In Her Directorial Debut, Charlotte Gainsbourg Looks to Her Mother

Despite the film’s ostensible focus on Birkin, Charlotte proves more than a simple interlocutor. She is equally mesmerizing onscreen, moving fluidly between roles both technical and emotional—sometimes sitting childlike at her mother’s feet and watching affectionately, other times gently pressing her about their shared past. “It’s a film about a daughter looking at her mother,” she said. “I have to be honest. It’s true—I filmed myself, I wanted to tell her things, so it’s also the way she listens that I wanted to get.”

Charlotte captures the two of them in many intimate but unglamorous moments: wandering through Birkin’s seaside home among a lifelong collection of souvenirs (“I’m incapable of throwing anything away,” Birkin confesses); preparing a roast while musing on the inner lives of children; and cuddling in bed during a moving exchange about their shared anxieties and insomnia. These routines imbue the narrative with that peculiar French conceit of la vie quotidienne, a poetic celebration of the fanciful within the everyday. “I didn’t want to make another documentary about her with footage of her as a young woman—that’s not what I wanted to see,” Charlotte said. “I wanted to see her today like I see her onstage, which is with such charisma, something that is so powerful [and] transcends beauty.”

In another engrossing domestic scene, Charlotte invites Birkin back to Serge’s Parisian home at 5 bis rue de Verneuil, where the couple, along with Charlotte and half-sister Barry, had resided for a decade before Birkin ended the relationship in 1980. Although the address gained a debauched reputation as part of Paris’s 1970s party circuit, it was also the house of Charlotte’s childhood, where she listened to her father compose on the piano, obsessively watched horror films, and dreamed of ghosts. In the aftermath of Serge’s death in 1991, the wall outside of rue de Verneuil became a popular shrine to his memory, visited annually by thousands of fans. Inside, Charlotte began diligently preserving the house’s interior just as it was at the moment of her father’s death, including objects both big and small, from the black fabric walls to the Gitanes cigarette butts in the ashtrays.

“It’s almost like being in a dream,” a pensive Birkin says as she roams the house’s dusky nooks and crannies for the first time in more than 30 years. “It’s like Sleeping Beauty.” After many years of planning, the house will finally be open to the public as a heritage museum, Charlotte added when we spoke. “Somebody told me the other day that I have to give up the keys.”

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