From her early years as being described as a “shy English girl” Jane Birkin certainly came out of her shell. Although she may bemoan her own rise to stardom as bleakly gradual, the retrospective history books have her earmarked as the quintessential feather ruffler since the moment that she first graced screens in The Knack …and How to Get It in 1965. She might have only starred as ‘Girl on Motorbike’ in that, but soon she was a paradigm for the daring European art re-emerging in the 1960s.
Despite her strong French connection, she was born to a wealthy London family in 1946. If there is such an argument that performance and the dramatic side of life can really be in someone’s blood, then the fact that her mother was a stage actress, and her father was a World War II spy should surely assert that Birkin’s blood was roving red with thespian bravura.
As she was starting out in the industry, she was cast in the musical Passion Flower Hotel. She was only 17 years old at the time and the famed James Bond composer, John Barry, was 30 years old, but the two would enter a whirlwind romance and within a year of meeting, they were married. However, despite the times she was determined to pursue her own path in life and a year later, Birkin seized a brief patch of fame, in some folk’s eyes, and infamy in others, as she appeared nude in the controversial Michelangelo Antonioni film, Blow-Up.
However, controversies came and went in a hurry in the 1960s as things seemed to happen in an adrenalised surge and the life of Jane Birkin is almost a paradigm of that. By 1967, she was taking a brief break from cinema to give birth to her first daughter, Kate. By 1968, her marriage with Barry was over. Next chapters happen quickly in Birkin’s life, as she told French Vogue, “Everything around me collapsed. I didn’t want to stay at home waiting for something to happen. I was in a restaurant on King’s Road with my friend Gabrielle and we heard about an audition for a French film, Slogan, which the prettiest girls in London were flocking to.”
With her fate uncertain in England and emotional turmoil pervading over her personal life, France offered her a fresh start as New Wave blossomed and was always in need of a new face. She was cast in her French cinema debut and soon enough she was at a party where the part-troubadour, part-human-smoke-machine Serge Gainsbourg was on the prowl. When he schmoozed over to Birkin, the controversial undertones from her first chapter of life would bleed through onto the next pages.
“We must have represented a form of freedom,” Birkin said of the image that the proto power couple presented to the awestruck Republique and beyond. “The twenty-year age gap, our lifestyle, we went out at night and came home to wake up Kate and Charlotte before school, and then slept in the daytime. That was my fantasy, our lack of taboos [ … ]. Serge used to say: ‘We are not an immoral couple, we are an amoral couple’.” But regardless of what Gainsbourg thought, they were about to break into the mainstream with moans the had more reverberating impacts than Meg Ryan in a diner during an earthquake.
In her diaries she bemoans the years that she was simply labelled Jane ‘Blow-Up’ Birkin, the scantily clad “it” girl, as opposed to the legitimate actor making steps towards liberation, and then suddenly with ‘J T’Aime Moi Non Plus’, the quivering jazzy half-notes of husky French tones launched her as a serious chart-topping artiste. In truth, there is a novelty aspect to the sultry song that is groaned more so than sang but upon release it proved revolutionary. It was banned from the radio but still managed to top the UK charts.
And Birkin has no problem admitting that this career-defining moment was fuelled by simple envy. Serge Gainsbourg had originally recorded the song with a rival face on the French scene, Brigette Bardot, but Birkin set about out-sexing the starlet that they called ‘The Sex Kitten’. “Jealousy drove me to perform the song,” Birkin tells Vogue. “I didn’t want him to end up in a telephone box with a beautiful girl recording another version of ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’, as he’d done with Bardot. When he suggested I do it, I agreed immediately.”
The song was a scandalous revolution sequestered to a million bedrooms. People might see Heavy Metal as a daring step as the sixties moved on, but feather-soft tones of femininity were proving just as progressive in the world of music and it managed to be even more transcendent too. This 1969 track was, in fact, the forgotten percussor to many things that followed. The song made Birkin the pinnacle of French artistry and further films, albums and photoshoots were forgone inevitabilities, however, they were now more often than not on her terms.
She would work with Gainsbourg throughout the 1970s and, when looking back in 2013, she humbly declared: “[It was] very flattering to have the most beautiful songs, probably, in the French language written for [you]. [But] how much talent did I really have? Perhaps not that much.” Humility aside, what Birkin did have was not just ‘the look’, but the keen eye to revel in the style of the zeitgeist. Even Gainsbourg’s famous eight-day beard had been her idea. And the same can be said of her film work, the performances are highly creditable, but above all, she is simply part of the iconography of cinema.
While Birkin and Gainsbourg may have split in 1980 after the birth of their daughter, Charlotte (another star with performance in her blood), when the troubadour’s drinking became too much, the pair would still remain friends and Gainsbourg would continue to write songs for her until his death. Her affection for him even cost her relationship with Jacques Doillon, who left her as she couldn’t let go of Gainsbourg even after he had passed away. Birkin was asked about her famous love affair with Gainsbourg for years later, which she proudly chronicled, ending with, “Our friendship went on until his dying day. He rang me in London to say he bought me a big diamond because I had lost one that he’d given me. I said, ‘Oh, stop drinking, Serge’.”
Although the zeitgeist that she was woven into may have been and gone, Birkin continues to record albums and make starring roles and ultimately sustain her legacy. Even after suffering a stroke back in September, she aims to take things in her own stride once more, as she always has done in her sultry trailblazing life.