“I’ve never considered myself as an icon in any way,” says Jane Birkin, her voice older, more reflective — yet still lilting with that unmistakable, breathy Anglo-French girlishness. “Not as a fashion icon, not as a cinema icon, not as an anything icon — they’re terms that I don’t really understand. They might have been quite nice once, but they’ve been very flaunted.”
How she humours us. As any reader who’s even casually scanned these very pages will know, the classic Jane Birkin look is among the most worshipped in pop culture. Open up any magazine style spread and you’ll see the Birkin influence: the casually eclectic chic, the tousled fringe, the androgynous, accidental ingénue — not to mention her daughters Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon, fast approaching their own level of modern iconography.
“I never know what all this ‘style icon’ business is,” Ms. Birkin protests.
Oh, but we do — and surely, if anyone can lay claim to the term, it’s her. Making her public debut during London’s ‘Swinging Sixties’, British-born Birkin attained a level of celebrity when, aged 19, she became the first English actress to appear fully naked in a mainstream film, Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). After a brief marriage to composer John Barry (which produced daughter Kate), Birkin moved to Paris to audition for the film Slogan (1968) — a vehicle for France’s premiere pop polymorph, Serge Gainsbourg. The two fell in love, recorded the infamous erotic duet “Je t’aime… moi non plus” (banned from radio, denounced by the Pope) and the rest, as you guessed, is history.
Their vivacious, 13-year partnership would yield numerous albums, an admiring French public, and a daughter, Charlotte. When they split, Birkin remarried (to director Jacques Doillon, father to her Lou), continued her prolific recording, modeled, acted, directed films, and has since become a tireless advocate of human rights.
Now 62 — though you’d hardly guess — she’s released a new record, Enfants d’Hiver, which finds her at a curious crossroads: reconciling childhood memory (the album title translates to “Winter Children”) with a sense of age and, strangely enough, her own mortality.
“I think that there are many women that are exactly in my boots,” she explains. “They feel in their head as if they’re about 15, and still dress as if they were teenagers — rather old, sort of neurotic teenagers — and when someone says ‘Madame’ you think they must be talking about somebody else, even though they’re talking about you. It comes as quite a surprise.”
Though she speaks with the exuberance of that neurotic teenager, her thoughts are sometimes ponderous, almost elegiac; she talks candidly of a past she can no longer revisit. Birkin has lived in France now for 40 years, and she insists England is a place to which she can never return. “It’s as inaccessible as people that are dead,” she considers. “And because they’re dead, you can’t touch them again.”
Her reverie concedes to the present, and on the album, apprehension. “Some of [the songs] are about fears I have for my own children,” she offers. “The first song was me saying, ‘Would it be possible that someone could take you for the hands that are worn, the stomach that has had children, the face that has smiled and cried — would you be my last love?’ So it’s a mixture of nostalgia, of being about 12 and then leaping immediately to being 40, 50, 60 — and hoping for a last love.”
Introspective in its delicate piano and Birkin’s signature vocals, Enfants d’Hiver also marks the first time she has written all of her material — having most recently worked with the likes of Bryan Ferry, Rufus Wainwright and Kate Bush. “It’s a bit of a risk,” she admits, “but I’d sung other people’s songs — not to mention 30 years of Serge’s songs — and so I wanted to try and write the lyrics myself. I finished up with one about Serge coming back as a ghost.”
It’s been nearly 18 years since Monsieur Gainsbourg passed away, and although Birkin insists he’s not always on her mind, it’s clear from her reminiscence that she has an enormous amount of affection for him — he’s ever-present, a kind of benevolent spectre. I wonder whether he may have appeared to her recently — disembodied Gitanes, perhaps a gin and tonic, in hand.
