This week Jane Birkin returns to the West End stage after 30 years. Here, she talks to Richard Williams about Serge Gainsbourg, the Sixties, `Je t'aime . . .' and Euripides Between them, she and Gainsbourg read two books in their 13 years together
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SHE THINKS back almost 20 years, and she remembers standing in Old Church Street, off the King's Road, beating her fists on the wall. She had just seen the reviews of her new movie, and she was crying with frustration.

"I was so ashamed for Serge," she said. "People here hadn't taken him seriously. But he'd taken it terribly seriously. He was made to call the film by that name so that so he could get the money, but in fact the title was very juste. I was bowled over by the fact that anyone could have this extraordinarily original idea that a homosexual man would fall in love with a girl who looked like a boy."

The film was called Je t'aime - moi non plus, its title borrowed from the hit record with which Jane Birkin and her lover, Serge Gainsbourg, had become notorious a few years earlier. Written and directed by Gainsbourg, the movie had Birkin playing a skinny crop-haired girl willingly submitting to anal sex with a truck driver. Her ear-splitting shrieks seemed like Gainsbourg's perverse joke at the expense of the silken sighs that had enlivened the 45.

"I was amazed that people like Alexander Walker said, `Has Serge Gainsbourg never heard of butter?'," she continued. "I thought when I had to roll over and say, `Je suis un garon,' it would go down as one of the most beautiful lines in cinema history, practically as good as, I don't know, `A thousand kisses,' or whatever Juliet says. I loved that film. In France they thought it was wonderful. Truffaut said on the radio, don't go and see my film, go and see Je t'aime - moi non plus. Of course, Le Figaro slated it. But it's still going on. Pick up Pariscope and you'll find that somewhere Je t'aime - moi non plus is playing. So Serge was right, in the end. It's become a classique du genre, whatever that means."

In Britain, Birkin had already been filed away as a sort of animated Sixties sex-doll who ran off with an ugly and incomprehensible French pop singer. Oddly, however, Gainsbourg's film contradicted her image in France, where she had been starring in a successful series of family comedies with titles like Mustard Goes Up My Nose and The Onion Race. "I was popular with children," she said. "They used to recognise you on the beach and discuss whether it was really you or not. And then when they said, `Oh no, she's terribly pretty and she's got much longer hair than this one, and lovely long legs, she can't be this person at all,' I'd say, `Non, c'est pas moi,' so as not to disappoint them. The English got quite the wrong idea when they thought you were some luscious sex symbol. No! You were the girl in Mustard Goes Up My Nose. You were the person people would give their small children to, to look after. Possibly. Certainly not to go off with their husband or anything like that. Not at all."

In London, Je t'aime opened and closed in a Soho soft-porn cinema. "I was bewildered," she said. Almost 20 years later, she is still having trouble making herself understood.

AT 47, she retains her coltish beauty, tall and lean, coolly dishevelled in an old beige mac, a man's V-neck sweater, corduroy trousers and scuffed brown ankle boots, her voice still fey and girlish . She might not be recognised in a London street - as she has often remarked, after so many years in exile - but she would certainly not go unnoticed.

This week she returns to the West End stage for the first time since 1965, opening at the National Theatre in The Women of Troy, Euripides' meditation on the aftermath of war and its consequences for the survivors. For Birkin - who plays Andromache, Hector's widow - the value of a play written almost two and a half thousand years ago lies in the insistence of the director, Annie Castledine, on its contemporary relevance. "She wants it to touch people now. Otherwise there's no point. For her, the interest was that perhaps it would remind people of the news they saw on the television last night - ethnic cleansing, film of the concentration camps, things we see every day. So I thought that was an exciting thing ... and for me, who had hoped to go to Sarajevo and be of some use, I thought you should just do a little bit more of what you know how to do - sometimes, anyway, in the right hands - and move people through that, if you can."

There will be those who find it hard to recognise in these words the actress who rode off on the back of Ray Brooks's scooter in The Knack, romped in the nude with David Hemmings in Blow Up, and scandalised the Pope with the orgasmic gasps of the original "Je t'aime". But somewhere along the way Jane Birkin stopped being a girl who felt she had to accept "the least worst thing" that came along and became instead une femme serieuse.

"What Annie wants from me is difficult," she said, talking about Andromache's shift from mourning to an acceptance of her status as war booty. And here, as is Birkin's way, the modesty of the second person singular started to intrude. "She wants you to have that hard, truthful thing of people who've seen too much. Which means being able to watch other people cry. I know it can be true, because I remember saying it to myself once: `I think you've got hard, actually - you can't go into a movie and start crying the way you used to.' " She was talking about the time, four years ago this month, when Gainsbourg died, followed within the week by her father.

She had not lived with Gainsbourg since 1981, but they had remained close friends and he was still writing songs for her to sing. Her father, a painter, farmer and war hero, had been the light of her idyllic childhood. ("Jane was a little girl who wanted to be a little boy," her mother, the actress Judy Campbell, Nol Coward's muse, once said. "Her father and her brother were such an influence. She wanted to dare and dare and dare again to please them.") For her ex-lover, she put together a concert performance with which she toured the world, celebrating his memory. For the remembrance of her father she bought a house in Brittany, at the exact spot where he had landed his gunboat on Christmas Day in 1943, navigating the rocky coastline by night without benefit of light or echo-sounder in order to carry a group of Allied airmen back to England and safety.

The handsome Lieutenant-Commander David Birkin received the Lgion d'Honneur from Franois Mitterrand. The louche, bug-eyed Gainsbourg, who wore an imitation of the Lgion d'Honneur insignia on stage while delivering his reggae version of the Marseillaise, was mourned by an entire nation. The memory of both will be there in the grief of her Andromache, preparing to leave Troy for an uncertain destiny.

