With Jane Birkin’s passing, France loses both an icon and one of its greatest enigmas. To focus on France is not to diminish the fact that Birkin’s death will be mourned around the world. Alongside Brigitte Bardot, Françoise Hardy and Catherine Deneuve, Birkin was one of the last surviving 1960s femmes who sparked global interest in French culture.
Except that Birkin wasn’t French. She was born in London and clung to her English accent all her life. Birkin was perfectly fluent, but cultivated a faux-naïf way of speaking her adopted language that reinforced her persona as the eternal child. For the French, it was all part of her singular charm, established decades earlier… and which she sometimes struggled to escape.
As partner and muse to Svengali-like songwriting genius Serge Gainsbourg, Birkin posed for the cover of his “Histoire de Melody Nelson” album, wearing only a red wig and open-waisted blue jeans, a plush monkey clutched to her bare chest. Two years earlier, she recorded the erotic duet “Je t’aime moi non plus,” originally written for Bardot. Those are Birkin’s ecstatic moans that echo over the scandalous track’s final seconds, which led to its being censored in various corners and condemned by the Vatican.
Jane met Serge on the film “Slogan,” a fun if disposable 1969 comedy about a middle-aged ad man tempted to abandon his pregnant wife after he falls for a much-younger nymphet (played by guess who). This reluctant sex symbol, who’d dared to appear nude in Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” and played the naive teen Alain Delon seduces in “La piscine,” was never a great actor — she had neither the training nor the range to dramatically transform herself for a role — but she possessed that far rarer, ineffable quality of the star. When audiences looked at Jane Birkin on screen, they saw Jane Birkin… or they saw the figure Jane Birkin allowed audiences to believe was the real her, and which may have actually been an elaborate lifelong performance.
That paradox was key to her appeal. Was Birkin a doll molded by the men in her life, or was she an artist with an instinctive talent? Both were true. Birkin’s own journals, collected and published as “The Munkey Diaries,” reveal far less than fans demanded. Gainsbourg may have encouraged Birkin to make herself ubiquitous (as she did, appearing in ad campaigns and throwaway comedies), but she gradually took control of her own image.
All along, Birkin was deeply insecure, as we discover in her two most revealing screen credits: “Jane B. par Agnès V.” and “Jane by Charlotte.” The first is a playful postmodern pseudo-documentary on Birkin by pioneering French director Agnès Varda, who fashions the project to look like the sort of star portraits that audiences might see on TV, alternating personal interviews (in which the woman opens up in the presence of another woman) with clips of her most famous roles as Joan of Arc or mythological Greek princess Ariadne, a crime-movie femme fatale or pie-faced silent comedian — only, Birkin had never been cast in any of those parts. This manufactured B-roll material was shot specifically for the film, as Varda gave the star, then in her early 40s, a chance to play the roles she’d been denied. (The movie is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.)
By contrast, “Jane by Charlotte” is a real documentary, made by the daughter of her 12-year relationship with Serge. Charlotte Gainsbourg is one of the most daring and versatile actors working today, but she can only get so much out of her mother, who’d been filmed and photographed, ogled and objectified, so much of her life. At a certain point in the 1980s, she rebelled against the reductive way the world saw her. She chopped off her hair (it’s short in Varda’s film) and insisted on giving a live concert at Paris’ Bataclan.
Previous performances had involved pantomiming to pre-recorded audio; Birkin had something to prove. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, she had embodied a new kind of sex symbol: an ambassador of Swinging London in France. Where Bardot was voluptuous, Birkin was tomboyish: the “garçonne” described in “Melody Nelson.” Tall and slender, with bony hips and flat breasts, Birkin did not consider herself attractive (this was long before Kate Moss made heroin chic a desirable aesthetic). The public disagreed, of course, and blue-eyed, gap-toothed Jane Birkin types still thrive year after year in French cinema — all because she agreed to pose as Gainsbourg’s underage nymphette.
Serge’s lyrics told of a 14-year-old the singer he struck with his Rolls Royce, then seduced — a provocation that raised eyebrows at the time and which today’s hyper-sensitivity simply wouldn’t permit. Decades later, after collaborating with Varda on “Jane B.,” Birkin got to play the predator in the surprisingly non-scandalous “Kung Fu Master,” in which her character falls in love with an underage boy (played by Varda’s son, Mathieu Demy).
Though painfully shy in real life, Birkin pushed herself for the sake of art. She played a gamine diner waitress just androgynous enough to seduce a gay truck driver in Gainsbourg’s directorial debut, “Je t’aime moi non plus” (like the song). Gainsbourg considered playing the role himself, but ultimately enlisted Joe D’Allesandro, the resident stud of Andy Warhol’s stable.
If that sounds strange, consider Birkin’s scenes in Roger Vadim’s “Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman” (also available on the Criterion Channel). Bardot plays the title character, who takes Birkin to bed. It’s arguably the sexiest image in all of French cinema (though “La piscine” comes close), complicated by the fact we’re watching Gainsbourg’s girlfriend getting it on with his ex, who’d been previously married to Vadim. To say that those were different times would be an understatement.
Birkin may have been an object at the outset of her career, but midway through her life, she showed — with intelligence and class — that she was in charge. By retaking her reputation and building a wall around her secrets, Birkin became all the more intriguing.