Jane par Agnès par Charlotte: The Matrilineal Cinema of Jane Birkin

Two documentaries, a new one by Charlotte Gainsbourg and a 1988 one by Agnès Varda, explore the woman behind the fashion and film icon.
Lillian Crawford

At the start of Jane B. par Agnès V., a 1988 documentary made about singer and actress Jane Birkin by, well, the French director Agnès Varda, Birkin sits in period dress and looks directly at the camera with her characteristic deadpan expression. She talks about the nausea she feels when she looks at herself in the mirror and sees the signs of aging on her body. She has just turned 40 but talks as though she is much older, the consequence of experience.

At the 2021 Cannes premiere of her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg’s new documentary, titled Jane par Charlotte in deliberate homage to Varda’s film, Birkin is 74. She arrives dressed in the relaxed-fit blue jeans and oversized white shirt she made iconic in her twenties. She seems to be inviting comparison, to highlight how much she has aged while retaining her je ne sais quoi. Something so deliberate must come from a position of self-confidence, to celebrate how she has changed since the height of her fame in the 1960s and 70s.

These reflections differ greatly from the stylized images created through film and photo shoots Birkin appeared in during her twenties, or even Varda’s 1988 drama film Kung Fu Master,which starred Birkin in the lead role after she conceived the plot while filming the documentary. Birkin established her own image as an it-girl of the Swinging Sixties in London, having starred briefly in the 1965 British New Wave movie The Knack ...and How to Get It before her controversial nude appearance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up in 1966. After starring in erotic thriller La piscine in 1969, Birkin became an icon of French fashion, which led to her performing the title song for the film Slogan with chanteur Serge Gainsbourg.

The couple made headlines the same year with the duet “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” originally written for Gainsbourg’s last lover, Brigitte Bardot. The ensuing scandal created by Birkin’s orgasmic moans on the single made her a symbol of an era of women’s sexual liberation. She also worked with Gainsbourg on the 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson, in which she appeared as the album’s Lolita-like title character. The couple’s time together has been romanticized as a sexy fever dream, the basis for films such as the 2010 biopic Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) in which Birkin was played by CoverGirl model Lucy Gordon. It is this very fever dream which the documentaries have sought to disperse.

In both films, Birkin talks about getting older without directly addressing what has matured her. So what has altered her appearance? Smoking, of course, though that goes unsaid. But more significant are the intense periods of stress she has experienced—living with the notoriously difficult Serge Gainsbourg, the premature death of her first daughter Kate Barry in 2013—events which Birkin refers to without much consideration of how they impacted her health, even when prompted by Varda or Gainsbourg as interviewer and director. 

Late in Jane par Charlotte, Gainsbourg takes Birkin back to her childhood home on the rue de Verneuil in Paris where they lived with Serge. Birkin says that she hasn’t been here for 30 years, and it appears to be a perfectly preserved bohemian haunt frozen in time. It’s a disconcerting illusion—Serge died here in 1991. Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed. While Birkin’s personality still seems youthful, she admits to having considered plastic surgery. The passage of time is presented in the film as both an inevitability and a choice.

That being said, Birkin does seem more at ease with herself in 2021 than she did in 1988. Varda loved mirrors, using them in her documentaries such as The Beaches of Agnès (2008) to reflect more than surface aesthetics. For Varda, the camera itself was a mirror through which she could show Birkin how others see her and help her to see her aging body as beautiful—as we age, we can learn to admire the process itself. Varda too experienced terrible grief from the death of her husband, fellow New Wave director Jacques Demy, in 1990, and considered the effect of losing him on her appearance in her later films.

The loss of father figures in these women’s lives seems to have strengthened their maternal bonds. Birkin gave birth to Kate during her three-year marriage to the film composer John Barry in the late ‘60s, whom she raised with Serge Gainsbourg along with their own daughter, Charlotte, until their separation in 1980. She had a third daughter in 1982, the singer and actress Lou Doillon, with the film director Jacques Doillon from whom she also separated in 1991. Varda was also close to her daughter, Rosalie, who produced her 2017 documentary, Visages Villages and starred in several of her mother’s films, including One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977), prior to Demy’s death. 

These matrilineal chains are worth outlining to show how much they overlap, and the value they have provided both for the women themselves and for other women watching their films. Their experiences are simultaneously isolated in their own artistic world and relatable to universal female empathy. All women form connections to other women, both ancestral and chosen. The two documentaries about Jane Birkin are very similar in the themes they address and the revelations they force their subject to come to, but one is made by a friend and the other a daughter. Considered together like this, they are a powerful reminder that connections between generations of women need not be genetic.

