The first question I ask Jane Birkin as we sit in a quiet office in London’s Barbican Centre is a gentle one, to put us both at ease: what were the origins of her excellent album Oh! Pardon tu dormais . . ., which she will be promoting in her concert at the centre next month?
Her reply is remarkable in two ways. First, she is still answering the question 10 minutes after I have asked it. The project started with a film she made 25 years ago, she says, and then it travelled to the theatre, and then a famous pop star saw it, who wanted to make it into a two-hander opera, but then she found herself in Japan, and then Hong Kong, and back in France she suddenly hopped into a cab to meet the pop star . . .
Birkin speaks quickly, fluently, and with a childlike sense of wonderment as each layer of the story is revealed. It is almost a stream of consciousness, but her language is too clipped, her grammar too precise. She retains something of the ingenuousness for which she became known in an era, the late 1960s, that cast a withering eye on all forms of innocence. It still works its spell and I happily lose track of her loopy narrative.
The second striking aspect of her response is that she never once makes eye contact with me as she delivers it, directing her remarks to a point in mid-air somewhere to my left. The French director Agnès Varda, in her 1988 docudrama on Birkin, Jane B par Agnès V, notes this tendency and asks her subject why she doesn’t look at the camera. It is “too personal”, Birkin replies, and Varda immediately — jokingly? — follows the exchange with a long tracking shot of Birkin’s nude body.
In short, Oh! Pardon tu dormais is the result of a collaboration with Étienne Daho (the pop star) and producer Jean-Louis Piérot, who, she says, “pushed [her] into being far more dangerous, more provoking” than she was feeling. The album deals with dark themes, notably the tragic death in 2013 of Birkin’s photographer daughter Kate Barry, when she fell from the window of her fourth-floor apartment in Paris, in what may or may not have been a suicide.
The song devoted specifically to that incident, “Cigarettes”, begins with the brutal line: “Ma fille s’est foutue en l’air” (“My daughter fucked up,” Birkin’s own translation). She says its matter-of-fact tone was influenced by a 1983 song written by the romantic partner with whom she will forever be associated, Serge Gainsbourg, on the death of Marilyn Monroe, “Norma Jean Baker”.
“He was so shocked by this photograph of her body in the morgue, which showed her feet sticking out, with a label around her ankle. He kept it framed in his house,” Birkin says.
It doesn’t take long for Gainsbourg’s name to pop up, which is no surprise. The beginning of the tumultuous affair between the two was immortalised in their 1969 song “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus”, the title of which, I only discover the day before our interview, was inspired by something Salvador Dalí said about Pablo Picasso. “Yes,” she says cheerfully. “And it is still used today, in political reporting, all the time. You know, Macron and Merkel: ‘I love you — nor do I.’ It’s very, very usable.”
The flavour of the courtship between Birkin and Gainsbourg is headily captured in her 2018 memoir Munkey Diaries, as she describes an early dinner date. “After a few glasses, Serge took me off to Rasputin, a Russian nightclub. He had the orchestra play Sibelius’s Valse Triste on the pavement when we were getting into a taxi to take us elsewhere. He pushed 100-franc notes into their violins, saying, ‘They’re on the game, like me!’”
Birkin was a shy 21-year-old Chelsea-raised starlet, trapped in an unhappy marriage with the British composer John Barry with a one-year-old daughter, when she arrived in Paris in 1968. To meet Gainsbourg so early in her travels must have been quite something, I say. “I suddenly got emboldened,” she says. “And liberated. Paris was freedom, watching people talk in cafés for 100 years with only one coffee. And then along came this extraordinary, charming Jewish-Russian person, who was so funny, after three years of dire marriage to John in Cadogan Square. Serge thought I was just fine, contrary to what I’d understood from John.”
The British never really got Gainsbourg, I suggest. “No,” she agrees. “But Bernard Levin, when he wrote Serge’s obituary, said something to the effect that in Britain we had comics, poets, composers, but we had no Serge Gainsbourg. He understood him, that he was all of those things.”
Birkin recalls the build-up to a 1994 tribute concert at London’s Savoy Theatre, held three years after Gainsbourg’s death. “My mother told me the seats weren’t selling, she knew someone at the box office, and that I had to do some publicity. So a journalist from The Sun turned up, and said, ‘Show us a bit of leg!’ Show us a bit of leg? I thought. Do they know who this man was? That [François] Mitterrand had said, ‘We have lost our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire,’ when Serge died? And then — ‘Are you going to sing another dirty song?’
“So I went back to Paris and wrote to Jean-Luc Godard, Claudia Cardinale, Brigitte Bardot, asking them [and others] to write two lines, in their own hands, about Serge. And all the replies came in on my fax machine during the night. And I thought, ‘They can’t ignore him now!’”
They probably did, I want to say, but I don’t want to be churlish, nor to interrupt the flow of indignation. “I was humiliated for him,” she says finally. “But he wouldn’t have cared at all. He took those things with such good grace.”
I ask her how his various provocations — they included allusions to incest in a song with their then 13-year-old daughter Charlotte and a second-world-war-themed concept album that included “Nazi Rock” — would have been received today. “I think he would have shocked people today too,” Birkin replies. “It was part of his DNA to shock — and then to say, ‘I’m terribly sorry,’ like a child. But he got caught up in his own game. Poor lamb, he used to ring me and ask me, ‘Did you see me on TV?’ And I said, ‘No, Serge, I didn’t.’”
We talk some more about her forthcoming concert, and she reveals a surprise or two about the running order, which is best discovered on the night. She says she prefers to play in “inconceivable places” rather than in the capitals of the world, where she will be “judged”. Birkin still lives in France, and is only in London on a day trip, but she continues to admire what she describes as the city’s “civility”. “People are so kind in comparison with the French. They say things like ‘Be careful, love’ on the bus.”
I say it is wonderful to see people in their mid-seventies still writing about, and yearning for, romantic love. “I think you are always thinking about romantic love,” she replies. Many people don’t, I counter, but she swiftly moves on to a documentary she has seen the previous night on George Sand and gives me a dizzying account of the writer’s affairs. “She seemed to believe in love right to the very, very end.”
She is inspired by the turn in our conversation to enthuse about the women who have grown old with her, and retained their allure. “Charlotte Rampling’s face — I could absorb that all day long, it’s fascinating. Beautiful Fanny Ardant, when she smiles, she is just gorgeous. Catherine Deneuve. These are wonderful women’s faces. They are all in film, they never stop working. These are people I admire, they are role models.
“And Helen Mirren,” she adds finally. “I would put my hand on her bosom immediately!”
‘Jane Birkin: Oh! Pardon tu dormais . . .’, Barbican Hall, July 9, barbican.org.uk
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