Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg are, without question, the most provocative distaff screen-acting dynasty of any era or nation. Their early notoriety was shaped by their nuclear bond with France’s foremost louche polymath: Birkin made many records and two films with Serge Gainsbourg during the twelve years (1968–1980) of their romantic partnership, and, in their greatest collaborative act, they made Charlotte, born in 1971 — the sole offspring of this legendarily decadent union. The shadow of Serge — who was eulogized by President Mitterrand as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire” after he died, at age 62, in 1991 — looms large over Jane and Charlotte, often discomfitingly so; depraved attachments abound in his projects with his lover/muse and with his child. But, as the Film Society’s nineteen-title tribute to the actresses demonstrates, Birkin and her daughter have always been fearlessly committed to audacious ventures. As Charlotte told me when I interviewed her for this paper seven years ago, “I wouldn’t refuse material just because it has to do with something taboo.”
Born in 1946 in London, Birkin was already an avatar of that city’s mod hedonism — thanks in part to her scandalous nude wrestling match with David Hemmings in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) — by the time she met Gainsbourg, her co-star in Pierre Grimblat’s wearying Slogan (1969). Playing an eighteen-year-old named Evelyne Nicholson, Birkin doesn’t get to do much more than pout and throw tantrums as her dolly-bird character embarks on a tempestuous affair with Serge Fabergé (Gainsbourg), a married, middle-aged prize-winning director of commercials. “I want to explain why I’m so stupid,” the leggy beauty tells her aloof, sophisto paramour, a line that typifies Slogan‘s moldy sexual politics. Yet even amid the inanity, Birkin beguiles with flashes of vulnerability, her prodigious charm not entirely sabotaged.
A far richer Gainsbourg-Birkin collaboration released the same year as Slogan, the lubricious single “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You…Me Neither”) boasts his characteristic wordplay and her whispery, endearingly Brit-accented French — and orgasmic sighs. The duet would provide the title (minus the ellipsis) of Gainsbourg’s directorial debut, an outré romance from 1976 that pairs Birkin, as a gender- nonconforming greasy-spoon waitress named Johnny, with Warhol Superstar stud Joe Dallesandro, here playing Krassky, a gay dump-truck driver. Both tender and brutal, their sex scenes are exemplified by this bit of postcoital dialogue from Krassky: “It doesn’t matter how I take you. What matters is that we blend together.” And oddly, they do, both physically and temperamentally. Birkin’s tomboyish, whippet-thin body touchingly contrasts with Dallesandro’s butch build, Johnny’s wide-eyed yearning for adventure nicely playing off Krassky’s solemn taciturnity.
Charlotte made her acting debut playing Catherine Deneuve’s kid in Paroles et Musique (not in the FSLC series), from 1984 — the same year that the then twelve-year-old, wearing only a blue oxford and panties, lounged on a mattress with her shirtless father for his video of their duet “Lemon Incest.” Two years later, she acted opposite her dad in Charlotte for Ever, a movie about an inappropriately attached father and daughter that Serge also wrote and directed. Though these collaborations with Papa provoke a certain unease, there’s no denying the actress’s formidable talent, immediately evident in Claude Miller’s L’Effrontée (1986), in which she (again) stars as a character who shares her first name, a teenager stuck in a sleepy town. The young performer’s portrayal of adolescent mood swings — one minute erupting into self-pitying outbursts (“I wish I wasn’t me”), the next staring moony-eyed at her girl crush — is agonizingly, enthrallingly raw.
Her performance in Miller’s film signals the emotional boldness that has come to define her career, never more so than in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), in which Gainsbourg plays “She,” a woman given to extreme actions — testicle-smashing, feverish al fresco masturbation, and self-inflicted clitoridectomy by rusty garden tool. Those outrageous scenes made the movie a succès de scandale, but the most extraordinary aspect of von Trier’s film is the actress’s mastery in sustaining the sorrow, guilt, rage, and self-hatred that consumes her character after the death of her only child. (Has there been a better onscreen griever and crier in the past thirty years than Gainsbourg?)
Following their collaborations with Serge, both Jane and Charlotte continued to team up with close relations, whether romantic partners or blood ties. Jane starred in then-lover Jacques Doillon’s The Prodigal Daughter (1981) and La Pirate (1984), Charlotte in longtime partner Yvan Attal’s My Wife Is an Actress (2001) and Happily Ever After (2004, wisely not included in the retro); Andrew Birkin, Jane’s brother, directed niece Charlotte in her first English-language role in The Cement Garden (1993), his thoughtful adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 1978 novel of the same name. The film returns the actress to a familiar theme: incest, this time between seventeen-year-old Julie (Gainsbourg) and her sixteen-year-old brother, Jack (Andrew Robertson, who looks like a prettier Marc Bolan). With her close-cropped hair and lean physique, Gainsbourg bears an uncanny resemblance to the tomboy her mother played in Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus. Her striking, unconventional appearance highlights The Cement Garden‘s exploration of fluid gender expression and boundary-breaking desire, motifs that the actress, barely out of her teens, ennobles with tremendous intelligence.
The question of where autobiography ends and fiction begins — a topic central to the careers of both women — is most memorably addressed in the sole film in which they co-star: Agnès Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! (1988), a companion piece to Jane B. par Agnès V., itself an “imaginary biopic,” in the director’s words, of Birkin that was released the same year (and that fleetingly features Charlotte). Inspired by an idea that Birkin had for a short story, Kung-Fu Master! is, once again, a tale of scandalous infatuation made even more shocking by the performers assembled: Birkin’s Mary-Jane, a lonely single mother of two girls — Lucy (Gainsbourg) and toddler Lou (Lou Doillon, Charlotte’s real-life half-sister) — falls for Julien (Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son with the filmmaker Jacques Demy), Lucy’s fourteen-year-old classmate. “Why tell me? It bothers me,” Lucy snaps at her mom after she overshares about once loving a man several years her senior; the teenager will deliver much stronger words after she spies Mary-Jane cavorting with her school chum. These devastating exchanges between mother and daughter deliberately scramble fact and fantasy, leaving viewers in a state of perpetual uncertainty — and thus ceaselessly intrigued.
‘Jane and Charlotte Forever’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
January 29–February 7