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Jane Birkin by Kate Barry
Culture

Meeting with an icon: Jane Birkin

By Joffre Agnes
23/02/2009

Meeting Jane Birkin is of course terribly impressive. Actress, singer, muse, sex symbol, director and now song-writer, she remains one of the favourite personalities of French people even if it’s been more than 40 years since she fell in love with renowned singer Serge Gainsbourg, more than 30 years since they split up and almost 20 years since he died (1991). Great figure of the French artistic scene for about 40 years, she seems not to realise that you might have a poster of her hanged somewhere in your apartment. No, instead, Jane Birkin enquires if you’re not cold because your boots look wet and if the sound of the fire would not disturb your tape-recorder… I could only begin after having reassured her.

 

Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg


Jane Birkin’s life is so fascinating that you could easily find millions of questions, but, this time, I was here to speak about her new album “Enfants d’Hiver” and her upcoming show in London (on the 21st February at the Barbican). And it was already a big deal! Thirteen very personal songs that, for the very first time, she wrote entirely herself! And yet, whilst meeting  Jane B., you don’t feel like asking questions anymore. It is so enjoyable to let her speak with her unstoppable girlish phrasing and her mythical accent! The whole thing in a cosy hostel, in a confidential tone, rarely looking directly in your eyes… Simply magic.

So, for the first time the mythical muse dared to pick up a pen. But why has she been waiting for so long? As she confessed, she has always been served by great genius. Serge Gainsbourg of course, whose songs she continues to sing today. "The poets do not die if one carries their words " as she said. And then, in 1999, the very best French song-writers wrote lyrics for her: Alain Souchon, Miossec, Laurent Voulzy, Etienne Daho, Françoise Hardy… Her first infidelity to Serge Gainsbourg. Besides, writing is not that easy. It’s a kind of nudity which is new and hard to assume. She explained to me that, when people write for you, their texts reflect a better image of you than it is in reality. Nobody would ever write about her dark sides. And that is exactly what she did this time: her album is dark, melancholic and even bitter sometimes. She wanted to show that she is exactly like everyone else. And currently, she feels quite neglected like a former sex-symbol who doesn’t make anyone dream anymore. That’s the way she talks about herself… Hard to believe since she is still so beautiful.

Jane Birkin
Jane Birkin

Well, Jane Birkin experiments with a new type of nudity in front of her public. It must be hard to reveal one’s heart on stage, I said. That’s what she thought too, but, once she performed them for the first time, she felt surprisingly relaxed. It was simply natural, exactly as  when she wrote them. Singing one's songs is always stressful since you are always afraid of not being good enough and to damage one’s piece of art, she told me. That was particularly true with Serge Gainsbourg’s. That’s why, to be sure to keep a clear voice, she used to make herself cortisone injections before shows… and thus manage to ruin her health. This time, she has no fear of hurting someone, no fear of disappointing anyone especially in the UK since she doesn’t have so many familiar faces here anymore. Besides, she still always has a horde of French Serge Gainsbourg’s fans in London who help her to show his magic to English people. Once, during one of her shows, French people turned on their lighters whilst listening to “La Javanaise”. There were some Brits amongst the audience. They were simply bluffed: "why were this people acting as if this was a national anthem? " They asked Jane Birkin. She just answered that is was actually a kind of a national hymn… And that's true. Singing in France is a little more complicated, especially at the Palace where she used to perform with Serge Gainsbourg. Indeed, family and friends would be there and she cared a lot about their opinion.

Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg


Her texts are surprising and stand out with her common image of joviality, sexiness and lightness. In her new songs, Jane Birkin explores her loneliness, her suffering, her feelings about getting older and her difficulty to believe in love once more. The whole thing in French. Why in French? Because after 40 years living on the other side of the Channel, it was more natural for her. Even if she had to find someone to correct her mistakes notably regarding “masculins” and “féminins” which still causes her problems after so many years, as she confessed laughingly. Don’t blame her, she has never learnt French grammar. She was so bad at French at school that she had to give up! As a consequence, her French looks lame compared with Kristin Scott Thomas’ and Charlotte Rampling’s. But, would Jane Birkin be Jane Birkin without her grammatical mistakes and her lovely British accent?

