Merci Jane

Emma Wilson

In the catalogue for the current Varda exhibition at the Paris Cinémathèque (which runs through January 2024), Jane Birkin writes to her friend and collaborator: “Dear Agnès V., tu me manques en tout. On a envie de te revoir. La mort est triste!” (“Dear Agnès V. I miss you every way. We want to see you again. Death is sad!”) In the light of her own death this past summer, Birkin’s tribute takes on an unanticipated poignancy. La mort est triste indeed.

Varda’s feminist masterpiece Jane B par Agnès V (1988) presented an indelible portrait of the British actress and singer so beloved of the French. Decades later, Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, herself an actress and singer, updated Varda’s portrait of her mother in her own film Jane par Charlotte (2021).

Rewatching Jane par Charlotte in the wake of Birkin’s death this July is an affecting, revelatory experience. Gainsbourg’s film is touching and just in its simplicity. An early scene places Jane and Charlotte in the camera’s frame with a tranquil Japanese garden, leaf-green, emerald, opening out behind them. Translucent tea steams in clear glass bowls on a low table before them. The conversation melts the reserve between them, as Jane explains how she was intimidated by Charlotte as a child. Off-camera, Charlotte responds, questioning whether it was like that even when she was very small, and Jane says she felt privileged to be in her daughter’s presence, even then. The tea ritual holds their relationship’s delicacy and their mutual courtship.

The scene gives space for a mother to speak about her daughter as someone unknown to her, however close, and for sensing her daughter’s feelings about this distance. Charlotte’s reaction holds, I think, some involuntary hurt. It conjures for me an image of Charlotte as a small child, already autonomous and alien to her mother. But there is no judgement of Jane. Conversations appear here as unfinished, possessing an infinite capacity to open out in new ways.

Kudos to Gainsbourg for her love, her sensitivity, for having these conversations, for making this film, holding Birkin on camera at a time, it turns out, so soon before her passing. The film’s first footage (the Japan scenes) dates from 2017, its final footage (on the beach in Brittany and in Serge Gainsbourg’s house museum in Paris) from September 2020.

In whispered words at the end of the film, Charlotte confesses that she is afraid of Jane’s illness, of her age, of time that runs on and passes too quickly. She asks whether she should just behave as if Jane will always be alive. In carefree moments of the film this is just what she does, as they go shopping for food locally in Brittany, and Jane prepares a meal, as they spend time with Jo, Charlotte’s youngest child, whose happiness and freedom seem also part of the story. 

In a booklet that accompanies the film’s DVD release, Birkin writes that the experience of making and viewing the film was deeply distressing (she uses the word bouleversant), but the beauty of the project was that other mothers and daughters could understand and relate to it. She continues that it revealed her daughter as tender and accessible to her in ways she had not known for a long time. Gainsbourg writes that the camera gave her a pretext to look at her mother, words that echo her comment near the end of the film that the more she looks at her mother, the more she loves her. In a late scene Charlotte sits in bed with Jane, in blanched shots, white sheets. The film seems made to hold their romance.      

Birkin, in person and on camera, right up to late recorded images of her life, has something that makes her erotic, disarming, sunny, melancholy, alive. She is unabashed, a quality that surely drew Varda to her, with an impressionability that feels like strength. Her sex-positive feminism led her to collaborate with Varda, and cinematographer Nurith Aviv, on a nude shot in Jane B. par Agnès V. where the camera moves slowly over the length of Jane’s reclining, naked body to rest on her smiling face. Kung-fu Master (1988), a film Varda made from a fantasy of Birkin’s, explores a woman’s love for a teenage boy. As Sandy Flitterman-Lewis remarks, Varda’s approach to portraiture acknowledges that “fantasy and desire are as much a part of the person as are physical features.” In Jane par Charlotte, Jane speaks about the beauty of Charlotte’s adolescent body and her own feelings of fascination, prompting Charlotte to reflect on how she feels about her own elder daughter, Alice. This honesty is part of what is distinctive about Birkin, and it turns out Gainsbourg too, their mutual willingness to touch upon what is disavowed or fearful, and making it seem right to let it into the light.

As an actress, singer, and muse, Birkin has been in the public eye since the 1960s. She reflected movingly in Varda’s film about her personal beauty. For Ginette Vincendeau, in an obituary for Birkin, Jane B par Agnès V explores not just Jane B. but “the visual construction of femininity in our culture.” Birkin has also reflected more specifically on her exit from the role of muse for male artists. This is accompanied by her own attention to women. Her highly visible attachments to her mother (the actress Judy Campbell, who appears in Kung-fu Master), her female friends, an early girl crush, and most of all to her daughters, Kate Barry, Charlotte, Lou Doillon, mark out, for me, her feminist consciousness. Note the recent words of B. Ruby Rich, in Film Quarterly: “Birkin shaped me as a woman.”

In the last decade of her life, Birkin became an author, publishing her diaries as well as collaborating on an intimate family album, with photographs of herself, her daughters, and Serge. She has written beautifully about her feelings for all her daughters in her published works. There have also been other collaborations, a book of photographs and a documentary, with her friend, photographer Gabrielle Crawford.   

Jane par Charlotte exists in the ten-year interlude between the death of Birkin’s eldest daughter, Kate Barry, in 2013, and Jane’s own in 2023. In the film, Charlotte projects childhood photos and home movie footage in Jane’s home, and Jane is overwhelmed, unable to bear the images of Kate as a child. Although Birkin stopped keeping a diary after Kate’s death, Gainsbourg’s’s film supplies some record of her mother’s continued life: her tours, her signings, her domesticity in her home at the far tip of Brittany, its landscapes of pines, dunes, pale beaches, and harbors. Kate’s death is a shadow and Jane is in its pall. Charlotte films family photos, mementos in the house. And with Jane she visits Serge Gainsbourg’s house, which she inherited and preserved, and that opened as a museum earlier this year. Jane says she would never have dared to ask to come back here. In a macabre touch, Serge’s food remains in his refrigerator, untouched.  The closeness Jane and Charlotte find seems to depend on the space they leave each other, free from professional rivalry, bound by loss. In a light-filled sequence in New York, they share borscht and smoked fish at Russ and Daughters, a small communion unremarked.

In conversation with Miranda July, Varda remarked about Birkin: “What I love about how her mind works is that she never erased things that had happened in her life, no matter what happened.” In Jane par Charlotte, Gainsbourg pays tribute to this candor, with love. I felt it when I saw Jane Birkin perform at the Standard Hotel in London on New Year’s Eve 2020, in that band of time when the pandemic was present but not yet known. She signed my copy of Agnès Varda’s Kung-fu Master (1988) in red felt tip: “Happy New Year Emma 2020. Jane.”

Emma Wilson FBA teaches French at the University of Cambridge and is a contributing editor at Film Quarterly. She has written about Jane Birkin previously in her 2019 project, The Reclining Nude: Agnès Varda, Catherine Breillat, and Nan Goldin. She is currently working on a short book about the films of Alice Rohrwacher.

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