AFTER living the first half of her life in the gossip columns, seriousness came upon Jane Birkin in 1981, when she left Gainsbourg and married Jacques Doillon, a film director whom she described as "the first person to give you advice". Where Gainsbourg had told that if she was depressed she should go into a home, Doillon taught her how to put her private emotions into her work.

"I went behind a wall," she said last week, "and I've lived behind it for the last 13 years, really. I was living with somebody who was terribly shy and found the whole thing terribly embarrassing. Whereas Serge loved it. If he wasn't on the cover of a magazine, he'd go into a deep depression. He bought every magazine, just in case he was in it. He used to ring me up and say, `You've got the cover!' I'd say, `I know, it's a terrible magazine, I'm suing them.' He'd say, `No, no, no, Janette, you mustn't, you mustn't. Then you won't be in the press...' Quite a different way of looking at it." Between them, she said, she and Gainsbourg read two books in their 13 years together (Madame Bovary and Benjamin Constant's Adolph, since you ask).

Doillon gave her a third daughter - Lou, now aged 12 - to go with Kate, from her first marriage, to the composer John Barry, and Charlotte, her child by Gainsbourg. He also directed her in La Fille prodigue, with Michel Piccoli. The contrast with Gainsbourg, who had photographed her naked and chained to a wall for Lui magazine, was not hard to spot. "Jacques made me button my shirt up to the collar, not letting the slightest bit show, and said, `That way they'll look into your mind, into your head.' He scraped my hair back, wouldn't let me wear make-up. The critics said, `We didn't know she could do anything like that.' "

Warm reviews prefaced work of increasing depth with such directors as Bertrand Tavernier (Daddy Nostalgie, with Dirk Bogarde), Jacques Rivette (La belle noiseuse, with Emmanuelle Bart and Piccoli again), Agns Varda (Jane B par Agns V) and Marion Hnsel (Dust, with Trevor Howard). She began to attend film festivals, sometimes as a nominee: "I suddenly found myself in Venice, having previously managed to ignore the fact that there was a film festival there. I thought there was just the Gritti Palace, where you took the suite with Serge and drank some rather delicious champagne with peach juice in it. So suddenly things changed."

Eventually she wrote and directed her own movie, a black comedy called Pardon, tu dormais!. And she went back to the stage, two decades after her very limited West End experience as a 17-year-old ingnue (in Graham Greene's Carving the Statue, with Ralph Richardson, and a musical called Passion Flower Hotel). Now she took on Marivaux's La fausse suivante, followed by a translation of Israel Horowitz's Park Your Car in Harvard Yard and, for more than a year, L'Aide mmoire, a two-hander with Pierre Arditti.

She has made one of 30 three-minute movies for the 30th anniversary of Amnesty Inter-national, shown on French TV, and she was head of the jury selecting 10 children to make short films on Aids-related subjects, screened before the TV news in the month leading up to International Aids Day. This involved her in writing assessments of 30,000 entries from all over France: "As you knew it was all going back to these children, you couldn't just do it briefly. By the end, for the last three nights, I was going off to the theatre in my pyjamas because there was no longer enough day in which to read these things ..." Now she will be heard on two songs on a forthcoming Aids CD, one a duet with Suede's Brett Anderson ("Most gifted," she remarked, "and extremely modest").

She is no longer with Doillon, but still lives with Lou in a house near the Eiffel tower. Of her other daughters, Kate, now 27, has a small son and runs a drug rehabilitation centre, which she set up just outside Paris four years ago, putting her work as a fashion designer on hold. Charlotte is 23, with a burgeoning movie career of her own, including a role in the 1992 adaptation of Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden, directed by Jane's brother, Andrew Birkin. The recreation of that heavenly childhood on a Berkshire farm is a big thing with the grown-up Birkins: there were 22 people for Christmas at the house in Brittany, including Andrew and the younger sister, Linda, each with their three sons, under Judy Campbell's eye.

"I DIDN'T for a second expect to do anything more in England," she said. "I think it's just luck, the way people come and fish you out when you're rather wondering what to do."

She came to London last autumn , for a charity recital of Gainsbourg's songs at the Savoy. An agent announced himself, and then sent her off to a reading with Annie Castledine. "There was no plan. But was this in fact the exact moment when you could come back? No one's relying on you any more to take them to school, or not to die, or not to be too far from your father ... And I could be with my mother again. It doesn't really matter whether other things come out of it or not. Having talked to Annie for about three seconds, I knew I wanted to work with her. I would have displeased myself enormously if I hadn't taken up the courage that she showed when I said to her, `I'll be a risk,' and she said, `I like taking risks.' "

After Euripides, there may be a last rendezvous with Gainsbourg - who, she feels, gave her his most interesting songs - "songs that he didn't want to sing, perhaps out of pudeur, because he liked to sing provocative songs with American musicians, so he gave me sad songs to sing with English musicians. As he wrote in one of the songs, `One day you'll know that I gave you the best of me.' And he did." Cellos next time, she thinks, and "wonderful, ferocious" drummers from Tobago and Japan.

Other people have asked her to apply her wispy, untrained voice to their songs. "People that I admire a great deal wanted to let you sing their songs. I thought ... perhaps if I sing two songs from each, it would be ... well, it wouldn't be as bad as being unfaithful with one important person, do you see? But then I thought, `No, no, no, I can't, I can't, even that I can't do, not yet.' So I won't yet. I'll stick to what I thought and see what happens."

! `The Women of Troy': Olivier, SE1 (071-928 2252), now previewing, opens Thurs (in repertory).