The films are nonetheless very different from each other. Jane par Charlotte treats Birkin as a mother, albeit one whom Gainsbourg feels at a certain remove from at the start. It consists of a series of intimate conversations the two women shared between a concert Birkin gave in Tokyo in 2017, and October 2020 when Gainsbourg decided to return to Paris from America. Gainsbourg tells her mother that the film will “look at you as I’ve never looked at you before.” Birkin admits to her daughter that when she was born she felt Charlotte was “unknown territory,” a gap which only now seems to be closing before our eyes.

By contrast, Jane B. par Agnès V. is an exploration of who Birkin could have been in order to celebrate who she actually is. These diverging paths, like the figs on the fig tree which represent different possibilities to Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, are staged as a series of vignettes. Some are humorous, imagining her as Stan Laurel in a black-and-white silent comedy, while others are devastatingly emotional, replacing Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc

These set pieces are presented as bits of fun, which they are, but they also participate in Birkin’s mythologization as a woman defined not by time or space. The varying emotions that they encourage Birkin to demonstrate, and to elicit in us as spectators, present her personality from every angle. She is multifaceted, everlasting, and most assuredly human. It’s a much more interesting approach than Varda’s last film in 2019, a self-reflexive documentary knowingly titled Varda par Agnès, which plays out as a more conventional retrospective where Varda plays both roles as director and subject. 

Indeed, the most powerful moments in Varda’s late documentaries are not the clips from her earlier work but the fantastical settings like those she created for Birkin. Visages Villages took one such concept, the pasting of blown-up portraits of everyday people on buildings across France, and ran with it. Varda saw beauty in everyone, and she had an incredible ability to help others to see that in themselves. Those giant print-out faces she created were effectively miniature versions of her film about Birkin, to show us ourselves from an entirely new angle.

Visages Villages is an incredibly rustic film, a refreshing view of France not centered on the urbanity of Paris. Given Birkin’s reputation as a modern woman, it’s notable that both documentaries about her remove the city girl from the city. Much of Jane par Charlotte takes place at Birkin’s country home, featuring Gainsbourg’s ten-year-old daughter Jo in several scenes as three generations of women in this legendary family come together. The setting gives them the necessary breathing space to open up to each other, entirely removed from distraction.

One such conversation takes place between Birkin and Gainsbourg as they lie in bed together and discuss their sleeping habits. Birkin says she has always struggled to sleep, taking large numbers of pills and trying every technique she could find. It’s a relatable scene of intimacy, of the sort of conversation we have when we are overtired but cannot sleep, aimless and sometimes nonsensical. It’s a theme that runs through the film—charmingly and realistically unstructured in a way documentaries rarely allow themselves to be.

It is remarkably similar to a conversation in Chantal Akerman’s 1978 film Les rendez-vous d’Anna in which Anna, played by Aurore Clément, and her mother, played by Lea Massari, lie together naked and discuss their respective sex lives and sexualities. The openness is characteristically French and thus totally devoid of sexualisation, providing the perfect staging for such frank discussion. In Jane par Charlotte, Birkin recalls her desire to see her daughter naked when she was 14 so that she could compare her breasts with her own, something she confesses to always being self-conscious about. It’s something Gainsbourg confesses to having asked her own daughter in turn.

This non-Hollywood approach to the female body and sex has been characteristic of both women’s acting careers. Birkin appeared in Serge Gainsbourg’s own 1976 movie named for their infamous duet, Je t’aime moi non plus, which largely focuses on anal experimentation, as well as Jacques Rivette’s sexually explicit 1991 film La belle noiseuse. Charlotte Gainsbourg has appeared several films by Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, including his two-part Nymphomaniac in 2013 in which she plays the titular sex addict. As the central character, Gainsbourg becomes a vessel to explore the many facets of sexuality and desire without ever being glamorized.

These films are fascinating subversions of what we expect to see from a male director in terms of the “gaze,” of how the camera depicts the female body. At the start of Jane B. par Agnès V. Birkin attempts to avoid the camera, but Varda insists upon the necessity of her gaze, telling Birkin, “You must play by the rules. Look at the camera as much as you can.” Birkin explains her difficulty by finding the immediacy of the camera in her face “too personal.” Varda reminds her that she isn’t alone in the filming process, as “there’ll be the camera, which is a bit me.” It makes a difference when it’s a woman, especially a friend or loved one operating the filming process. These films remind us that the camera is never just an object—it adopts the persona of the person operating it.

The passing of the baton continues—the artist Jenna Gribbon created a series of paintings titled Agnès V par Jenna G in homage to Varda’s documentary about Birkin in 2021. These are portraits in the classical sense with the focus on the body in natural scenarios. Varda died in 2019, yet she continues to exist through her films and works such as Gribbon’s paintings which prevent her from changing any further. Birkin has similarly been recorded and preserved, allowing her to exist simultaneously in the past, present, and future. But we can’t do this alone—it requires intergenerational female collectives to keep the legacies of women alive, and to present us as we see each other rather than through the gaze of men.

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Jane BirkinAgnès VardaCharlotte Gainsbourg
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