Jane Birkin: An adventurous artist made in England, forged in France

President Emmanuel Macron as a tribute to Birkin called her 'a French icon.'
Last Updated : 17 July 2023, 05:10 IST

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For most of her life, Jane Birkin, who died Sunday at 76, acted as a bridge — an elegant one, with an affectless grace that never betrayed the strains of load bearing.

She connected her native Britain and her adopted France, two countries physically close but often at odds. She never lost her English accent when she spoke, somehow joining the two languages into her own Birkin-ese, “the improbable French that added to her charm,” as Le Monde put it. She floated among song, cinema and theater, and she could reach large, varied audiences while also connecting with France’s auteur culture.

Her career did not go in a straight line. She made the most of her unassuming, breathy voice in her recordings, and while her unconventional glamour stood out on-screen, she was never afraid to veer off in unexpected directions when choosing roles. She let herself be guided by adventurousness.

After a small role in Michelangelo Antonioni’s ode to Swinging London, Blow-Up, Birkin left England in 1968 to make a French movie, Pierre Grimblat’s Slogan. On the set, she met Serge Gainsbourg, the brilliant, tortured musician, who was in the cast and wrote the film’s score.

They fell in love and soon became an It couple, impossibly stylish and cool. Crucially, she also became one of the leading interpreters of his songs, starting with their erotically charged duet Je t’aime … moi non plus, and continuing through six solo Birkin albums, released from 1973 to 1990. The poppiest and catchiest is Ex fan des sixties (1978); the poignant Baby Alone in Babylone (1983) largely deals with the couple’s separation.

Birkin left Gainsbourg in 1980, fed up with his drinking and temper, but their personal and professional partnership outlasted the breakup. And despite a reductive media habit of describing Birkin merely as Gainsbourg’s muse, it enriched both of them.

Birkin remained loyal to the Gainsbourg songbook throughout her life. Five years after his death, she released an album of Gainsbourg covers, Versions Jane (1996); followed by Arabesque (2002), an album of Gainsbourg songs arranged by Algerian violinist Djamel Benyelles; and Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique (2017), backed by a symphony orchestra.

But she also escaped Gainsbourg’s shadow, working with younger musicians and producers, and eventually writing or co-writing the lyrics on her albums Enfants d’hiver (2008) and Oh! Pardon tu dormais … (2020), both largely drawing from her life.

That last record is a good illustration of the way Birkin hopscotched among artistic fields, one feeding into another: Oh! Pardon tu dormais … has the same title as, and was inspired by, a made-for-TV movie Birkin directed in 1992 and a 1999 play she wrote and appeared in.

Beyond her success as a singer — not blockbuster by any means, but attracting a loyal fan base around the world — Birkin had a thriving career as an actress, communicating a similar vibe onscreen as she did in music: a natural, unadorned beauty; a seemingly nonchalant demeanor, camouflaging a melancholy core.

In 1969, the year that Slogan came out, Birkin had a supporting role in Jacques Deray’s scorching, now cult thriller La Piscine alongside Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. With La Piscine, and popular comedies like La Moutarde Me Monte au Nez! (1974) and La Course à l’Échalote (1975), she could have continued to mine her gamine charm and cute accent for a comfortable if predictable acting career. But in typical Birkin fashion, she made an abrupt stylistic U-turn by starring in Gainsbourg’s provocative debut feature Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus (1976), in which she portrayed an androgynous waitress who has a rather complicated relationship with a gay man played by Joe Dallesandro, the Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey regular.

For much of the 1970s and early ’80s, Birkin alternated between making Gainsbourg records and appearing in mainstream movies, including Death on the Nile (1978), which featured the kind of international star buffet that blockbuster movies of the time ate up: Her co-stars included Peter Ustinov, Bette Davis, David Niven, Mia Farrow and Angela Lansbury.

Throwing yet another twist into her career is that after Gainsbourg, Birkin was in a relationship with the uncompromising filmmaker Jacques Doillon. In 1984, she starred in his brutally intense, fever-pitch movie La Pirate as Alma, who is torn between her husband (played by Birkin’s own brother, Andrew) and a woman (Maruschka Detmers). It felt like a new Jane Birkin, inhabiting her physicality in a way that was almost dangerously unrestrained — and it earned her the first of three César Award nominations.

The next year, she appeared in a Marivaux play directed by the influential Patrice Chéreau at his Nanterre theater. Despite her trepidation, her performance was a success, and Birkin continued to appear onstage, alternating, as was her wont, between boulevard fare and Euripides.

Another consequential encounter in the 1980s was with director Agnès Varda, who made the gloriously unconventional film Jane B. par Agnès V.(1988), in which, as Glenn Kenny noted in The New York Times, Birkin “retains a slightly breathy girlishness that complements her largely cheery, open personality and her intrepid intelligence” — words that neatly capture Birkin’s enduring appeal. Varda encouraged Birkin to write, and the two collaborated on the script of Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! (1988). Birkin went on to direct an autobiographical film, Boxes (2007).

For Birkin boundaries were porous: between public and private, high and low, art and life. In his tribute to her, President Emmanuel Macron called Birkin “a French icon.” Of that there is no doubt.

Published 17 July 2023, 04:56 IST

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