Je t'aime, Jane

Wearing her musical hat, multi-talented Jane Birkin pays homage to French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg

Jane Birkin  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jane Birkin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jane Birkin has assumed many roles in her long career in music, film and theater – lithe 1960s pin-up star, versatile actress, singing muse of Serge Gainsbourg, international champion for human rights. But at age 65, the role she relishes in the most is that of mother.
With three daughters fathered by three different men – photographer Kate Barry with then-husband John Barry; popular singer/actress Charlotte Gainsbourg with longtime beau singer/songwriter/actor/director Gainsbourg; and actress/songwriter Lou Doillon with director Jacques Doillon – Birkin is a kveller but not a busybody when it comes to her girls’ careers.
“I encourage and am an admiring mother,” the multi-talented Birkin told The Jerusalem Post in an e-mail interview ahead of her two upcoming shows – Birkin Sings Gainsbourg via Japan, in Tel Aviv at Reading 3 on January 14 and 15.
Melancholia [the 2011 film in which Charlotte Gainsbourg co-stars with Kirsten Dunst] just has to be one of her finest pieces of work, subtle and surprising. She’s a great actress and bold singer... She doesn’t need my advice, I’m just there if she’s down, as all mothers are. It’s the same with Lou, who’s springing into her own, with a record she both wrote and sang, theater with a production of The Seagull and her films. And dear Kate and her photographs. I’m just so thrilled for my three girls and their happiness.”
Of course, their talent probably had something to do with the genes they inherited from Birkin, who has been in the spotlight since appearing at age 20 in the nude in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 prototype 1960s film Blow-Up. The accent on her sexuality continued after she met Gainsbourg and began collaborating with him in music and in film.
Their most notorious moment together appeared courtesy of their 1969 single “Je t’ non plus” (I Love you... Me Neither), in which Birkin’s moans and groans in the background build up to their natural conclusion. The result caused a sensation, with the record banned in some countries and a huge hit everywhere, including Israel, where it’s still aired regularly by Israel Radio in the middle of the afternoon.
The song, with its languorous piano-based rhythms, influenced the music of everyone from Portishead and Air to Dido and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and set up Birkin as a cultural icon from then on. However, she refused to be defined by it, moving on to resume her acting career by appearing as Brigitte Bardot’s lover in 1973’s Don Juan (Or If Don Juan Were a Woman) and in 1975 collaborating with Gainsbourg, appearing in his first film, Je t’ non plus, based on their hit song.
She then went on to star in the Agatha Christie films Death on the Nile (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982), while at the same time beginning to appear frequently on theater stages and holding down a second career as a singer with albums including Baby Alone in Babylone, Amours des Feintes, Lolita Go Home and Rendez-vous.
The ensuing years have been similar, with Birkin juggling activities on almost a daily basis.
“I am happy to be asked to do anything by friends,” says Birkin. “Hence yesterday, I was filming in Turin, for Sergio Castelito with Penelope Cruz, I’m appearing in Quebec in February with Wajdi Mouawad in a one-woman play he wrote for me – La Sentinelle – and I’m performing the Japanese musical show up to the end of the year. So I’m a very unfrustrated person and a very lucky person.”
No matter which avenues her muse has led her down, Birkin always seems to return to the main artistic effect on her life – her time with Gainsbourg. Twenty years after his death and 40 years after L’Histoire de Melody Nelson, the first Gainsbourg concept album featuring Birkin, the singer is still singing his music.
In the past, Birkin has presented Gainsbourg’s music in different settings – including 2002’s Algerian-tinged shows Arabesque. On her current tour, Birkin is offering the Gainsbourg songbook of jazz, cabaret, reggae and offbeat French pop interpreted by a group of Japanese backing musicians on piano, violin, drums and horns. The collaboration arose after Birkin traveled to Japan and got involved with relief efforts after last year’s devastating earthquake by staging a Tokyo concert to raise funds for Doctors of the World.
“Singing songs makes me feel less useless than watching misery on the television,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to have been able to be there and show that their feeling of being forgotten in an indifferent world can be proven wrong. I’m a messenger!”
Jane Birkin will perform at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv on January 14 and 15.