WorldCharlotte Gainsbourg: “I never liked myself. Close to my mother, I...

Charlotte Gainsbourg: “I never liked myself. Close to my mother, I was ashamed of me”


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This year is a year of liberation for Charlotte Gainsbourg (London, 50 years old). To get rid of emotional burdens. From family guilt. From personal mourning. In 2021, the actress and singer released at the Cannes Film Festival Jane by Charlotte, the documentary he directed about his mother, Jane Birkin, and in the fall he will finally open his father’s house, Serge Gainsbourg, as a museum. “I don’t think it was a coincidence that both things happened this year. In the year, moreover, that I returned to France”, he said at the event held in July. “It was difficult for me to leave behind the six years we lived in New York, when I was very happy, and return to Paris, the city I know so well with all its ghosts. I realized that this year was dedicated to my parents, which was a necessity”.

Charlotte Gainsbourg has been exposed her entire life. Through his parents, his art, the provocative duet Lemon Incest and the later movie Charlotte For Ever starring with his father; the movies you made with your mother. This led her to always be incredibly open and candid in interviews. But with the documentary Jane by Charlotte took a new step of honesty. It is an intimate portrait of her mother, whom she watches closely with admiration and affection. But it’s also a display of herself, of the grief over the death of her father and sister, Kate Barry, and of her relationship with her daughters. Gainsbourg has definitely found peace with his parents and understands art as a profound declaration of love.

Question. In the movie, you start by talking to your mom about shyness. Jane Birkin almost cries as she recognizes herself intimidated by you. But the two were always very exposed: photos, movies, music… how is this shyness understood?

Response. I’m an actress, but I’m still very shy, I know it’s a contradiction, it’s weird. But for me it makes sense because shyness forces you to do things not to be left behind. And the more extreme the better. It’s the only way I can explain it.

FOR. Is it a natural decision for your first film as a director to be such an intimate documentary about your mother?

A. I think so. I don’t consider myself a director, I just wanted to make a film about my mother, get a camera and look at her very closely, have an excuse to observe her, photograph her, every detail of her. And she accepted. Although it took me a while to convince her. At one point, after the concert in Japan, he completely rejected the idea. She hated it and told me she couldn’t do it. And two years later, we saw the material and thought it wasn’t so bad and so violent and we started shooting again. I wasn’t trying to be a director, and I don’t know if I could be because I feel like I can only talk about personal things. And I just wanted to be with her, share our experience. The fact of putting my daughters [Alice e Joe] it was very obvious, I wanted to talk about her as a grandmother, the mother-daughter legacy, all this women thing… And I understood the film when my editor told me to take the camera and not wait for the crew, the makeup, the lights… It’s hard to get a camera, record your mom and ask her everything you want to know, I felt a little bit voyeur, my nine-year-old daughter helped me to overcome this shyness.

Mother and daughter during the filming of the documentary.NOLITA CINEMA / DEADLY VALENTINE

FOR. The name is Jane by Charlotte, but it could also be Charlotte by Jane.

A. Yes, because I made the film from a very selfish perspective asking questions about our relationship… about my father. My story. I was looking for the answers I needed. I wanted to portray her without my father in the shadow, her as she is, her sense of humor, as she speaks… I love everything the movie is. It would have been easy to portray her as part of a couple, retelling her story, her relationship, using archival footage, I used some things, but I didn’t want to go back to what we’re so used to seeing, and what she’s already a little fed up.

FOR. Why make a movie when you’re both so shy?

A. With my father everything was so easy… On the other hand, I separated from my mother very early, I went with Yvan [Attal, seu marido há 30 anos], I lost my father… All this made me someone very distant and as I am very exclusive relationships I was only with Yvan, only with my children, I don’t think I gave enough to my mother. I started the film very unconsciously, but eventually I realized it was a declaration of love for her and I needed to film it. I realized that this is how I learned to say I love you to someone, the same way my dad wrote a song for me. He never told me personally what he wanted, he never hugged me if he wasn’t in front of a camera… But now I’m aware of the gift he gave me with Lemon Incest, with Charlotte For Ever. These are memories that I keep. And it’s exciting to share the profession with them, like when I sing with my mother. Today I realize that this is my way of expressing love and this movie is my way of telling her that I love her.

