At the end of 2021, she received us at her home, on the occasion of her daughter’s documentary, Jane by Charlotte, to discuss her journey. Last part of our tribute where it is here a question of Agnès Varda, Godard, Rivette, Tavernier, Resnais and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
It was an afternoon in November 2021, a few weeks before the release of the magnificent documentary Jane by Charlotte that her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg had dedicated to her. Jane Birkin opened the doors of her Parisian apartment on rue du Cherche-Midi to us to retrace her career as an actress and director. The welcome was as warm as the place, a real cabinet of curiosities that would require hours to explore the thousand and one treasures and memories that make it up. Her dog had settled down peacefully at our feet and had begun a nap which would last throughout the hour of confidences to which she had lent herself without reluctance to borrow the time machine. It was probably because she was deeply rooted in the present that the past didn’t scare her. When we learned today of her sudden disappearance at the age of 76, we wanted to open the book of this unforgettable memory with her. In three parts to fly over his almost 60-year career. Here is the latest.
JANE BIRKIN- THE CINEMA AND ME, PART 1- FROM BLOW-UP TO DON JUAN 73
In the 80s, long before your daughter Charlotte, it was Agnès Varda who devoted a documentary to you, Jane B by Agnes V, in the form of a collage of interviews and sketches. And this a year after shooting kung fu master under his direction. Who caused this encounter?
Agnès moved in with me for almost two years. I had written a screenplay about a very young 13-year-old boy in love with a 40-year-old woman. I had thought of Chéreau to direct it and myself I backed off because I didn’t see why Chéreau would be interested in this story. And since she was shooting this documentary at the time, I showed her my little notebook. I don’t think it interested him more than that. But she just said to herself that if it seemed so important to me, it had to do deeply with my character, with my almost sickly nostalgia for childhood. And she was right. She had been able to read between the lines of things that I had not seen myself. That’s why she agreed to direct Kung fu Master and I chose his son Mathieu to act because he was ideal for filming the last steps of a child before becoming a man. Agnes did it for me. Then she continued with Jane B. by Agnes V.. I haven’t seen the documentary for years but I remember as if it were yesterday Agnès’ inventiveness, ingenuity and taste for sharing. I have never known anyone moved by such curiosity. When we went on a trip with her, we had to visit all the museums. For her a second without learning or discovering was a wasted second. And then she was swollen and no one could tell her no
Do you have an example?
We went together to the Lumière festival in Lyon one year. I had spotted a charming little hotel and Agnès had only one goal: that we could sleep in the bed of Louis Lumière and his wife. However, this bed is in the museum and obviously not intended for someone to spend the night there. But impossible was not Agnès! So we slept well in that bed
You have such good memories of your meeting with Godard on take care of your right ?
No, that sucked. For him as for me. The meeting did not take place. The only thing that had made it a bit attractive was that he had a bad cold!
And in 1990, Dirk Bogarde planned to be your lover in I love you too becomes your father in Daddy Nostalgia by Bertrand Tavernier. In view of the relationship you mentioned earlier with your own father, this film should hold a special place in your career?
Oh yes, and I can’t believe that it’s been dropped, that it’s not been visible for years on TV. Probably because it’s a little scary, because it confronts us with what we all dread: that phone call telling you that your father is sick. No matter how much we tried in promo to say that it was also a comedy, no one was fooled! I can never thank Bertrand enough for such a sensitive film. He allowed me – and he remains the only one – to be both English and French. And on the set, each improvisation made him mad with joy. Bertrand was the first enthusiastic spectator of his actors. It’s the only shoot where I didn’t have a second of anguish because he knew how to share the immense happiness he felt
Was your father there on the set?
Yes. It was disturbing to see my real father looking at the fake. And also wonderful to have Odette Laure for mom
And how did your reunion with Tavernier go in 2013 for a scene from Quai d’Orsay where you play a Nobel Prize for Literature?
