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Jane by Charlotte is the new documentary produced by Charlotte Gainsbourgh, and is the singer's chance to reconnect with her 75-year-old mother, singer Jane Birkin.Nolita Cinema - Deadly Valentine/Nolita Cinema - Deadly Valentine

“Why do we learn to live without our mothers?” the actress and musician Charlotte Gainsbourg (Melancholia, Call My Agent) muses near the end of her bittersweet new documentary Jane by Charlotte, her directorial debut. “To free ourselves at any cost?”

Jane, of course, is Gainsbourg’s mother, the actress and singer Jane Birkin. British-born, French in spirit, she embodied the insouciant glamour of the 1960s and seventies so thoroughly that Hermes named its most iconic bag for her. During Birkin’s 12-year relationship with Gainsbourg’s father, the singer and actor Serge Gainsbourg, they were Europe’s sexiest couple; their wattage burned like Angelina and Brad, J Lo and Ben, and Beyonce and Jay Z combined.

That story has been told in other documentaries, including Agnes Varda’s Jane B. par Agnès V. Gainsbourg’s goal is much more personal: to forge an honest adult relationship with her mother, who is now 75, before it’s too late. The resulting film (which opens in Toronto and Quebec theatres on April 8) is a quirky, oddly moving compilation of half-completed conversations, quiet contemplations, and admissions that seem offhand but cut deep.

“We always had some kind of distance between us,” Gainsbourg, 50, told me in a recent phone interview. Her voice is distinctive, tinged with both English and French accents, musical but also grave, as if each word is a note plucked on a lute. “I became private around 12. I didn’t understand why I was so shy with my mother. I didn’t want to be a stranger to her. I felt the need to try and get close.”

The film began in 2017, when Birkin was doing a concert in Tokyo. Gainsbourg joined her with a small camera crew and “a vague impulse” to shoot some footage. “But I had no idea really of what I was looking for,” she says. They set up a lovely shot in a serene hotel and immediately plunged into a psychological pinball machine, banging (civilly) from one intimate issue to the next: how Birkin had always felt intimidated by Gainsbourg (“I took that badly,” Gainsbourg says); who was jealous of whom; how present and affectionate a mother should be.

“I told myself, if I’m interviewing my mother it has to be personal, there’s no point in being superficial,” Gainsbourg says. “But she felt completely trapped, so we stopped.”

Months went by. Birkin visited Gainsbourg in New York, where she lives with her partner of many years, the French-Israeli actor and director Yvan Attal. (They have three children. Gainsbourg tries “to be as close with them as possible,” she says, “even to be a little overwhelming sometimes, in order not to have that same barrier.”)

Gainsbourg, who had never watched the footage from Japan, asked her mother if they could view it together. “We saw something that was yes, very awkward, but in an honest, gracious way,” Gainsbourg says. “Jane said, ‘It’s not as violent as I remembered it.’” So they carried on shooting – during a concert Birkin gave in New York; during a family trip to Birkin’s coastal retreat in Brittany, France. Gainsbourg had envisioned other trips, with other family members chiming in, but COVID-19 struck, which “nailed the film down to just my mother and me.”

By the end of shooting, the pair did feel closer, and “that’s something I’ll treasure forever,” Gainsbourg says. “But then we went back to our old selves, with the same distance.” Gainsbourg still isn’t convinced that her mother likes the film, though Birkin assures her she does.

Nor has Gainsbourg fully ferreted out the root of the “formality” that lies between them. Maybe it’s because she started working at 14, spending her vacations on movie sets, “having a life of my own.” Maybe it’s because, after her parents separated, she had a one-to-one connection with her father, unlike the “recomposed family” that she had with Birkin, who had one child apiece with three different men. (The moment in the film where Birkin extols the virtues of having “one child per father” feels exceedingly French.)

Or maybe it’s because when Serge died – Gainsbourg was 19 – Birkin embarked on a lengthy concert tour in homage to him. “So we didn’t share that grieving together,” Gainsbourg says. “I was very much on my own. Then I met Yvan, who I still share my life with. We had a strong, intimate relation that was distant to anything else.”

As scratchy and singular as Gainsbourg and Birkin’s connection is, audiences are finding the universal in it. “Talking with the public after screenings, I see it resonating very strongly, which is so charming and touching to me,” Gainsbourg says. “People saying they will go home and call their mother. People saying, ‘I wish my mother was still alive so I could say these things to her.’ It’s quite powerful to me.”

Birkin’s biggest revelation happened after the film, during one of the pair’s joint interviews. “Jane said, ‘It’s only when I saw the film that I understood I meant something for Charlotte,’” Gainsbourg says, wonder audible in her voice. “During all these years, she’d had doubt. She thought I adored my father, because I put him on a pedestal, because I lost him when I was young. I know now I didn’t show her enough. So maybe one purpose of this film was to make a proper love declaration.”

Gainsbourg may have learned to live without her mother, but now she’s learning to live with her. “I love our relationship,” she says. “We’ve acknowledged it, so it feels more real and more appreciated. It’s true to who we both are.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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