The Queen Herself Jane Birkin Talks About Her Life, Lovers, The Bag
She's an actress, singer and style icon, who has inspired love songs, movies and the world's most famous and coveted luxe accessory (which she calls that "bloody Birkin bag").
Speaking to Jane Birkin on the telephone while she sits drinking a peppermint tea in her home in Paris, it is hard to reconcile her voice with the one that shot her to fame making orgasmic noises in the duet Je T'aime Moi Non Plus (I love you, me neither) with lover Serge Gainsbourg. (The song was so explicit it was banned in the UK, Italy and Spain, and came under fire from the Pope - a real PR coup)
Gainsbourg originally recorded it with then girlfriend Brigitte Bardot, but she backed out, a move that ultimately catapulted Birkin to fame.
That was more than 40 years ago, and since then Birkin has recorded a string of songs, many written for her by Gainsbourg, and starred in, written or directed more than 70 films.
Now, at 65, her voice still has a delicate girlish charm, with a delightful hybrid French-English accent, but it is also wise.
Twenty years after Gainsbourg's death, she is still "singing Serge" and her concert of his songs will be a highlight of the Adelaide Festival next month.
"It would be very ungrateful if I didn't go around the world singing his songs to celebrate the 20 years after his death," Birkin says.
"And then I feel like I've done and taken him everywhere."
Birkin and Gainsbourg were together for 13 years but never married and he continued to write songs for her after they separated.
"They were the most beautiful ones, it's sad to say because they were ... he was in pain," she says.
Despite the way her voice lights up when she talks about him, she claims she's not still in love with him.
"No! I just think of him as a chum. What I miss is not being able to ring him up and say `Oh, how are you feeling today?'.
"Just like old ladies on a boat, because that's how we turned out as friends in the end. Then it's great because you don't seem to lose out on any side.
"You don't have to put up with being so tiresome when they're drunk or having a temper or throwing a tantrum. You don't have any of that. You don't actually have to live with them. They just take you out for wonderful dinners and write you wonderful songs."
Birkin had a daughter with Gainsbourg, Charlotte, who has gone on to establish her own career as a singer and actress - with roles in the 2003 film 21 Grams and last year's Melancholia in which she starred alongside Kirsten Dunst.
Birkin has two other daughters, born to the two other significant men in her history - John Barry and Jacques Doillon.
Barry - a five-time Academy Award-winning composer whose works include scores for the James Bond films, Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves, was Birkin's first love.
"It was my surprise when John Barry chose me and fell in love with me and asked me to marry him, and so I was overwhelmed," British-born Birkin says.
She was 17, but her conservative father, Royal Navy lieutenant-commander and World War II spy David Birkin, made her wait until she was 18 to wed.
"He (Barry) made me feel great," she recalls. "I sort of couldn't believe that a flat-chested girl like me, who was in a boarding school that was nearly like a convent because it was very high church, and then you have this man who thinks you're beautiful and whizzes you off to Rome. I just felt so chosen.
"It was a very romantic three years, it really was."
Romantic yes, but also heartbreaking.
"John Barry left me - I think he left all his wives when they were pregnant," she says. "I was heartbroken when he left with a best friend of mine.
"But, on the other hand, he was made that way and had he not done that, I wouldn't have pushed off to France and I wouldn't have probably come to much."
It was in France, where she moved with her baby daughter Kate, that she met Gainsbourg on the set of the French film Slogan, in which they co-starred and sang a duet for the theme song.
While their love affair lasted some 13 years, it too was fraught.
"He brought on everything that was great because after having lost John Barry he gave me confidence," she says.
"He wrote me the songs, he put me on a pedestal but he also instilled in me that if he weren't there, I'd be nothing."
The girls, Kate and then Charlotte, and seeing Gainsbourg be a father to them, brought joy into Birkin's unconventional life.
"We used to tuck them up to bed and say goodnight with the au pair girl and then suddenly be shooting off all around town until the dustbins came home," she recalls. "And then by the time the dustbins came home we were sitting in the kitchen with the children again because they were waking up. So it was a funny old life.
"And then on Saturdays and Sundays when the au pair wasn't there, we used to watch television and westerns and things, and Serge used to make wonderful dishes - because he was a very clever cook - and then we were quite ordinary again. It must have been quite strange for the children."
By the time he died in 1991, Gainsbourg was well-known for his love of booze, which was what finally drove Birkin to leave.
"I, after 13 years of sort of taking him back home, at 5 o'clock in the morning plastered, it, I became quite nasty."
When French film director Jacques Doillon quite literally came knocking on her door, another chapter in Birkin's life began.
