Far from a passive muse, Jane Birkin was an icon not to be underestimated

Birkin was a singer, actor, mother and ahead-of the-curve feminist whose clever empathy sold Serge Gainsbourg’s difficult genius to the world. Helen Brown pays tribute

Monday 17 July 2023 05:43 BST
<p>Birkin was a reminder that the gauziest seeming human might have sinew they don’t show </p>

Birkin was a reminder that the gauziest seeming human might have sinew they don’t show

Broadcast news of Jane Birkin’s death inevitably came accompanied by clips of her as softcore chanteuse, singing the 1969 single she recorded with Serge Gainsbourg, “Je t’aime… moi non plus”, her breathy, girlish voice wrapping sweet, urgent nothings around an older lover’s weary cynicism.

Birkin would go on to sing scores of Gainsbourgs’s poetic, playful and provocative songs. Sing? She liked to say she “wore” them. To me, she sounded more like she was smoking them. Inhaling his darker thoughts, holding them in, getting a little sad or high, then breathing them out somehow lighter, more evasive. Teasing both his need to shock and his audience’s need to be shocked.

At her final London show last year, she didn’t give us “Je t’aime” but its B Side, “Jane B”, on which Gainsbourg gave her licence to play with his typecasting of her as a 2D muse. He listed her vital statistics à la CSI: “Yeux bleus/ Cheveux châtains/ Jane B/ Anglaise/ De sexe féminin/ Âge entre 20 et 21…” The song implied she was already dead, a pretty corpse “sleeping” by the side of the road. But, of course, Birkin would outlive her lover by three decades and carry his legacy – with a pallbearer’s tender stoicism – for the rest of her life.

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