Immortal images

Jane Birkin on Jacques Rivette, Agnès Varda and a special cat.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Jane Birkin on Jacques Rivette: "I went to see Céline et Julie vont en bateau."
Jane Birkin on Jacques Rivette: "I went to see Céline et Julie vont en bateau." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin are being celebrated in New York with 19 films and a series of conversations. After a screening of Agnès Varda's Jane B. Par Agnès V., Birkin spoke about working with Jacques Rivette on L’Amour Par Terre with Geraldine Chaplin, 36 Vues Du Pic Saint Loup, La Belle Noiseuse with Michel Piccoli, and taxidermy.

Claude Miller's L'Effrontée; Michel Gondry's The Science Of Sleep (La Science Des Rêves); Andrew Birkin's The Cement Garden; Yvan Attal's My Wife Is An Actress (Ma Femme Est Une Actrice); Birkin's Boxes (Les Boites); Claude Miller's The Little Thief (La Petite Voleuse); Varda's Kung Fu Master! (Le Petit Amour); Serge Gainsbourg's Charlotte For Ever; Jacques Doillon's The Prodigal Daughter (La Fille Prodigue); Bertrand Tavernier's Daddy Nostalgia (Daddy Nostalgie); Jacques Deray's La Piscine; Franco Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre and Lars von Trier's Melancholia will be shown this week in Jane And Charlotte Forever at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Agnès Varda eyeing Jane Birkin
Agnès Varda eyeing Jane Birkin

The photography exhibition Actresses by Kate Barry, Jane Birkin’s late daughter with composer John Barry, is on display in the Furman Gallery at the Walter Reade Theater.

Cats are never far when you are dealing with Agnès Varda, as I noticed when I visited the Ciné-Tamaris offices in Paris and as everyone who watches her films might suspect. In Jane B. par Agnès V., Jane Birkin talks about her affinity for taxidermy and suggests a special fate for a cat in her house, identified in the subtitles as Mowgli, as in The Jungle Book, a character Birkin later mentions in another context.

Following the discussion between Dan Sullivan of the Film Society and Jane Birkin, I commented to Jane B. on her relationship with a certain cat and she at first took a detour to Jacques Rivette. She clearly had him on her mind with his death coming on the opening day of Jane And Charlotte Forever.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Because this is a film by Agnès Varda, I have to ask a cat question. Did Mowgli the cat ever make it to the taxidermist?

Jane Birkin: Did I stuff a cat?

AKT: You talk about it in the film.

Kate Barry photographs: Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Béart - Isabelle Adjani
Kate Barry photographs: Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Béart - Isabelle Adjani

JB: I didn't stuff a cat. But it's because of Rivette. [In Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse she plays a taxidermist]. A pigeon is much easier. Birds are quite easy because you turn them inside out and then, when you turn the right wing around, they do puff. They're really nice and you just stuff them with some cotton wool and stuff. I've done a few. Real artists - you can stuff nearly anything - but you make it look alive. Mine just looked like a dead pigeon. [Audience bursts into laughter]. You said there was a cat? That's worrying.

AKT: You mentioned the cat Mowgli to be taken to the taxidermist [in Jane B. par Agnès V.].

JB: Oh, Moggy! That's an old North of England term to call rough and scruffy cats. Yes, yes, yes, Moggy. I didn't. You think, you're going to do things, and then when it [death] comes, it's such a horrible shock. And then, no, you don't actually do it. But the taxidermist said to me, "you must bring him immediately, and I'll do him in his sort of favourite gestures." And I thought, well, this was not a cat that did anything pretty like that, scratching or anything… That's what was in the film like that.

Jane Birkin went on to talk about working with Jacques Rivette.

Jane Birkin: When he came out to my house to ask me to do L'amour Par Terre [Love On The Ground], I got a bit sort of nervy and said "Well, where is the script?" And he says "I never work with a script." So I said, in that case, you know, I had to have rules, otherwise I'd go mad. And he says, "It's in a circus". And I say, "Oh I hate circuses. Pigeons up people's sleeves and it's all sort of sordid." And then he left. He left with Geraldine Chaplin. And Jacques Doillon was downstairs in the kitchen and he said "So what happened?" So I said, "Can you believe it, he doesn't have a script." And he said "Have you ever seen any of his films?" So I said "Well, no." So he said, "Go", I think it was at St. Michel, where they always play his films.

Kate Barry photograph: Jane Birkin
Kate Barry photograph: Jane Birkin

And I went to see Céline Et Julie Vont En Bateau. And I came out absolutely so thrilled by the film, by its magic… I would have liked to be up to the knees of those two actresses, three actresses. It would just be divine. So I rushed home and I rang up Geraldine Chaplin. And she said, "I know, I know, you don't like that there is no script and you don't like pigeons." And I said, "No, no, I want to do it, I want to do it. Give me Rivette's number." So she rang him and a happy beginning it was.

He didn't give you any scripts - it was to keep people … I don't know. It was his way. It's true that you don't know what's going to happen next. Sometimes if you know that you have got a dramatic end coming up then you start getting wistful and holding on to people. Whereas if you simply don't know your end at all, it always was exciting every day to see what was in store for you.

And after that film he asked me to be in the film with Piccoli [La Belle Noiseuse]. And there I did a few weeks work with him in the same way. I've got all my children around, and other people's children - about ten children in an enormous house I was sharing with Piccoli.

And then he said "Now you must go back to Paris and then come back again in a week's time." So I went back to Paris and when I came back in a week's time, I kept thinking what Piccoli had been up to while I hadn't been there. So I was feeling very peculiar in the house that I had got used to thinking of that it was my house. What has he done with Emmanuelle [Béart]? What has been going on? So he was even there truthful - I didn't know what to think until I saw it when the film came out. It was exactly that sort of uneasiness that you have if you are afraid that he will start painting somebody else and not you.

Kate Barry photograph: Charlotte Gainsbourg
Kate Barry photograph: Charlotte Gainsbourg

Then on the third film he asked me, he came around to the flat and this time, I was so used to him, but at the same time, I'd never had imagined he'd ask me for the third time [36 Views From The Pic Saint-Loup]. And it was once again a circus. We went off to do it in the South of France. It was quite short because he was ill. He started to be ill. He was always his sweet self. He was quite alright when he was actually doing it during scenes. Then he'd tell you absolutely, exactly what you were doing wrong.

And I realised as I tried to be clever and learn one of the scenes, because there was a long, long monologue and he gave it to me a couple of weeks earlier. So I knew it really all by heart. And I thought I'd done it really well and I saw the film when it came out and I saw that it was in these scenes that I thought I hadn't done very well because it was so well learned by heart that it had no pauses. And perhaps when you're pausing you were trying to figure out what the text was, because he gave it to you sometimes 15 minutes before doing the scene. And it was sometimes quite complicated. Well, that sort of hesitation made it seem very, very real. So - there - dear Jacques Rivette.

US readers can see Love On The Ground (L’amour par terre) - Wednesday, February 3, 4:00pm - Friday, February 5, 8:30pm and an encore screening of Jane B. par Agnès V. - Saturday, February 6, 8:30pm

All screenings take place at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City.

Jane And Charlotte Forever (January 29 through February 7) was organised by Dennis Lim and Dan Sullivan. Special thanks to Institut Français in Paris; Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York; Kristy Matheson, Australian Centre for the Moving Image; Leslie Ricci; Olivier Gluzman.

Actresses by Kate Barry is up through February 10 and is produced by the Institut Français in cooperation with Roman de Kermadec, curated by Aline Arlettaz, organizsd by Florence Almozini and Rufus de Rham, with the support of the Embassy of France, US.

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