I accepted just for the happiness of touring with him. It was a Sunday, with curlers in my hair! (laughs)
Jacques Rivette is also one of those filmmakers who have filmed with you several times…
At our first meeting to talk about Love on the ground, he came to see me at my house with Geraldine Chaplin and her producer. There, in a very natural way, I asked him to read the script. He replied in a very charming way that he had none. He then asked me if I liked the circus. I told him that I found it horrible, dusty and tacky. And I added that if they didn’t give me rails to play on, I was going to fall. He went back up the stairs and once down, he turned around and said, “I’ve always loved you. I have always wanted to work with you”. Things I’ve wanted to hear all my life! This is where Jacques pointed his head and understanding that I hadn’t seen any of his films, he told me to go see as soon as possible Céline and Julie go by boat which was always playing in a cinema in the Latin Quarter. The title intrigued me. I took Charlotte with me. And on leaving, I was so amazed by the originality and fantasy of what I had just seen that I called Geraldine to tell her that I was going to accept the proposal. She called Jacques and that’s how our wonderful three-film adventure began, with The Beautiful Noiseuse And 36 views of Pic Saint Loup.
JANE BIRKIN- THE CINEMA AND ME, PART 2: FROM I LOVE YOU, ME NO PLUS TO THE PIRATE
With another master Alain Resnais, in We know the songyou play the wife of Jean-Pierre Bacri and you have the particularity of singing there… your own song What …
Yes, that was the least original thing about the movie. But there again the meeting was very funny. Alain had come to my house and I had incorrectly dosed the coffee that I had prepared for him. He was very very strong. All in large American-style mugs. And when he called me back later, I asked him if I hadn’t poisoned him. And there he told me that when he was young, his heart was beating too long and people took him for a big lazy person, so he assured me that I had done him the greatest good. It was a love. And it was just a fun day at work.
The desire to move on to film directing had been tormenting you for a long time when you directed Boxes in 2007 ?
This film was born out of questions I asked myself about whether I had been a good mother or not. A question that I ask my mother in the film, a role that was written for my own mother, who died three years earlier. This film was close to my heart because I could talk about my three daughters played by Lou, Natacha Régnier who played Charlotte and little Adèle Exarchopoulos who made her film debut there! I am proud to have discovered it. And I had the incredible luck that all my actors said yes to me right away
And you entrust the role of your father to Michel Piccoli…
He called me one evening. I explained to him that I was preparing the cutting of my film. And then he asks me why I didn’t ask him to play in it. He was then on stage every night in King Lear so I didn’t dare. He then explained to me that he was free in a week and tumbled. He played for nothing. I had asked Geraldine to play my role but she thought she was too old and preferred to play my mother, whom she knew well. I couldn’t find more magical parents! John Hurt, Tcheky Karyo, Maurice Bénichou, Annie Girardot for what will remain as her last role in the cinema although encumbered by her Alzheimer’s disease also came for zero euros. I had the technical team of my dreams. You realize these proofs of love!
How did you feel as a team leader?
Really very good. At first, I really didn’t expect to play my role. I had asked Patricia Arquette but she was taken by a TV movie. So I found myself playing it and I think it helped me in all the work with the cast and the crew.
When she gets into Jane by Charlotte, Charlotte says that you weren’t really excited about the idea of her making a documentary about you. Why ?
It’s true ! In fact, the question was not to be for or against the idea of making a documentary about me. Initially, I thought it was going to be a classic documentary that would look back on my journey, from my debut in a musical at 17 until today. Except that in the first scene we shot together in Tokyo, she took me to Ozu’s house and I saw with panic that she had a huge file under her arms! And when she asked me her first question – why aren’t we closer? -, I panicked even more at the idea of the following contained in his file! (laughs) So I decided to stop everything because I didn’t feel like delivering such intimate things in front of a film crew that I didn’t know. It was going to be more like Autumn Sonata than anything else. I couldn’t do anything but imagine all the things I had done wrong. And I had no desire to walk this Stations of the Cross.
And why did you continue anyway?
First I was surprised to see that she was surprised that I could say no to her! And then, as I left to give a series of concerts, I spent a lot of time at her house because she lived there for 6 years. And there, we finally resumed and I don’t know why, is it the fact of being on the roofs? – but I forgot the team. Everything actually became an excuse to be together and pure happiness. And there I said to myself that if everything else is like that, this is perhaps the way for her that I can answer the questions that she had never dared to ask me. So I had to respond. There, I understood that it was above all a film about a child in search of his place than about my person or my career. I think I accepted this documentary to make her feel better. And she said things to me that really upset me. And at the same time, the purpose is truly universal. Each family to meet there
If someone made a fiction about your life today, who would you see to embody?
Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and her incredible fantasy. I love it !