“No, unfortunately,” she laughs. “That would be a very nice experience! In my film [2007’s Boxes] he came back for my daughter, who was played by Lou. He sat on the edge of the window and he smoked a cigarette, and she said ‘Why? It’s not fair, you left too early — I wasn’t able to tell you all the things I wanted to tell you.” And he said, ‘I’ll always be here for you.’ I like the idea of him always being around. I’ve always had the English thing of liking ghosts — I’ve found it a comforting and wonderful thing.”
The spooky stories evaporate once Birkin gets talking on human rights — and she can really talk about this stuff. Engaged in humanitarian campaigns for some time — as if to somehow redress a youth spent frolicking as a frail muse — the subject fires her passion; her voice soon strident, braced with anger: “You watch TV and they suddenly show you a child that’s going to die in five seconds, and then there’s a publicity film for how you can play golf in Saudi Arabia,” she bristles, “and you think, ‘This is a mad world!’”
Birkin has demonstrated for her friend Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy activist serving a brutal prison sentence for speaking out against the nation’s military dictatorship. Even the famous Hermès Birkin bag has become part of her crusade: “Hermès have been very good about supporting my charities,” she says. “What I might have got as a percentage they give to charity in my name.”
She’s also impressed with her daughter Kate’s altruism: aside from being what mum calls a “magnificent photographer”, the eldest of the Birkin sisters has spent almost 20 years working with the French system to set up free drug and alcohol rehab centres.
Ah yes, those daughters. How must it feel to have such an… exquisite… brood?
Birkin chuckles. “I think Charlotte manages to touch perfection in everything she does,” she gushes. “She’s a great perfectionist. Serge and I were frightened of her. Serge used to say, ‘Oh, oh, oh — Charlotte isn’t pleased!” or “Oh, I don’t know what Charlotte would think!’” (It was Birkin who encouraged the shy Serge’s notorious 1984 duet with Charlotte, “Lemon Incest”, because it was a way he could feel ‘close’ to his determined daughter.)
“And I’m proud of Lou in many ways,” she says of her youngest girl. “She’s fought for being an actress, with a sister who’s very famous and a father who was a great film director and a step-father who was Serge, and with me hanging about — it’s not very easy. She reminds me of Holly Golightly.”
Doillon, of course, has been feted by the fashion industry as a model and designer in her own right — very much in her mother’s lineage.
“Lou always knew how she wanted to dress,” remembers Birkin. “When I used to ask, ‘Do you want to have the trousers or the dress?’ she used to say, ‘Well, can I have both?’ and she’d put the dress over the trousers — and that was when Lou was 12. She seems to have taken everything that was eccentric and English with everything that was French beauty; a wonderful mixture.”
So, did you really wash her hair with Coke, as she claimed?
More laughter. “I liked her hair when it was all tangled. So she never used to brush her hair. I remember putting vinegar in Lou’s hair — but possibly I put Coca-Cola in.”
The anecdotes finally permit Birkin an admission — of sorts — to her own influence on fashion. “I think it’s really wearing exactly what you like and not really caring what other people think.” She pauses. “I mean, I don’t think I did anything original like Lou — I’ve never been eccentric. It’s just wearing things that are very comfortable, and I like things when they’re particularly old. Like wearing tennis shoes and taking the laces out — I did that because I gave the shoes to an old tramp lady I looked after. I took the shoelaces out because she had swollen feet. She said that would make her look like a tramp, so I took mine out, too. The next thing I knew everyone was wearing tennis shoes with no laces.”
Inevitably the conversation again turns reflective, and to a remark Birkin once made about wanting to be buried in a marmalade jar. She laughs some more — the eccentric, after all.
“Well, I think I would give my body to medicine, and if there’s anything left then they might as well burn it and put it in the jam jar. My mother’s in a jam jar — so I see her every morning at breakfast. As the French say, ‘Ooh, it’s very English, that’.
“So, I don’t know,” she drifts, then ventures an odd, sweeping career assessment. “If I was remembered for anything I know it’ll be for ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ — there’s no point in me pretending it would be for anything else.”
Wrong again, Madame — but we’ll forgive you.
Originally published in RUSSH.