“I’d rather live on my own than live with a face that looks at me with the wrong eyes.” – Jane Birkin
A style icon in the 1960s with her sultry gaze parted mouth, and sleek bangs, English actress Jane Birkin has won thousands of hearts worldwide. Known for her unfettered and brazen looks on screen, Birkin has starred in rebellious films that have advocated sexual freedom and the beauty of female sexuality. Her rendezvous with the controversial Serge Gainsbourg has been under the public radar for the longest time.
Despite not speaking fluent French, Birkin has bagged roles in French films, the first one being Slogan, a film in which she acted alongside Gainsbourg which led to the blossoming of their relationship. In an interview with CNN, this effortlessly cool Birkin jokingly said how attracted she had been to Gainsbourg when he said he “was afraid of bosoms” because she was always mocked for the lack of them. “I was delighted, as (someone) coming out of a boarding school in England with everyone mocking the fact that I had no bosom, saying I was a ‘half-caste’—half girl, half boy.”
Her relationship with Gainsbourg was a rejuvenating whirlwind of passion and desire following her “really miserable marriage” with her divorced ex-husband John Barry. It was after her divorce that Birkin started venturing into the entertainment industry, following the footsteps of her actress mother, Judy Campbell. With Gainsbourg, Birkin was at her creative best, having also recorded one of Serge’s most acclaimed songs ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’. “He was a gentleman, but he couldn’t quite resist showing me what he’d got in his drawer and making me listen to ‘Je T’aime Moi… Non Plus,’ with Bardot, which was incredibly sexy. And so he said, ‘Do you want to sing it?’ And as I was madly in love with him, I said, ‘Well, of course.’ No one has ever done better than him, and probably because he was ahead of his time.”
Having enacted in films such as Kaleidoscope and Death on the Nile, Birkin developed a particular talent for standing out in supportive roles, wonderfully contributing to the overall picture with troublefree ease.
On what is Birkin’s 74th birthday, let us take a look at all the bold and luxurious films she has starred in, adding to its oomph factor. Here we have ranked the ten best films starring Jane Birkin in order of greatness.
The 10 greatest Jane Birkin films:
10. Don Juan (Roger Vadim, 1973)
Jeanne, a woman in Paris, believes herself to be a reincarnation of Don Juan. She confesses of murder to a priest, describing herself as a sexual predator and a spider. She is proud of the destruction her arrival befalls on the lives of men attracted to her and provides a detailed account of her sexual conquests.
Jane Birkin plays Clara, a girl who falls in love with Brigitte Bardot’s seductress. Birkin has been quoted saying, “I accepted immediately just to be in bed with Bardot. She’s the most utterly perfect woman. There’s not a fault. God knows, I looked. Even her feet are pretty.” According to The Guardian, Vladim’s film is “like so many of his [Vadim’s] films, has some beautiful photography and slick editing but few plausible scenes. Incapable of creating an illusion, Vadim is eminently capable of creating an illusion of creativity.”
“I’m still young. For the moment, I’m rich. Well, I’m a poor little rich girl. Of course, if I had no money, I’d be a rich little poor girl. As I was saying, I am young and I am rich. And I’m not such a bad-looking woman. You see, life is good.”
9. A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (James Ivory, 1998)
Emotionally scathing, this jarring plot is based on the fictional life account of the author James Jones as recounted by Kaylie Jones’ novel. The film sees Billy William, a war veteran and successful novelist, and his family comprising his wife Marcella, daughter Channe and son Billy trying to grapple with the changing circumstances and the pressure of being accepted by the society while dealing with their personal and inter-personal demons and issues. It is a sinister recreation of the anxieties of homecoming, the easy blend-in at a new place as well as strange childhood memories of being associated with eccentric friends and visitors.
As James Berardinelli said, “Not only was I touched by the characters and engrossed by their story during the 120 minutes they were on screen, but I could have easily spent another hour or two with them”. Ivory’s narrative is intimate and personal, emphasising on the need for a close-knit and comfortable family relationship. Jane Birkin plays the effeminate Francis Fortescue’s mother, Mrs Fortescue, who is a single idiosyncratic British mother.
“Well, if the frogs try any funny business, like trying to take my little boy away from us, I’m gonna go straight to the President.”
8. La Piscine (Jacques Derry, 1969)
The Los Angeles Time described the film as “handsome, stunningly designed” which was perfect in “the deft way in which it coolly depicts how beautiful, chic people, dedicated to a sophisticate, amoral view of love, can be utterly defenceless against an onslaught of passion – a favourite Gallic theme.”
Reeking of passion, desire, longing and jealousy, it is one of the first films where the actors recorded in English separately instead of the French film being dubbed with English dialogues. Jane Birkin plays the 18-year-old disillusioned daughter of the sleazy Harry who is disconnected with the pompous ways of her father.
The plot revolves around passionate lovers Jean-Paul and Marianne whose sexual reverie at a friend’s villa is interrupted by the arrival of Marianne’s ex-lover Harry. In a drunken stupor, Harry is accidentally killed, and the lover’ relationship stands the
“There’s nothing to tell.”
7. Wonderwall (Joe Massot, 1968)
A classic exploration of the theme of a voyeuristic Peeping Tom, the plot revolves around the idiosyncratic professor, Oscar Collins, who lives a solitary life in his apartment. However, as he starts spying on his neighbours, the model Penny and her photographer boyfriend, he becomes increasingly obsessed with them, often losing track of time as well as his self in psychedelic dreams and disillusionment.
