Despite forging her own way as a successful actor and singer, acclaimed for her collaborations with Lars von Trier, Charlotte Gainsbourg has been compared to her father Serge and mom Jane Birkin all her life, she says. In directorial debut “Jane by Charlotte,” she comes back to the subject on her own terms. Shown at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival this week following its Cannes premiere, the film is sold internationally by The Party Film Sales.  

“I lived in New York for a bit and it was a real breather, to be in a place where I didn’t have to talk about them. Then I started this documentary and realized I wanted to be close to my mother,” she says. 

“Now that I’ve come back to France, I am also trying to turn my father’s house into a museum. I’ve always said I wanted to avoid talking about my parents and in the end, that’s what I am doing!” 

London-born Birkin began her career as an actress, appearing in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up.” After the infamous duet “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” she has continued to perform, releasing “Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique” in 2017. In her film, Gainsbourg decided to focus on her mother’s present, however, not her past.

“When I told my producer I wanted to make this film, I heard: ‘Do you need any footage?’ I didn’t. The only thing I needed was to see my father and my sister [Kate Barry] who died. I needed them to exist. The idea was really to make a portrait of her today.” 

Birkin proved hesitant at first, declining to continue the shoot after the first interview, conducted in Japan when she was on tour. 

“I started with very direct questions: ‘I feel that you don’t treat my sisters the same way you treat me. How come?’ I just wanted to have an honest discussion and she immediately took it the wrong way. She said: ‘I don’t want to suffer,’ ” recounts the actor. 

Two years later, Gainsbourg showed her the footage and a documentary about Joan Didion made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. 

“She understood I didn’t want to do anything against her. When I came back to Paris, I was in a very bad shape. She saw me struggle and became so generous and so open. She was helping me stand,” she says. 

“I told her that I did this for her, but she responded: ‘No, it’s a film about us.’ People say this film touches them because it addresses every mother and daughter, their relationship which can be so strange sometimes. This letter I read to her at the end, it’s a declaration of love. I couldn’t have said these words face to face.” 

Gainsbourg, who recently appeared in Michel Franco’s “Sundown” and Yvan Attal’s “The Accusation,” was also cast as Simone De Beauvoir in the upcoming drama “An Ocean Apart.” But she has no immediate plans to come back to directing. 

“This film really happened by accident. I asked my sister Lou [Doillon] if I could film her as well and she said no. I think it made me understand what I was doing. Once I went to film my mom without a crew, on my own, with my daughter. It brought out this whole other dimension, showing what we transmit from one generation to another. I love things that are not planned and I like working like this also as an actress,” she says. 

“I grew up thinking that you can try everything. I started singing with my dad when I was 12 and made a film that same year. I felt it was legitimate to do both. Later, it took me ages to come back to music. I thought it had to ‘go through’ him. When my sister died, I finished an album, started to draw again and take pictures. New York made it possible. I wasn’t in France, looking at my work through the eyes of the public. But to take on the responsibility of making a fiction film… I don’t think I have what it takes. Maybe I will find a way, because I would love to.”