Jane Birkin: 'I was no Lolita,' says Britain's Bardot

Reflecting on her role as muse for Serge Gainsbourg, the actress and singer is clearly still under his spell, writes Jonathan Owen

Jane Birkin had everything. She was Britain's answer to Brigitte Bardot; parts in iconic Sixties films such as Blow Up and Wonderwall, and an A-list husband in the form of the Hollywood composer John Barry. Then she had nothing: her marriage collapsed and the 21-year-old fled to France where she embarked on the affair that defined her life. She fell for the French entertainer Serge Gainsbourg, already old enough to be her father. Scandal and "Je t'aime" followed. Their song was banned in the UK and elsewhere, guaranteeing multimillion sales. Next week, she's back on the stage.

Of course, it's impossible to think of her without THAT song. Gainsbourg had broken up with Brigitte Bardot, and in 1968 Birkin replaced her as his muse. His mumbled crooning accompanied by her orgasmic moaning enthralled and appalled listeners around the world. Speaking as she prepares to perform in Glasgow and London this week, she breathlessly pays tribute to her former lover. To many he's best known for his love of cigarettes, drinking, and young women. But in Birkin's eye's he was "France's greatest poet". Noting my disbelief, she insists: "If you knew him you would have loved him. He was so funny ...with his bulging eyes ... absolutely irresistible."

I suggest that for a man with such talents it's ironic that his biggest success was a novelty record. This is a mistake. She snaps: "I think that you are wrong", and lectures me on how Gainsbourg was "20 years ahead of his time" and a major musical influence. Recovering her composure, she adds: "Of course people remember 'Je t'aime' and it's good to be remembered for something. I know that, when I die, on the news that's the record they'll play as you go out feet first."

Life after Gainsbourg has been largely confined to obscure French films and albums. Asked what it is like to be defined as somebody's muse instead of an artist in her own right, she finds it "very flattering to have the most beautiful songs, probably, in the French language written for one".

Birkin is "part of the furniture" in France, but bitterness creeps into her voice as she bemoans being "absolutely not part of even the garden furniture in England". Yet, she concedes: "How much talent did I really have? Perhaps not that much."

She has had a number of relationships and three daughters by different fathers. Surely it would not have been what her parents – the actress Judy Campbell and David Birkin DSO, a decorated lieutenant-commander in the Royal Navy – wanted. Yet Birkin paints a picture of them getting along famously with Gainsbourg.

She glosses over the scandal that erupted when "Je t'aime" was first released. "They took it so well and so stoically. I was quite lucky to have them."

And then it's back to her favourite subject – Gainsbourg is never out of the room for long. She admits: "Serge being 20 years older sort of went into the Humbert Humbert [of Nabokov's novel Lolita] category for other people if they wanted to be simplistic, but in fact it was not quite so easy as that."

So he was no Humbert and she was no Lolita? "Well I was a bit old for being a Lolita, I was already 21." But she says Gainsbourg's 1971 concept album, Histoire de Melody Nelson, was written for her "as if I were 14" and "he and Humbert Humbert had many similarities". Pressed to expand on this, she cites his fondness for "girls that looked like boys".

I bring up the matter of "Lemon Incest", a song Gainsbourg recorded with their daughter Charlotte in 1984, in which the 12-year-old sang lyrics like "Papa, the love which we make together is the rarest, the most disturbing". Birkin insists she has "absolutely no regrets" about allowing her daughter to do this. Gainsbourg was very "prudish" and "not at all a sort of 'kissy kissy' sort of father .... His only way of saying how much he loved her was to put her on a pedestal and write songs for her or movies for her ... and there was certainly nothing scandalous in his feelings for her."

Birkin and Gainsbourg spent more than a decade together, but his drinking destroyed the relationship, and they had parted by the early 1980s. She recalls: "The monotony of somebody who drinks a lot is perhaps the saddest thing and it also cuts them off from a lot of people."

But we can be clear Gainsbourg was the love of her life, surely? Eventually she says: "That would be unfair", before another lengthy pause, reflecting on her relationships with Barry and Jacques Doillon. Because? "Because there are other children." She won't elaborate. And yet it's clear she remains under Gainsbourg's spell and perhaps always will. "He was an extraordinary poet, an extraordinary comic, a very funny actor .... He was a great great charmer."

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little