Family photo: Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin and their daughters Kate and Charlotte (in the cart) in 1972.
Family photo: Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin and their daughters Kate and Charlotte (in the cart) in 1972.

FOR. After nearly a decade, will you finally open your father’s house-museum?

A. A decade and two years. But it will finally happen. I’ve been saying for years that nobody wants to help me open the museum, because it’s very small and for all the problems it brings, and now I think the problem was me. Luckily I met someone who wants to do it with me, accompanying me, and it will finally happen. It will be very painful, but I have to let him go. Also for my children; if I die tomorrow, I want them to know what to do, not have this house, which is a burden.

FOR. They are not afraid to talk about death in the film, to face their sister.

A. Seven years ago we lost my sister, I left my mother in an obviously terrible state and went to New York, I abandoned her completely, I took my two children, Yvan, that was my way of surviving. With this distance, I soon realized that she would not be there forever, when covid-19 arrived I thought I would have to be close to her again, that New York was not my place, my country. And I understood that I was terrified of losing my mother, I thought it was eternal.

FOR. As a mother, do you reflect on how you raise your children, do you think about doing things differently than they did to you?

A. We all say I will never do this or that, and you end up being exactly the same. I try to protect my children, even though I wasn’t very protected, but it was part of our life, they photographed us all the time, talked about us all the time… And when my parents split up, that thing about having the paparazzi around The house turned into something my mom hated, all that attention… My dad loved it, needed it. My mother has turned into a very private person. And I followed that, I felt I should raise my kids away from everything, not say their names, not even talk about Yvan… But recently, when I started my music videos, I suddenly just wanted to record them, I didn’t want to be so cautious anymore. .. All my parents did for me was to be present and I want to do the same for my children. In addition, I felt that it was hard enough for them to have a mother who had played a role Nymphomaniac and Antichrist… That was the hard part, not coming out in photos and my videos. So yes, I ended up doing the same as my parents [risadas].

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FOR. Are your kids aware of these movies?

A. My son Ben found out in high school, it was very difficult for him. When they debuted, Alice was very young, but one day she came from school and asked me what it is. Nymphomaniac [risadas]. I think you handled it well. The smaller one is fine. They will know everything when they want to know it. Maybe it was weird not being as protective as a mother in that sense, but I’ve been through this with Je t’aime… moi non plus [a provocadora e sensual canção protagonizada por seus pais], seeing pictures of my mother naked, and I never had any problem, I was not ashamed.

FOR. He just turned 50. His mother says in the movie that when he has a birthday, all you have to do is take off your glasses and see everything blurry. How do you feel about the issue of age and beauty?

A. I never thought having a birthday was easy. I still don’t feel comfortable in my body, it’s always too late. Now I look at pictures from when I was 40 years old and I see myself well, but at the time I didn’t like myself. I never liked it, it’s always by comparison, I suppose, I’ve always been surrounded by beautiful women: my grandmother was impressive, my mother, of course… And comparing me to them, I was ashamed of myself. Having a birthday maybe makes it easier, you accept yourself more. And I think the good thing is, as my mother says, taking off your glasses and not carrying so much weight.

FOR. Did you reach that point of acceptance, like your mother?

A. Not yet, I wish. But I hope it’s not too far away.

FOR. And did you find answers to all the questions you needed to ask your mother?

A. No. It was an intense experience. The movie is full of small moments and big emotions, like the letter I read at the end and we walk into my father’s house together. But then you forget and we go back to our normal lives, she goes back on tour, I have my kids, my husband… A movie like that leaves a mark, but it’s like when you get sick, you think that from now on you’ll enjoy more life, and then nothing, everything goes back to normal. And that’s okay.

Poster for the documentary 'Jane by Charlotte'.
Poster for the documentary ‘Jane by Charlotte’.NOLITA CINEMA / DEADLY VALENTINE

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