Jane Birkin obituary

Jane Birkin

Singer and actor who duetted with Serge Gainsbourg on Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus in 1969 and went on to a prolific film career

By Peter Gilbey

The sultry 1969 hit single Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus was a four-and-a-half-minute distillation of languid Gallic cool, in which a Frenchman, his voice coarsened by Gitanes, is heard billing and cooing with an ecstatically sighing young Englishwoman over the swirling motif of a baroque organ. That man was Serge Gainsbourg; his companion was Jane Birkin, the actor and singer, who has died aged 76. Though Birkin worked with some of the world’s finest film-makers, including Jacques Rivette and Agnès Varda, she knew that Je T’aime … would be remembered above everything else she did. “When I die, that’ll be the tune they play, as I go out feet first,” she said.

Birkin was 21 when she and Gainsbourg met while starring together in the film Slogan (1969). He was 40, and had previously recorded Je T’aime … as a duet with Brigitte Bardot, only for the actor to withdraw permission for it to be released. Birkin had already starred in a 1965 musical, Passion Flower Hotel, scored by John Barry, whom she married that year at the age of 19 and from whom she was divorced in 1968; he was the father of Kate, the first of Birkin’s three daughters. But it was on the duet with Gainsbourg, she said, that for the first time “somebody thought I had a pretty voice”.

She sang her part an octave higher than Bardot. “It gave it a choirboy side that [Gainsbourg] liked a lot,” she said. Rumours that the vocal track was recorded under the covers during a moment of intimacy were untrue (the couple were standing at separate microphones in a studio in central London) though they did nothing to harm the mythology surrounding a song that was later condemned by the Vatican. “I just remember thinking it was all terribly funny,” she said.

Among the countries that refused to give the song airplay was Britain, where it became the first banned single to reach the top of the charts, as well as the first non-English-language No 1. It was also the lead track on the 1969 album Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg.

Birkin’s life remained inextricably linked to his. They were together for 11 years, and had a daughter, Charlotte, who became a successful singer and actor. Even after they separated in 1980, he continued to write for her, and she went on performing his songs for the rest of her life.

Far from being an adjunct to Gainsbourg’s legend, she possessed her own style, intelligence and attitude. Her wistful beauty was rendered unorthodox by an eager, gap-toothed smile. Her voice was as bewitching as her face: though she lived in France from 1969 onwards, and spoke French fluently, she never shed her breathy, crisply English accent.

Jane Birkin with Michel Piccoli in the Jacques Rivette film La Belle Noiseuse, 1991.
Jane Birkin with Michel Piccoli in the Jacques Rivette film La Belle Noiseuse, 1991. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

She was born in London to Judy Campbell, an actor who had been a muse to Noël Coward, and David Birkin, who was a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy and a spy during the second world war. His duties included taking British spies across the Channel to France and bringing back stranded airmen and escaped prisoners of war.

Jane was educated at Upper Chine school on the Isle of Wight. At 17 she starred with Ralph Richardson in Graham Greene’s play Carving a Statue; Greene himself had a hand in casting her. Her screen acting career began with a walk-on part in The Knack … and How to Get It (1965) and a controversial nude scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which she agreed to because Barry had told her she wouldn’t dare. [ . . . ]

Continue at source: Jane Birkin obituary

Leave a Reply