance that’s incredible—but Jodie Foster is an actress that I was watching, I was very focused on her acting. There was this young boy, the main character in a film by Luis Buñuel called Los olvidados [The Young and the Damned] and I was so in love with this character. I would brush my hair the same way as him. It’s funny how I related to boys the same way I did to girls.

There’s also another film, Jeux interdits [Forbidden Games], again with children, and Brigitte Fossey was the little girl, she was four or five, it’s a film I’ve loved since I was a child. I don’t know if that was the question because these were films that I grew up with and looking at those performances meant something to me. I never saw myself on screen.

Charlotte Gainsbourg loves to love The Night of the Hunter (1955).
Charlotte Gainsbourg loves to love The Night of the Hunter (1955).

Thinking of your photography side, what do you consider the most beautiful film?
No hesitation, it’s The Night of the Hunter. The details of the soundtrack are incredible, then the acting, of course. Again, it’s a film that my father showed me very young and he adored Robert Mitchum, so he was a very strong figure for me. The black-and-white is so incredibly beautiful, and the frames, I mean, everything. This film is just magical. It’s both haunting and, yes, it’s scary, and at the same time there’s the innocence of the two children. Yeah, it’s still very powerful for me.

What do you feel is the sexiest, most erotic film?
I adore Jane Campion, and before I saw An Angel at My Table I saw The Piano. I remember a love scene that was so incredibly sexual and the fact that it was shot by a woman made so much sense. I’d say that film, but it’s only one scene. I sort of remember Year of the Dragon. It’s very rare to know how to film sex scenes or erotic scenes [so it doesn’t] jump out of the film, I feel those are the most difficult scenes to shoot, so maybe The Piano is a good one.

Which recent films have you loved?
The last one that blew my mind, though it’s a [limited] series, is Scenes from a Marriage. The director Hagai Levi is Israeli and he also did The Affair TV series. I think he’s brilliant. It’s not a film, you wanted me to choose a real film rather than a miniseries? For me, Paul Thomas Anderson is the most talented director nowadays. I loved Phantom Thread, but it’s not very recent. I want to see Licorice Pizza!

Jane By Charlotte’ is available on digital from May 6, just in time for Mother’s Day, courtesy of Utopia.

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