This article is published in number 41 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until 12 October 2021
Modesty and the camera. Here are the only two things that remain between them, a mother and a daughter who, after decades of distance and misunderstanding, find themselves in the same bed, strolling, at the table, next to each other at last and almost if it were the first time. It is the magic of Jane by Charlotte, the docufilm with which Charlotte gainsbourg makes his directorial debut, premiered at Cannes Film Festival and that is making the rounds of film reviews around the world, enjoying success everywhere.
I met her at the Venice Film Festival, where she presented two films, Sundown by Michel Franco e Human things, directed by partner Yvan Attal, actor, director and screenwriter of Jewish origin, the man who picked it up at the age of 19 when it was falling apart for the loss of his father Serge, a French rock star. Yvan was the solid ground on which to build an existential dimension and a figure of his own, freeing himself from bulky ghosts.
With him she had three children (Ben, Alice and Joe), she began to sign songs with her real name and above all to sing in French, the language that drew her closer to the myth of the parent. It also took Lars Von Trier, to make her find herself. The Danish director undressed and battered her for good in body and spirit, and with Antichrist he gave her the Palme d’Or and an extended fame.
A new balance seemed to be found, then eight years ago the beloved sister Kate took her own life in Paris. She fled to New York, leaving France and her wounds behind. Now she has returned home. Meeting her, one feels that something has changed. Charlotte has finally set her gaze on her mother, accepting the delicate confrontation with her. The mother is the English model and singer Jane Birkin, a 74-year-old icon (as we write these lines, is recovering from a stroke) who had a daughter for all her love: Charlotte from Serge, Kate from her first husband John Barry (cult composer like the 007 saga) and Lou by director Jacques Doillon. With Jane by Charlotte, personal and beautiful portrait, a daughter meets her mother and asks her very uncomfortable questions.
How did you feel at the end of the shoot?
“Watching my film as a director with the audience, I felt bad. I perceived all the weaknesses and above all I said to myself: “But why should my family be of interest to anyone? What you did is indecent! ”. They tried to point out that the spectators were very touched, but I was too nervous to notice ».
How did the idea for a film about your mother come about?
“I wanted to share the same closeness she had with my sisters, Kate and Lou. We were very different. With films, I created a family of my own – I started when I was only 13 – and this created a distance between us. My parents had separated four years ago, and I was very close to my father. I was privileged because I lived with him on weekends and continued to be his only child… With my mother everything was different ».
Then his father died …
“It has been a great hole to fill for years, and also everything I’ve shown about myself to the world. At that point in my life came Yvan. I have always experienced one person at a time in an exclusive way. At that point I created a “real” family of my own ».
Cutting off his mother.
“My interest in her has blown her off for this very reason. I never made her understand that I needed her, I felt bad for always having loved her without ever showing her. But it wasn’t my only mistake. ‘
«I started my film by shooting one of his concerts in Tokyo, then our long interview in a garden. I was too direct, we were at the beginning. She thought I was invasive and that I was trying to make her feel guilty, which is often the case (laughs). I’m shy, I didn’t know how to ask her for things. So he stopped me: “I hate Japan and I hate what you are doing” ».
End of collaboration.
“I felt terrible, I didn’t look at those pictures again until she came to see me in New York, there I asked her if she wanted to see the footage with me. The whole was really beautiful, exciting. He told me: “We can start working again”. I tried to be as gentle as possible. She liked it very much, at a certain point we didn’t want it to end anymore, it was wonderful ».
I asked her everything, even if what I live at my age she has also experienced
Has this experience changed your relationship?
“I don’t know if we have learned a lot about each other, for sure we have had a very valuable experience. At first I just wanted to spend time with her, be very close to her. I don’t know what I was looking for, I wanted an excuse to look at it with a magnifying glass. And I needed an authorization, I wanted it to be official ».
Have you had other moments of crisis?
“We lost my sister Kate eight years ago and I ran away to New York because I didn’t want to feel close to home anymore. It was very hard for her, I disappeared when she felt very bad. Then, when I returned to Paris, a little over a year ago, I entered a great depression ».
Had New York distracted her?
“It was all so new, I was able to write new songs, to take pictures, it was a very intimate but boundless period. There they recognized me for my work, I was no longer the daughter of Jane and Serge, I had my own identity. With the first wave of Covid I was very scared, I was in New York with my daughter, Yvan was in Paris with our son, it was absurd to find ourselves suddenly so far away, outside my country, with this Trump who talked all the time … I felt I needed to be close to my mother, the idea was to go back. But moving from the energy of New York to the French country house rented for the pandemic was brutal. My ghosts, the city of Paris, the museum I wanted to do for my father, everything was tremendously in the air, shaken ».
Did your mother help you at that point?
“We wanted to shoot a part of a film in Brittany, everything was ready, but Jane realized I wasn’t well. At that point our roles reversed, she was helping me, and her answers to my questions started to be very generous. For my mother it has always been easy to help if things went wrong, she has a role there, she is the mother. It’s when things go well that he doesn’t know what to do. “
Talk about everything from fear of getting old to sex: Don’t you have forbidden questions?
“We also have taboos, not things we don’t want to talk about, but topics we don’t want to tackle in front of a camera. So there were limits ».
Is “modesty” the right word?
“Perfectly, in French it’s not saying too much. But from a certain point on, I asked her everything I wanted, everything I go through at my age, to find out if she lived it too. Then I wanted to photograph her ».
As spectators it is very strong to hear her mother say to her “I would have liked to touch you, to have physical contact with you”.
“One day he told me that since I was 12 I’ve always been a kind of stranger, an unreachable person. It struck me a lot, I never understood why there was this distance between us. Maybe that’s why I made a film about it ».
Photo: Casper Sejersen.
Report: Camille Bidault-Waddington.
Marie Grisquard and Aline Mia Kaestli collaborated.
Make-up Satoko Watanabe@Artlist using Laura Mercier.
Hair Pawel Solis@Artlist using LeonorGreyl.
Manicure Julie Villanova.
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