Russh: Jane Birkin
IT SEEMS JANE BIRKIN and Serge Gainsbourg never really separated. The iconic lovers – she the girlish ingénue, all doe eyes and Bambi limbs, he the man described by French President Mitterrand after his death in 1991 as “our Baudelaire” – are enmeshed in the French psyche, and Birkin, now 65, isn’t one to shatter illusions.
She phones from her apartment in Paris on a Thursday morning, and tells me she’s watching birds outside her window gobble “great chunks of fat” she threw them yesterday. She speaks of Gainsbourg – her mentor and great love – as though he’s just nipped out to the market. Since their separation and his death, he’s remained a powerful presence in her life, mostly through his music, which she has performed, cabaret style, for two decades, and her memories of him are vivid. She hoots with laughter recalling nights on the town in Paris in the 70s and, along with her fierce commitment to numerous social causes, is devoted to upholding his artistic legacy.
“Why do I owe it to Serge? Well, I just do, that’s all,” she says softly.
Though she speaks with hurried candour about the ‘jolly’ times, there’s a sense nothing has ever come close to her relationship with Gainsbourg – a passionate 12-year partnership not without controversies. Their duet J’Taime ... Moi Non Plus earned them the scorn of BBC and the Vatican, and Birkin has often recounted tales of their spats, including one where she launched a custard pie at Gainsbourg’s face then dramatically threw herself into the Seine.
She’s immensely proud of daughters Kate Barry, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon – “my great joys,” she coos – and admits she’s still humbled when crowds turn out to hear her perform Gainsbourg’s chansons. “When we did Arabesque, I thought, ‘why should anyone turn up to hear me sing Arab orchestrations of a Frenchman’s songs who they’ve never heard of?’” she says, chuckling, of a previous Australian tour. “But they did!”
Still intent on pleasing Gainsbourg, Birkin takes comfort knowing he’d be grateful for her loyalty to his art. “I get over the mourning stage 20 years later,” she says thoughtfully, “and I think, gosh! I’d love it if someone picked up a play of mine or a song I’d written and gave it new life.”
Birkin is, after all, proof that some love stories are beyond iconic – they’re eternal.