So, loneliness and melancholy. And yet during the interview, she felt more like speaking about love. At the ripe age of 62, Jane Birkin begins to be afraid for her children and feels needy to tell them “I love you” and to make up for errors she made as a mother. It is something that really matters for her. In Boxes, a film she directed in 2007, she had already dealt with the same themes. And she accepts its autobiographical aspect. At the seaside in Brittany, Anna, 45-50 years old, is amongst her boxes. The panic, the mystery, the fears one starts to experience around that time in life… From the age of 19 she was able to give children to the men she loved. What gift can she give now? That age is frightening to Anna as the suspense of puberty. Who will love her with all this baggage, this past history? She has just moved into a big old house. She is alone. Or is she? Out of her boxes come, helter-skelter, ex-husbands, lovers, children, mother, father, ghosts… Anna had three loves. From these relations she had three girls. They emerge angrily, lovingly. She has a hope maybe of forgiveness, of peace.

Her three daughters were absolutely delighted. One even cried while watching it and told her “don’t change anything”. Maybe she reached the forgiveness she was looking for? Whatever it might be, she is sincerely proud of her three daughters and with good reasons. Kate Barry has become a brilliant photographer. Charlotte Gainsbourg does not need to be presented anymore and changes in gold every little thing she touches, and finally Lou Doillon is at the same time actress, model and stylist.

Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg
Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg
 
A declaration of love especially to her daughters, not a dark lament, that’s how she presented her songs to me. Her song “pourquoi” explains perfectly her state of mind, her urge to claim her love. It is what France and especially Serge Gainsbourg taught her. In her family, love declarations and physical expressions of affection were not exactly the norm. She and her brother used to call their father “Pater” and she only saw her brother and father kissed each other late. As an anecdote, she told me that her father considered this type of behaviour as sentimentality and thought Spanish dancers were ridiculous. On the contrary, Serge Gainsbourg and his family taught her to express her feelings warmly. Jewish family coming from Russia, they were generous, welcoming and physical/carnal. Serge Gainsbourg gave her so much love, attention and affection that he broke her original “Anglo-Saxon coldness and reserve”. He was the most generous man and lover she ever met, as she told me. Ever since then, she has never been ashamed of saying “I love you” and she thinks that nothing is more beautiful and sexy than Spanish dancers… French culture helps her too with its warm and "bon-vivant" aspects. So, is she French now?

Jane Birkin
Jane Birkin

As she said, she is neither French nor British. Or, to be more precise, she doesn’t care since she feels always at home with people she loves. It’s true that she loves France a lot, for its multiculturalism and open-mindedness in the arts… but some things just revolt her over there. For example the way illegal immigrants are treated or the way that public hospitals are being neglected and susceptible to become as bad as British ones, or the place of the police in France. In fact, there are major tensions between officers and people, especially young people. It probably would not be the case if they were unarmed as in the UK. Bad conditions of penitentiary system also makes her come off her hinges… Well, you've got it, Jane Birkin is an eternal marcher. After engaging herself in anti-capital punishment, pro-abortion, Vietnam, anti-Le Pen movement… today she turns toward Burma. Her song “Aung San Suu Kyi” is a plea for her release and for a reaction of the International community. Actually, she met Aung San Suu Kyi, who she called “the new Gandhi” once in 1999 whilst she was giving a clandestine show in Rangoon. Then, she met twice President Sarkozy hoping to make him react, but couldn’t get any results. She has remorse not having done more things for her friend and for her country. She thought of tying herself in front of a ministry or of the Assemblée Nationale… Well, as a singer, the best thing she could do was singing as remains her a relative of the Dalai-Lama. So she wrote a song, the only one in English to be sure everyone could understand it. And it is simply brilliant... as is the rest of her album.

Jane Birkin by Kate Barry
Jane Birkin by Kate Barry

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