By all accounts, Jane by Charlotte seems to be a therapeutic exercise, but for outside viewers, it’s a languidly paced and essentially shapeless film.
Released in 1988, Jane B. par Agnés V. stands as both a major work in the filmography of Agnés Varda and one of the rare essential instances of cinematic celebrity biography. Varda’s film positions the British star/model/actress/singer as both subject and active collaborator with the two using playful, unconventional interview and acting exercise to articulate Birkin’s story and character, avoiding rote, literal-minded explanation. Jane B. par Agnés V. was conceived as a celebration of Birkin as she entered her 40th year on the planet, and now, as she approaches 75, daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg (who just celebrated her 50th birthday) picks up where Varda left off with a new documentary portrait of her mother entitled Jane by Charlotte. Or at least, that’s the idea in theory, but Gainsbourg (making her directorial debut) isn’t really interested in continuing the late Varda’s project beyond the allusion of her title and the basic premise of following Birkin around with a camera.
Jane by Charlotte adopts a very loose structure built around a world concert tour that Birkin was in the midst of pre-pandemic, Gainsbourg’s film initially focusing on her mother’s international celebrity and persistent artistry, before veering into more generalized, slice-of-life content in response to COVID travel restrictions. As Gainsbourg attests to in opening voiceover, this project presents an opportunity for mother and daughter to approach each other as they are unable to in everyday life, the tension between director/subject (and audience) bringing with it a potential to disrupt the rules and boundaries of their dynamic. Alas, not only does Gainsbourg end up ignoring the precedent set by Varda, but she fails to really rise to her own ideals here, never locating a particularly interesting angle from which to address her mother. Which isn’t to say that Jane by Charlotte doesn’t manage some candid moments, especially when it comes to getting Birkin to discuss her fraught relationship with her appearance as she’s aged and the persistent reminders of mortality that pursue her at 74. Death hangs over much of Jane by Charlotte, the fathers of 2 of Birkin’s children having now passed on (first husband John Barry and Charlotte’s father Serge), as well as daughter Kate Barry who left us in 2014, but its Varda’s absence that is felt most here, the film bearing none of her whimsy or imagination. Languidly paced and basically shapeless (a hasty voiceover at the end wraps the film up on a graceless note), Jane by Charlotte appears to have been a therapeutic exercise for this mother-daughter duo, but not so engaging for the rest of us.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2021 — Dispatch 5.