Jane Birkin: Whatever happened to Jane, baby?

In Britain, Jane Birkin is remembered only for "Je t'aime...", her notorious duet with Serge Gainsbourg, but in France, she's an icon of Anglo-Gallic cool and chic motherhood. Always restless, she tells Nick Duerden, she's decided to sing all over again
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The Independent Culture

When Jane Birkin was just 17 years old, she had already settled into a rather orderly life for someone who considered herself the very definition of bohemian chic. The girl born to artistic, aristocratic parents - her father a naval officer-turned-painter, her mother an actress - had married the James Bond composer John Barry and was carrying his child. But for someone who had already courted infamy by appearing in Antonioni's 1966 film Blow Up as the first full-frontal nude to ever grace a British cinema screen, this was clearly not part of the script. And so when Time magazine described her as little more than her husband's attractive accessory - "[his] E-Type wife to go along with his E-Type Jag" - she took the criticism to heart.

"I suppose it did offend me, yes," she says now, "but I really didn't know what to do with my life. I often thought that if anybody had wanted to take me off into the country and look after me forever, then I would have been delighted. But," she adds, and here her gaze drifts on to an invisible point on the wall, "things were not to turn out that way, were they?"

No, they weren't. Shortly after, she landed a small part in an awful French movie called Slogan, and decamped to Paris for its filming. By now she was 20 years old and Paris, a city that, in 1968, was enveloped in bohemia, appealed to her greatly. She was introduced to a locally famous Frenchman who was ugly, unshaven, a sometime actor, singer, director and novelist, and a good 20 years her senior. Birkin did what beautiful women so often do with seemingly inappropriate men: she fell in love with him.

Serge Gainsbourg had already spent several years challenging all manner of French morals and offending the establishment. He had just written a song about sex, "Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus", for his then-girlfriend, Brigitte Bardot, but their relationship was suffering for many reasons - one of them, purportedly, due to his claimed phobia of breasts. He promptly took up with the under-endowed Birkin, claiming her his ideal woman. He presented her with the song to sing, which she did lustily, faking the scripted orgasm until it sounded anything but scripted. The result incensed the Vatican and was banned by the BBC. Consequently, it reached Number 1 in the UK, and made her notorious for eternity.

"I know exactly what the music will be when I exit this world, and I've come to accept that. After all, I am the woman who did the rude song." She sighs theatrically. "It's all the British seem to remember me for, which is curious when you consider that I've done so much more since. But there you go. Actually," and here comes a smile, "I rather like the notoriety."

While she does indeed remain "the woman who did the rude song" in her native UK, Jane Birkin has been revered as an icon in France, her adopted home, for close to four decades now. Next birthday, she'll be 58, and is busier than ever. Right now, she is promoting a new album of duets, Rendez-Vous, and it is headline news here in Paris, where we meet at the TV5 Studios. She will promote the album right across the world, chiefly, she says, "because the suitcase element of life is very attractive to me. I've developed a real craving for travel of late."

She goes on to illustrate this in bizarrely eccentric, but typically Birkinesque, fashion. While on the surface she appears to personify grace and elegance - handsome in tight blue jeans and V-neck cashmere sweater, a figure Kate Moss will one day come to envy, and tumbledown hair - the notion is expelled the moment she talks. It is quite remarkable to witness the ebb and flow of it all, words delivered with a barmy energy, as if the delivery of one freewheeling sentence encourages the arrival of the next, complete with unsignposted tangents, and occasional lapses into French. She starts by recalling the places she has visited recently: Vietnam, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, and "the place where they filmed the King of Siam."

Bangkok?

"Bangkok! That's it. Marvellous place."

And then come those tangents. First, the plays of Chekhov, then Gainsbourg, whom she describes as "the love of my life". Next, blood tests for dogs, her recent appearance on the Graham Norton show, and how she loves to receive standing ovations. She doesn't stop talking for a full 15 minutes, and barely pauses for breath. Unsurprisingly, she has lost me completely. And then, without forewarning, she comes back down to earth.

"...With a little bit of luck, anyway, touch wood," she says, now suddenly alert. She casts an eye around the room, because when she says "touch wood", she means it literally. This proves difficult, given that the table is glass, the chairs leather and the carpet is, well, some kind of carpety fabric.

"The skirting board!"

And now she is on her hands and knees, touching wood, palpably relieved.

A moment later, though, and she has reverted back to silent Style Icon, draped casually in her chair, right leg crossed over left, exuding studied poise. There is a zealous glint in her eye, and a smile is gradually melting across her face like butter. She asks me where we were in our conversation, and momentarily I am speechless, because, of course, I haven't the faintest idea.

Mercifully, her dog Dora, an exceptionally ugly bulldog with the mother of all underbites, then causes a distraction by farting. Birkin pinches her nose between forefinger and thumb, and loudly castigates it. Dora, unimpressed by the fuss, waddles over to the far corner of the room where she can fart in peace.

"That dog has terrible wind," she says. "I do apologise."

