The wildly romantic love affair of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin
In a world full of negativities, love stories are like oases in a desert. Be it fictional or real-life, we are all sucker for love stories secretly, if not brazenly. Some stories inspire us so much that we hold on to them forever. The decade long relationship of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg is one such story whose fragrance still lingers in the minds of people.
The story of the beauty and the beast, the English rose and the French Avant-Garde, the unkempt artist was scandalous and charming at the same time. They were undoubtedly the most glamorous creative couple that took Europe by storm between 1968-1980. Gainsbourg though l’homme à tête de chou (the man with the head of a cabbage) to the rest of the world, was flawless in Birkin’s eyes who once said, “He was a great man. I was just pretty.” The couple was in short, the embodiment of the bohemian lifestyle that emerged during the Swinging Sixties – vibrant, carefree and full of unexplored possibilities.
The two met on the sets of the French film Slogan directed by Pierre Grimblat, in 1968. Birkin was just out of her first marriage with composer John Barry and was still recovering from the heartbreak. While she didn’t speak a single word in French, she auditioned for the part anyway in what was likely a plot to get far away from the place which reminded her of past. With an aching heart and infant in her arms, Birkin failed to see through Gainsbourg’s apparent roughness initially. Her brother Andrew recalled Jane’s feelings towards the musician/actor who said, “He’s horrible! that dreadful man Serge Bourgignon. He’s meant to be my lover but he’s so arrogant and snobbish and he absolutely despises me.”
However, during a dinner party for the film’s cast and crew, Birkin took her chances and dragged Gainsbourg to the dance floor to make things easier between them. After initial protests, Gainsbourg not only joined her and danced the night off but went club hopping after that. The pair, highly intoxicated, returned to Gainsbourg’s hotel room where he fell asleep instantly. Birkin spent the night watching him sleep and later said, “it was the most romantic of evenings.”
Thus, began the couple’s epic journey together, a poet-muse relationship bound tightly by strong friendship. In 1969, the duo worked together on a song which was initially written for Gainsbourg’s 1967 love affair Brigitte Bardot. A self-proclaimed “jealous lover,” Birkin offered to sing Bardot’s part in the song after Bardot rejected it in fear that the erotic nature would cause issues to her new marriage. The song, called ‘Je T’Aime’, is full of sexually explicit lyrics topped with Birkin’s back-up vocals consisting gasps and moans became instantly controversial. The track was condemned by the Vatican and banned from the radio in Britain and several other countries. In France, it was played in restaurants after 11pm where the couple frequently dined and was sold in plain wrappers like porn magazines or movies, to people over the age of 21.
The fuss only fuelled the song’s popularity which soon topped the charts in several continental countries including Britain. Birkin recalled Gainsbourg telling her that the Pope was their greatest PR man: “He loved it!” said Birkin describing Gainsbourg’s appetite for mischief. When rumours spread that the song was partially recorded by placing microphones under their bed, Gainsbourg remarked with a smirk, “Thank goodness it wasn’t, otherwise I hope it would have been a long-playing record.” But he genuinely regarded it to be “the ultimate love song”.
“After that, we went off to Venice, and that’s where I fell head over heels. He took away all the pain of it having not worked with John Barry, and I think I helped him get over Brigitte Bardot and her leaving him,” said Birkin while tracing the story of how a fling became a full-fledged relationship. The couple soon had their first daughter, Charlotte, in 1971 which overwhelmed Serge with paternal feelings. Birkin said that “he was an amazing father and was terribly moved when our daughter Charlotte was born. She had to be transferred to another hospital, and I wasn’t allowed to go with her because I’d caught some malady. Serge went off in the taxi crying with little Charlotte in the basket.”
Like every other couple, they had their share of fights. Perhaps, theirs were a bit more dramatic and public than ordinary couples. Once in the Paris bar Castle, Jane threw a custard tart at Serge and then chased him down Boulevard St Germain upon meddling with things in her basket to expose the sordid items below the top pile. This made Serge furious, and Birkin had to make a grand gesture to extinguish his anger. She nonchalantly jumped into the Seine and then “clambered out and we gaily walked home arm in arm,” recalled Jane in an interview.
Birkin called it quits in 1980 due to Gainsbourg’s increasing alcoholism and violence as a result of that. But what is genuinely inspirational about their bond is that it outlived their relationship. When Birkin had her third daughter with lover Jacques Doillon, Gainsbourg sent a box of baby clothes with a card saying “Papa Deux” and was later made her Godfather. He continued writing songs for her until his death. Not only Birkin but her brother as well as her three daughters loved and adored Gainsbourg. Andrew Birkin, a single man, often spent his holidays with the couple clicking aesthetic and adorable photos of the two. Jane Birkin, while reflecting on their relationship, said, “I fell in love with Serge, Andrew fell in love with Serge, Serge fell in love with Andrew, we were a trio.”
After his death in 1991, the Birkin family was deeply affected. They spent three days with Gainsbourg’s body, refusing to let him go. Jane buried her favourite stuffed toy, the ‘Munckey’ with Serge in his coffin. Her affection for him cost her relationship with 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 after, 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.”