Jane Birkin plays Penny, the model who is ignorant of the creepy professor who is spying on her. The film has, however, been heavily criticised with one magazine calling it out for its “slender-to-the-edge-of-nonexistent narrative” and by Keith Phipps for being “mostly just an excuse to experiment. And while not all the experiments work out, the film remains a charming relic of a bygone era of light shows, sitar sounds, and over-the-top symbolism.”
“I don’t like the songs. Music is just organized noise, and noise is poison to the mind.”
6. Evil Under the Sun (Guy Hamilton, 1982)
Based on Agatha Cristie’s novel of the same name, the film sees that wise Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot investigating the murder on an island that is frequented by the rich and the aristocrats. However, when the investigation begins, almost everyone has a convincing alibi, and it is on Poirot’s intuition to decide whose hands are bloody, reeking of murder.
Jane Birkin, who has an affinity for portraying characters in Agatha Christie adaptations, plays the apparently meek and demure wife of Patrick Redfern. However, her sinister motives are soon discovered as she is shown to have had an equal share in the murder as much as her husband. Cunning and vile, Birkin is an able Christine whose actions confuse the wisest detectives of all time.
“You can’t actually believe that men care for either of those things, can you?”
5. Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (Antonio Margheriti, 1973)
A Giallo-horror flick, the story reeks of gothic fiction as it features the gruesome murders, a deadly curse, haunting castle dungeons and a deadly ginger cat. Haunted by the fearful curse of a murderous cat, Corringa and her family try to survive a mystery killer who does not hold back on the gore while murdering his victims.
Jane Birkin plays the young heiress Corringa who is left bewildered by the happenings around her. The film features Suzanne as a bisexual woman who is a step towards the ongoing sexual liberation. A product of Italian Golden Age of horror, the film is successful in its portrayal of the gothic and terrifying elements that have blood, lust and gore of suitable amounts, providing a perfect conflict between superstitious beliefs and scientific rationality.
“Too many books never did a woman any good.”
4. Je t’aime moi non plus (Serge Gainsbourg, 1976)
Translating as ‘I Love You, I Don’t’, this film is about two gay truckers who arrive at a remote truck shop. Krassy eventually finds himself attracted to the boyish Johnny which incites the jealousy of his partner, Padovan. This complicated love triangle of sorts eventually ends in a bitter heartbreak and stunning revelations.
Passionate and raunchy, this twisted and scathing love story is a quintessential Gainsbourg, reflective of the recurrent symbolic themes of uninhibited erotica and intense death-like passion in his works. Starring his partner at that time, Jane Birkin as the androgynous Johnny is accepting of Johnny’s needs, including the painful anal play. She is lonely and longs for love but eventually is left alone to nurse her wounded heart.
“This is love, baby. Believe me, it’s rare.”
3. Death on the Nile (John Guillermin, 1978)
Based on Agatha Christie’s novel featuring the famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the story is a sequel to Murder on The Orient Express. It takes place on a luxurious cruise where Linnet Ridgeway, a wealthy heiress, is found dead. As Poirot and Colonel Race delve deep into investigating Linnet’s death, the suspects start getting murdered, which thickens the mystery.
Jane Birkin plays the role of the murdered heiress’ maid Louise Bourget who is initially suspected of having a motive due to certain disagreements with her late mistress. However, she soon dies with a note clutched in her hand, which makes Poirot think she capitalised on the situation. Amidst the incredible performances, Birkin manages to cement her position as the cunning Louise.
2. La belle noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991)
Translating as ‘The Beautiful Nuisance’, this film revolves around an ageing painter Frenhofer whose ageing wife Elizabeth no longer serves as his muse. He suddenly gets the opportunity to pain the attractive Marianne, which not only strains his relationship with his wife but also causes Marianne to reevaluate her life choices and her relationship with the supportive Nicolas.
Jane Birkin plays the wife of Frenhofer who used to be his muse. The reawakening in Frenhofer’s artistic abilities delight her; however, when he overlaps her unfinished portrait with inspiration derived from Marianne’s naked body, she is rightfully hurt at the symbolism. Although she persuades Marianne to serve as Frenhofer’s model, she warns her never to let him paint her face. Liz is wise, and she knows that it is not about nudity or flesh, that Frenhofer or any other artist would not fall in love with their muse unless they painted the face.
“At first he painted me because I loved him. Then he painted me because he loved me.”
1. Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
Described by Roger Ebert as “a hypnotic conjuring act, in which a character is awakened briefly from a deep sleep of bored alienation and then drifts away again”, this film revolves around Thomas, a London-based photographer who possibly witnesses a murder, capturing the evidence on his camera. He is pursued by a woman who wants to destroy the evidence as Thomas tries to get to the bottom of this fiasco.
A groundbreaking film during its time, it features Jane Birkin as a giggling, young model who shows off her bits without any hesitation on-screen. With sleek bangs and a saucy face, Birkin appears in a small role as the blonde model. The explicit raunchy content as well as the exploration of the theme of voyeurism via Thomas’ lens was a direct renouncement of the Production Code in Hollywood which makes it a notorious release even now.
“Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out.”