Rendez-Vous, Jane Birkin's new album, is a strange, bewitching and beguiling record that features 16 collaborations with, amongst others, Bryan Ferry, Portishead's Beth Gibbons and Brian Molko of Placebo. Sung in both French and English (and, in one instance, Japanese), the idea for the album came from her record company boss, whom Birkin had approached, cautiously, a year earlier when looking for a new recording deal.

"I said to him, 'Do you think I am worth anything in today's currency?' I told him to think of me not as a woman, but as a carpet. An old carpet, certainly, but one that was once a very good carpet. Some people prefer old carpets; they think young ones are merely flash. OK, so maybe this one might have a few cigarette holes and wine stains, but it could still potentially be quite marvellous. He looked at me, and do you know what he did? He smiled! He smiled and said that there were a great many things to be had from an old carpet."

She enjoyed recording the album immensely, and was fascinated particularly by Molko and Gibbons, both of whom she wanted to mother.

"Brian was so very lovely, sweet, intelligent, bilingual, bisexual, and very self-deprecating, and Beth... Well, Beth completely intrigued me. Such beautiful hair, sort of red and pinky, almost Venetian, and certainly not out of a bottle. I made a point of telling her that. She's very eager for information, Beth, but imparts almost nothing of herself. I know that she lives near Cornwall, and that's about it, and yet she managed to get my whole life story out of me... Did you know that she wears green shoes?

I do now.

The album's artwork - a lithe Birkin strewn in black-and-white across a succession of school chairs - was the concept of her eldest, photographer daughter Kate, who is now 37. When discussing her offspring, Birkin, who is already prone to verbal flourishes, becomes positively rhapsodic. She has three daughters, one each respectively from John Barry, Serge Gainsbourg and the film director Jacques Doillon. Kate, she says, founded a retreat for alcoholics in France when she was just 19, and spent the next 10 years "saving more people than I've had hot breakfasts". Charlotte, 32, is an actress of considerable repute and is, in her mother's eyes, "an uncut diamond with unlimited acting ability. I thought she was terribly underused in 21 Grams." And 20 year-old model-cum-actress Lou?

"Lou is something special," she says. "At the age of 12, she told me she was going to become a nude model. She said to me this: 'Mother, I know that all I've got going for me is my beauty and, yes, I know it's ephemeral, but I'm going to make the most out of it.'" Her mother tried to talk her out of it, saying that it would ultimately hold her back in her career, her life. But when Lou responded that Birkin herself had done likewise at a young age, Mum had to concede the point, and is now full of respect. "She wasn't very good at school, you see, but she is so very intelligent; right now, she is reading everything by Samuel Pepys and Somerset Maugham. She's a wonderful actress, as well, and she recently turned down the opportunity of playing Ophelia, because she claimed the part offered her nothing."

The proud mother recently recounted this to the actor John Malkovich. Malkovich saw the daughter's point of view. "She should be playing Hamlet," he told her.

Two years ago, Birkin was awarded an OBE for services to Anglo-French relations. For someone who claims to have had little drive in life, the accolade came as something of a surprise. But it shouldn't, because during her 37 years in France (she maintains properties in Paris and Brest), she has appeared in more than 50 films, countless plays, has spearheaded humanitarian projects in Sarajevo, and continues to sing the songs Gainsbourg wrote for her. Although their decade-long relationship was a tempestuous one, punctuated by raging arguments that once prompted Birkin, a non-swimmer, to throw herself into the Seine, they remained close friends after splitting in 1983 until his death from a heart attack eight years later. She is overjoyed that his work is now reaching a new audience, something she puts down, bizarrely, to the Eurostar, which she insists brings Britain and France together in more ways than one.

"Serge adored Britain," she says, "but he could never understand why they preferred Sasha Distel to him. That he is now proving more enduring would be a great comfort to him, I'm sure. I owe him so much of my life, you know. As a girl, I thought I wanted to become a James Bond girl but that," she says, looking down at her lack of an Ursula Andres bosom, "was never going to happen. I think people have had ambition for me, which is very kind of them. Serge had it, and the French people themselves have sustained me for such a long time. I'm awfully grateful to them."

And she shows no sign of slowing down, either. She is always working, forever planning new projects across all media. I ask her if she fears the ageing process. Her answer is delightfully random.

"I did think the prospect of age would be frightening," she concedes, "but, do you know, is really isn't at all. And that's because there is still so much to do, to learn. I love history, for example. I'm currently reading all about Mary, Queen of Scots, and it's completely fascinating. I want to travel to places like Siberia. I love visiting my children. I've just read The Quiet American, because I was in Vietnam recently. And I've seen Chechnyan children dance." Her eyes mist over. "Every day is filled with so many opportunities, so many discoveries. I enjoy life immensely."

On the third finger of her left hand, Jane Birkin wears what looks like a silver wedding band. In fact, it's a signet ring turned upside down. I mention it, and she takes it off to appraise.

"No, I'm not in a relationship at the moment," she says, without apparent sadness. "Unless you count the dog, of course, and I'd really rather you didn't."

She smiles, then laughs and claps her hands loudly, looking positively teenage.

'Rendez-Vous' is out now on Capitol

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