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Actor, singer, collaborator, mother, wife and fashion figure, Jane Birkin, died this week at the age of 76. That was 76 years spent experiencing, exploring and daring more than most.

In this interview from 2005 she talked about breaking barriers physical, intellectual, and moral, and why the world of Miss Ironside’s School for girls, and the strictures that came with it, was never going to be enough to satisfy or hold her.


IT ALMOST FEELS NECESSARY, for she has rarely been someone for indifference or equivocating, that Jane Birkin reports that during filming in Cuba, the rain has been heavy, “dramatic things happening”, throughout.

She tells me this in a breathy voice with a precise English accent which slips into French every so often, the legacy of a life begun in the UK that blossomed in France, and now in so many ways is borderless. The kind of life that makes it natural to explore the songs of her former husband, Serge Gainsbourg, in the context of Arab culture – of which more soon.

From Cuba she is heading to Buenos Aries to see her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is like her mother a pan-continental actor/singer/artist. And eventually to Australia. Australia via the Pacific islands that is, because, as she explains, during filming she’d been inspired by the high number of Samoans involved to travel to Samoa (which she pronounces Samwa, of course).

She makes these connections and passions spring from them all the time. Birkin recalls that she made a film about the celebrated (if underappreciated closer to home) New Zealand author, Katherine Mansfield, but it was filmed in France, opposite Sir John Gielgud – 1985’s Leave All Fair – and is even more enthusiastic remembering her time on the jury at the Cannes film festival, when was a supporter of Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, even if her memory of its success may be less secure.

“I stood up for it and made it win, I was very proud,” she says. “I made the whole jury watch it again with Jeanne Moreau and it won. I’ve always loved his cinema.”

More solidly-based is her memory of how her interest in Indigenous Australians was sparked by The Last Wave, recalling that “Peter Weir made us very aware of that other land and that other way of thinking which would be nice to know.” And it is that kind of interest in other ways of thinking and living that has taken her towards her album of Gainsbourg re-interpreted, Arabesque.

“Everyone always seemed to me to have different and strange cultures and everyone I know in France are a mixed bunch,” says Birkin, pointing out that Gainsbourg was Russian Jewish, her first husband, composer John Barry, was Irish, which compares rather favourably with her more straightforward London upbringing as the daughter of an actor and a naval officer. “In French culture there’s also Arabian culture and Jewish culture and so it was nice to take French song written by a Jew with an Arab feeling, sung by an English girl. France is like that.”

It appeals, but does it sell?

“Of course we don’t make any money because it costs so much,” she laughs. “We’re doing it for the fun and the excitement and the adventure. That’s why life has been interesting. I used to get my little daughter around with me and she was a very good passport because people aren’t suspicious of children. We used to go into the camps for the boat people and then I got interested in Amnesty International and made a film in Kuala Lumpur for them.”

The self-described “shy English girl” who was first noticed in Michelangelo Antonioni’s iconic ‘60s film, Blow Up, made her first French film in 1969, Slogan. She didn’t speak the language and her co-star, the songwriter, singer and provocateur, Gainsbourg, wasn’t any better with English. It didn’t seem to matter.

It certainly didn’t seem necessary to find words later that year when she recorded Je t’aime … moi non plus with him, stepping in for Brigite Bardot and offering heavy breathing, moans, vocalising and extemporising what sounded like an orgasm. One done convincingly enough to scandalise censors and titillate a generation or two of over-imaginative/under-satisfied teenagers.

Between the film, the song and Gainsbourg, France on the cusp of the ‘70s became a new home for Birkin who refashioned her world, adding music to her repertoire from then on, her range limited but her skill in interpretation recognised long after the titillation passed.

(Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg)

While she does point out that “Serge and I never had a gold record until we broke up. We were popular but we weren’t gold discs, platinum discs [popular] until we were much older”, Birkin is conscious of the fact French culture does not seem as obsessed with youth and extreme youth as that of America, England and Australia.

“In songs lyrics matter a lot which means it’s a bit like acting. I’m doing a film [Boxes, her semi-autobiographical and self-penned directorial debut] with Geraldine Chaplin who hasn’t had a facelift and looks absolutely marvellous and she can play anything now. Me too. I’ve never had so many offers because of not bothering to look particularly young. There are a lot of us wanting to see people who look like us.”

One thing people underestimate is that as with blues or soul, the lyric-driven songs which have been part of her career, are better sung by someone who has lived, who has experienced those emotions.

“That’s very true. Serge gave me songs where I was singing his pain and I was singing him as a girl. He was in such pain and wrote such beautiful lyrics that were all about unhappiness and people leaving people but in such a sophisticated and such an elegant way,” she says. “I think people may cry through my concert but also have a giggle and that was very Serge too, he would stop crying and start laughing. That’s very Russian, very Jewish.

“With the lyrics we can interpret them with a certain sense of people who have been there. I remember I was sitting on the edge of the stage in Tokyo and just touched a young girl and she couldn’t have understood the French, because it was sophisticated, she started to cry and I wondered why and they said it’s because someone like you doesn’t exist in Japan. They just have teen bopper singers; they don’t have someone who looks like a 50-year-old person would look, and everyone knows a dead child and everyone knows what you’re talking about in sad love affairs that have gone wrong.”

No wonder she never really thought of doing anything but staying in France.

“My mother used to say you’re not very fair on the English. And I’d say why Ma and she’d say you always find other people more interesting,” Birkin says. “And it was true. I like English people when they’re wandering around abroad, they’re usually up to interesting things. I’ve always wanted to wander, I think I wasn’t made to stay at home.”

(A young Jane Birkin)

When people outside France think of her they probably think of her as French. Does she feel French?

“When I’m in England I speak up for the French and when I’m in France I stick up for the English. I like both cultures very much but I was taken over by the French, adopted by the French so I’m a tiny bit biased,” says Birkin. “It has a racist side but it also has more cinemas and more theatres which show different ethnic groups than anywhere else in the world. They’ve also saved the careers of many an English filmmaker like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. The English didn’t even have a minister of culture until the last few years.”

“I remember when I went out with Serge 35 years ago, when we’d gone out drinking then we’d go to a Russian nightclub then a south American nightclub where he played piano with an old jazz musician from New Orleans called Joe Turner then we went off to a club in Pigalle and I thought, gosh what’s this country, I’ve never seen so many different things in one night. And we came back with the dustbins in the morning, it was so exciting. In England everyone was asleep at 10 o’clock every evening.”

Cultural channel crossing has remained central to her though. She’s recently played Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, in a regional production in England, paid 200 pounds a week (“It’s so modest and people are so modest because there is no budget for culture.”). But there’s no hiding the fact that the love for France was immediate and deep: Paris setting the tone for a lifetime to come, the audience she found replicated around the world.

“[My audience is } a remarkable amount of homosexuals, a remarkable amount of lesbians, a remarkable amount of people who don’t quite know where they are, a lot of nostalgic couples that hold hands desperately as if they don’t want it to happen to them and then these very very young faces,” Birkin says. “In Hong Kong they looked like children to me and why would they want to see this 57-year-old woman with an Arab orchestra and they were crying. And they don’t speak French.

“Of course the audience is usually about 40, 50 year olds but I’ve been lucky to have some successes recently which means children of 20 come up now to ask for an autograph, and it’s not for their mother.”

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