Soul survivor

An intimate encounter with Jane Birkin, the queen of bohemian Paris
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The Independent Online

"Vous cherchez Madame Birkin?" asks the porter at the courtyard in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, where Jane Birkin has her flat. "Oui," I say and, grinning alarmingly, he leads me up a wide staircase and through an open door into a scene of bohemian chaos.

First there is the flat itself, which is stuffed with stuffed animals, mainly of an indeterminate, rodent-ish sort, some draped in necklaces. The place evokes a turn-of-the-century bordello, with opulent art nouveau wallpaper, scarlet couches, and pictures of the young Jane semi-naked in her sex symbol heyday, though this impression is somewhat counteracted by a solid stack of English board games, including Monopoly and Cluedo.

Madame Birkin herself is finishing off a phone call and accepting delivery of some flowers from "the agent who's taken on my next play", at least I think that's who they were from, but I didn't quite catch what she said. At the age of 53, Birkin is still the endearingly dizzy, breathless beauty - in the tradition of Holly Golightly or Annie Hall - living in a whirlwind. The upshot is that it is surprisingly hard to pin her down to talking about her new film, The Last September, an adaptation, directed by Deborah Warner, of the Elizabeth Bowen novel concerning the decline of the Anglo-Irish landed gentry, in which Birkin plays an eccentric upper-class lady - a role that was maybe not too taxing for her.

Instead, I have to scribble like mad to keep up with her stream of anecdotes, many of which emerge in fragmentary form, never to be adequately placed in context, such as the one about her "going off in a tank to Sarajevo". It doesn't help that she is "slightly sloshed" (her vocabulary is pre-war upper-class English), having just been to lunch with some French film person, very eminent but mentioned rapidly in passing, rather like the award-winning French novelist with whom she's just broken up. But as a rule, she doesn't drink much or live the high life now: "When you've done it as well as we did, you don't have to." By "we", of course, she means her late lover, Serge Gainsbourg, actor, songwriter, controversialist and boozer...

She came to Paris in 1968, having just been the first person to show her pubic hair in a proper film - Blow-Up - and having just split, after a year of marriage, from the film-score composer, John Barry. "If you came to Paris at that time," she says, "you had to meet Serge."

When she did meet Gainsbourg, he was on the rebound from Brigitte Bardot, with whom he'd recorded a song, called "Je T'Aime...", on which she'd done a lot of orgasmic gasping. After their break-up, however, Bardot had refused him permission to release it. "At parties," recalls Birkin, "people would keep saying, 'Put on that pretty tune, Serge'," and she would hear Serge and Brigitte doing their thing. "It almost made you faint it was so erotic." She could see that Gainsbourg was looking for someone with whom to re-record the song, which would be akin to going to bed with him, such was the nature of the track. "So I thought, I'd better get a wiggle on, and said I'd do it myself."

"Je T'Aime..." was banned by the Vatican and the BBC - on Top Of The Pops the BBC Light Orchestra did a version sans gasping - and the Queen of Holland pulled out of something (lost in the Birkin gabble) in protest against it. All this banning, of course, made it a worldwide smash, and helped establish Birkin and Gainsbourg as king and queen of bohemian Paris. Why the French took to her she is not sure. In the past she has modestly, and mysteriously, suggested that it might be to do with her "English teeth", but surely the answer is obvious: she had the fashionable look (ie she was flat-chested), and was gratefully accepted as an emissary of Swinging London. If the French couldn't have Mick Jagger, then at least they could have a woman who was, physically, his female equivalent. Although she thought that Paris was "the jolly place to be. It was a zone of open arms and food on the table, and Serge and his wonderful Russo-Jewish family."

Birkin was running away from England. She'd always felt ugly in comparison with her actress mother, Judy Campbell, a famous beauty of her day, with smaller teeth and a mouth not so interestingly suggestive of extreme lasciviousness. The split with Barry compounded Birkin's idea that she was unattractive. But the funny thing is that Gainsbourg was using his proximity to her as a way of calming his insecurity about his own looks.

