Jane By Charlotte Review: The Discovery Of A Mother Is A Quiet, Contemplatively Beautiful Thing

Mothers, for all their generosity and openness, are mysterious. Whether or not you have a bond with yours, you probably found yourself curious about aspects of her life you might not even know about. If you were able to make a visual scrapbook about the moment you were finally able to ask those questions, would you? Actress Charlotte Gainsbourg seemingly jumped at the chance to immortalize that moment for herself in her new documentary "Jane By Charlotte," during which she connects with her mother, Jane Birkin, in a way it doesn't seem like she has before. Through Gainsbourg's stylized yet simplistic take on a family reckoning, audiences are able to take a piece of catharsis home with them — and it's hard not to notice how the filmmaker's honest pursuit of her mother's deepest truths mirrors the common experience in a beautiful way.

"Jane By Charlotte" is an intimate look at Birkin through the eyes of Gainsbourg, her second daughter. Through new images and footage, as well as archival visuals, the pair take time to revisit their past, delve into old wounds, and recontextualize Birkin's life through the gaps in knowledge Gainsbourg had about her famous mother over the years. With Gainsbourg's older sister's death still coloring the fabric of their lives, the film — and Gainsbourg herself — attempts to illuminate the blind spots, understand Birkin as a parent, and look back at how her choices have shaped her unconventional family.

This is not a documentary in the conventional sense — and Gainsbourg seemed to realize that herself while filming. It's a moment she decided to keep in the film, where she explains to her mother that she's starting to understand the laissez-faire approach to documentary making where you don't script it out beforehand. You just let the story find you as you shoot and make sense of the footage in the editing room. She seems to battle with these two spirit guides on her shoulders, the one that says make this a Film and the other that says just capture her at any cost, throughout the movie.

There are a lot of formal shots, almost acting as salons that she sets up with both herself and her mother in frame, making sure to highlight their connection as the focal point of the film rather than just Birkin's life. But there are also a lot of photographs shown on screen, pictures of Birkin now and then, as well as glimpses into her early family life. Additionally, footage shot by Gainsbourg in the now also explores Birkin in a way we rarely allow older women to be explored. The filmmaker uses these technical aspects to approach her mother in a way that feels familiar to anyone with a connection to a parent: with awe, intrigue, admiration, and curiosity. It's nice to see Gainsbourg turn the camera onto someone else and step back from the spotlight as well — her technical skill shines in the way she paints a picture of what her mother has become with varied stylistic shots and mosaics of photographs.

What Gainsbourg is looking for in Birkin

Naturally, the technical aspects and specificity of the shots Gainsbourg frames this project with lend to the story being told, but where the film does the real heavy lifting is with the dialogue between mother and child. There are so many things a child may not know about their parent, and for a long time, there are walls up that prevent us from discovering those things that make our parents people. We're usually too young for their wild stories, or to process the depth of their traumas; to understand what they've been through and how their experiences become a mosaic of a life lived. But when we grow up, those walls come down, and the barriers between parent and child melt away. For some, the process is slower than others but eventually, the child finds themselves as equals with the parent, on the same playing field of life navigating the same rocky waters. That maturity allows for introspection and real meaningful conversation about the things that matter, the things that were never said, the things we've always wanted to know. Even the little things you might've never thought to ask — and Gainsbourg asks her mother a lot of those. That's exactly what this documentary is, a living document for that introspection and genuine connection. There's a beautiful openness in Birkin, who seems to be thrilled to finally hold court with her daughter in this way. Like a lot of mothers, I'm sure she was waiting for it.

The point of this documentary is not to dig into Birkin's life and oeuvre, the point is the discovery of a mother. Birkin's life has been one of public scrutiny, from her relationships to her career and her storied sex appeal, but yet there are a lot of unanswered questions that get asked between Birkin and Gainsbourg. It highlights how a public life can still yield secrets, and it's really lovely to watch Gainsbourg tap into those memories — especially ones about her father, singer Serge Gainsbourg, or her late elder half-sister, Kate Barry — with her mother in a way that feels both innocent and lived in.

It's fair to note that while it's easy to see that there is a catharsis here for Birkin and Gainsbourg, it's also true that the film lacks a bit of context about why there's a need for catharsis in the first place. The French matriarch and her middle child have had a fraught relationship throughout their lives, peppered with tense awkwardness. Throughout the film, they patch up bygone misunderstandings and it never actually seems like there was a rift between them at all. It's almost as though life has imbued them both with the understanding that all those things, while they were real at the time, are not important in the grand scheme of it all. What is important is the love you share with the people you're close to and spending as much time knowing them as you can before they're gone.

Gainsbourg's documentary concludes with a voiceover monologue in which she admits she's scared to be approaching the winter of her mother's life. It's a feeling so many of us will become accustomed to at some point in our lives, if we haven't yet reached that emotional mountain to climb. But not many of us will be able to say we built this kind of keepsake to remember the life of that parent, and that alone — if nothing else I said compels you — makes this quiet, contemplatively loving film worth a watch.

Rating: 7 out of 10