"Had it not been Jacques it would have been somebody else," Birkin admits.
"This very young man (Doillon) pressed on the door bell and I said `Who have you come for?'
"I thought that Jacques Doillon - with a name like that he would be sort of 80 years old Protestant sort of monk. I was amazed to see this sort of red Indian looking man standing on the doorstep and he said `I've come to meet you'."
"I said no I wouldn't do his film because I thought it was dangerous," Birkin says.
Six months later, Doillon approached her again.
"I said OK, if I have a chaperone, but I really need a chaperone because I know where I'll go," Birkin admits. "The chaperone didn't stay for long."
At the end of filming, she returned to Gainsbourg.
"Serge, he just didn't say `I love you in spite of it all', he put me into a room as sort of the soiled woman."
It was a difficult time in her life and in Doillon's.
"At the end of the film he said `go back to Serge and make it work' and, you know, I've written films about it and he's written five films about it.
"So it wasn't an easy thing and in this trio of being torn apart from one and the other, that was really the film The Pirate that went to Cannes."
She and Gainsbourg tried to make it work, but their romantic relationship had run its course.
"I just remember that I walked out of a studio where he was recording with somebody, ordering champagne for everybody and it was about four o'clock in the morning," she says.
"I just went out ... and booked myself into a hotel and just didn't go home ever again.
"Then I was trying to find out where Jacques Doillon was.
"In the end I looked up all the Doillons in the telephone directory and I came across a Doillon and I thought `well, I'll ring that one' and this lady's voice answered and I said `do you know Jacques Doillon?'.
"She said `Yes, he's my son, he's sleeping next door to me' and I said to Jacques, `Please come and fetch me'."
It was not long after she left Gainsbourg that a twist of fate saw Birkin's name become an enduring `It' fashion label and confirmed her place as a muse in cinema, music and style.
Seated on a plane beside Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas, she lamented it was hard to find a leather weekend bag after her belongings spilled out of her straw bag in the overhead compartment and onto the floor.
That moment changed fashion history, with Dumas going on to create the Birkin bag, which became a symbol of wealth and elusive style. The accessory sells for up to $150,000 (depending on the type of leather used) and has a waiting list of up to six years, making it a pop culture.
Birkin herself is almost embarrassed when she carries hers - incongruously adorned with protest stickers and ethnic beads - and she only has one.
"What's the use of having a second one?" she laughs.
"You only need one and that busts your arm; they're bloody heavy. I'm going to have to have an operation for tendonitis in the shoulder."
She's currently on her fourth Birkin bag, the first three being auctioned off for charity.
"If they can go to a good cause then all the better. It makes them a rather jolly bag instead of being a snobbish bag. And hang as many things as you can (on it) so it doesn't look like a bloody Birkin bag!"
It might have been a big moment for fashion, but Birkin had bigger things on her mind - like her new love Doillon and the birth of their daughter, Lou (now a well-known French actress and the face of Givenchy, who has appeared on Gossip Girl as herself).
"I had a family life with Jacques, his daughter, my two daughters Kate and Charlotte, who were by then teenagers, and this tiny Lou. So Lou was my accomplice.
"It gave me an extraordinary life with a child and it was great being with Jacques, and for him liking ordinary things like going off eating chips on the side of the Seine and being ordinary.
"Because he wasn't well-known and that was lovely."
Lovely, but not lovely enough. They separated after 13 years.
Birkin says she felt "pain for Jacques going off with all these young girls making all these films all the time".
She also admits it was hard for Doillon when Gainsbourg, who has been described as France's native hybrid of Woody Allen and Bob Dylan, died in 1991. Paris came to a halt on news of his passing - and for Birkin, the world turned.
"When he died and four days later my father died, I thought my world had disappeared," she says. "So for Jacques it must have been quite hard, too, because I think I did sort of wander around saying I'd lost everything that I'd loved."
It is fascinating listening to Birkin recount these stories, of three great love affairs, so intense that many would not experience such passion even once in a lifetime.
It seems too, as if that is all this remarkable woman can take.
Since her separation from Doillon in the 1990s, Birkin has thrown herself into her film making and humanitarian work with Amnesty International, which has taken her to Africa, the Middle East and Burma, where she met with Aung San Suu Kyi.
Birkin does still make time for Serge - by singing the songs he wrote for her around the world.
But not their most famous, Je T'aime Moi Non Plus, which they recorded in 1969 when they were both young and very much in love.
"No, no, I've never sung that again since Serge died. No - how could I sing it on my own? Non."
Probably one of the most interesting interviews with her I've read, gives insight about her life with Serge and how she left him.
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Also a pic of Kanye with a Birkin bag for good measure:
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