So on a typical day in the Seventies, they would get up at the crack of noon; Jane would take Kate, her daughter by Barry, and Charlotte, her daughter by Gainsbourg (and now as big a star, almost, as her mother) to a park. Then Serge would escort her to a couture house, where he would make her try on a series of dresses until the ideal one for that evening became apparent. Afterwards, they'd hit the town in a big way, looking for crowds, "to create un spectacle... a bit of a figuration", with Serge distributing high-denomination notes to strangers, saying "oh, they're prostitutes, just like me". They never took drugs, just drank enormous amounts of wine. Once, when she tried to drive - "more than a little drunk" - the short distance from some night spot near the Eiffel Tower to her home of the time, Birkin crashed into a lamp post, with the result that the car could only turn right, "which was fine," she says, "because all the turns I needed to make were right".

She has an interesting way of glossing over what must have been quite a frightening time. Gainsbourg was drinking himself to death, yet she recalls him with pure jollity. I ask about Gainsbourg's relationship with her late father, a patrician-class war hero turned painter, and she affectionately recalls that, both being bad sleepers, they'd take their mandraxes together, "and both fall over like lovely old owls".

She left Gainsbourg in 1981, and moved in with the French film director, Jacques Doillon, but she remained close to Gainsbourg, and when he died in 1991, within weeks of her adored father, the relationship with Doillon swiftly broke up. She doesn't talk about this dark time.

Her career, if not her emotional life, prospered after she left Gainsbourg. In the Seventies she had acted in a series of comedies for the French market. I ask whether they were in English or French and she says, "It didn't really seem to matter". The most successful was called Mustard Gets Up My Nose, which she airily describes as "a-French-star-has-a-relationship-with-Henry-Kissinger type film" and "quite Benny Hill". French humour... it's a strange, problematic sort of area. But she won't criticise these movies; she's famously loyal to her directors.

She went on to feature in a series of unequivocally good French films, such as Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse, and Bertrand Tavernier's Daddy Nostalgie. She also wrote her first play, Ah Pardon, Tu Dormais, a bittersweet comedy about a collapsing marriage, which was a big success in Paris, and is currently touring in provincial France. In The Last September, she turns in a very watchable comic performance, providing the light note in a movie otherwise steeped in Go-Between-ish melancholy.

She's always been self-deprecating about her talents, and this modesty is more justified in the case of her singing than her acting. She sounds at best like Mary Hopkins, or some well-bred folkie, but her voice is pretty wispy. She continues to record, but only the wistful, wordy songs of Gainsbourg, whose work she is determined to proselytise. She earnestly asks me whether the English might take to his songs done with African-style accompaniment. I suggest that the question is irrelevant since, "Je T'Aime..." apart, they don't know his songs to begin with, and she looks so crestfallen that I immediately regret doing so.

When he came to London, Birkin admits, Gainsbourg would "get depressed after three days because no one was recognising him in the King's Road". To Birkin, Paris is still "the jolly place" but she herself goes back to London on Eurostar every couple of months to see her mother, with whom she's always got on well. She's amazed, and delighted, that all the shops are open on a Sunday. "Everything is bustling; everybody seems happy. I think there's a renaissance happening there. It's like the time we did Blow-Up."

When she does return, she is usually recognised only by the Japanese, whereby hangs a quintessentially Birkin-ish story. She was taking her place in first class on an aeroplane when her handbag spilled open. "I implied to the man next to me that it would be more useful to have a larger container." Oddly enough, he then introduced himself as Mr Hermÿs, head of the bag-making firm, whereupon Birkin quickly sketched out a handbag design, which was subsequently manufactured. It is now very big in Japan, where it is called "a Birkin", which the locals pronounce "Barking". "So whenever the Japanese see me," she concludes, "they call out 'Barking! Barking!'''

I kept my mouth shut, I'm very glad to say.

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