"Je t'aime … moi non plus", her duet with Serge Gainsbourg, made Jane Birkin world famous in the sixties. But her diary entries from that period speak of the anxieties of an insecure woman. A conversation with the style icon about the beauty mania, self-doubt and her long march towards self-determination.
Ms Birkin, the German translation of your “Munkey Diaries” appears in September. Did you want to take control of the “Jane Birkin” myth by publishing these intimate writings?
You could say that, yes. I struggled with myself for a long time, but then I thought, there have been so many stories told by others about me and my family, now it’s my turn to tell my version.
In your version there’s barely a word about your work or all of the films you’ve acted in. Didn’t that matter to you?
I always cared more about what happened around the films, the dinners with Serge and the children, the parties, the encounters. The films exist, after all; what more can I possibly say about them? Not long ago someone asked me for my recollections of filming The Swimming Pool, and to be honest, I just don’t remember it any longer.
You’re in it alongside Romy Schneider and Alain Delon, and you play an important role…
That’s true, but I didn’t realise it at all at the time. I think I simply never took acting particularly seriously. Why should I? I was never really good at it. Especially at the beginning. That accent of mine! Virtually unbearable. I seemed so stupid!
Are there films in which you do like yourself?
I think I’m very good in films by Jacques Doillon, the father of my daughter Lou. Or in the one by Agnès Varda. But that was much later. What I really liked were the comedies of Claude Zidi, like La moutarde me monte au nez (I’m Losing My Temper). They were proper blockbusters in France, suddenly people thought I was funny.
What had they thought you were before?
“Serge’s girlfriend”, of course.
And the voice of the global hit “Je t’aime … moi non plus”. The song was a scandal at the time - the BBC wouldn’t play it, the Pope protested. In your diary you write that you only sang it so that Gainsbourg wouldn’t do it with another woman.
I just didn’t want him sitting for hours in a little recording booth with Mireille Dark, so that’s why I did it. I would never have thought it would be such a hit.
You write that he considered “Jane Birkin” his product. Did you think that as well?
My daughter Lou would be upset if she heard me say it, but yes, I did think that.
Are your daughters more emancipated?
Well they’re certainly no dollies. When I was married to John Barry there was always an eyeliner pencil on my night table. I was constantly afraid of not pleasing him. That was also the dictate of fashion. We girls all had to have eyes like daisies and long hair with bangs. It wasn’t about personality at all. My daughter Charlotte doesn’t wear any make-up. She won’t have anyone telling her what to do. At the age of 20, Kate, my eldest daughter, was already working as a social worker with drug addicts. And Lou, my youngest daughter, was a mother at 20 and did it all by herself, she never asked for anything from her partner. She is absolutely emancipated.
How is it that a young woman as insecure as you were cared so little about convention and lived the way she wanted to?
It had to do with my coming from “Swinging London”. At the time, fashion, music, all of the trends were British, and John Barry, my ex-husband, wasn’t just anybody. [Editorial remark: Barry was the composer of “James-Bond” film music and a five-time Oscar-winner.] That gave me a certain self-confidence in Paris. I was pretty saucy. For instance, I refused to eat in a restaurant where they wouldn’t let me in with my basket. Once Serge made a scene outside Maxim’s, screaming “If you don’t let her in the way she is, we’re going.”
Do you sometimes wonder how your life would have been if you hadn’t met Gainsbourg?
If I hadn’t done the test shoot for Slogan I would never have met Serge, and I would never have come to France. And if it had worked out with John Barry, I would be heating up his turtle soup and drawing his bubble bath to this day. My goodness! How lucky he’s gone! How lucky the deck got reshuffled!
How did you imagine your life when you were a girl?
From today’s point of view, it might sound unemancipated, but I saw myself as a wife and mother. Perhaps I would have been happier, too, in a life like that, where there’s always someone at your side, reassuring you.
Don’t you think you chose those difficult men, those complicated affairs, in complete self-determination, because you were looking for adventure?
Of course. Those seductive people were dangerous, but they were first and foremost talented and exciting. That always intrigued me. I thought, next to such brilliant people I seem less dumb.
You were always very hard on yourself. Can you understand in retrospect why half the world was en-chanted by you?
Yes, when I look at photos from those days I am amazed at how pretty I was. Not so much in the early pictures, when I was 20 I had so much make-up on that I don’t understand how Serge could see me under it all. But later, in the films of Jacques Doillon, Patrice Chéreau, Agnès Varda, there I was very natural, and I think I was actually beautiful then.
So has age made you more self-confident and self-determined?
Yes, absolutely. I think the important things in a woman’s life happen not when she is 20, and not when she is 30, but at age 40. That’s when you’re through with pretty and cute and suddenly people take you more seriously. At least, that’s how it was with me. That’s when I began taking myself and what I was doing a little more seriously.
Your mother also waited a very long time when it came to self-determination.
It’s crazy how much she sacrificed for my father: she was a great theatre actress, but whenever she wanted to take a part, my father would suffer a heart attack or something like that. It made him physically ill to see her working. I would never have thought I could say such a thing, but thank heavens she lived for ten years still without him. At the age of 80 she was finally able to go back onstage and sing.
You too are still often onstage, singing, mainly songs by Serge Gainsbourg. Do you never feel the need to get out of his shadow?
Not at all. And I don’t feel like I’m in his shadow. When a great poet like Serge, an Apollinaire of the chanson, writes the best work he’s ever done, for you, and over 25 years, that’s not a burden, it’s the greatest gift: as long as I am singing, I will be singing the songs of Serge Gainsbourg.
Style icon of the '60s and '70s
Jane Birkin (72) was born in London to an actress and a major. The controversial song "Je t’aime", with Serge Gainsbourg, and films like Blow Up and The Swimming Pool made Jane Birkin world famous; the Birkin Bag is a timeless accessory. Birkin has three daughters by three husbands. Her eldest, Kate Barry, committed suicide in 2013. Jane Birkin lives in Brittany and is currently on a European tour. Her recently published journals, Munkey Diaries, are the style icon’s personal recollections, from Swinging London to Paris of the '60s and '70s.