Photo: Rex Features
Jane Birkin—star of films by Serge Gainsbourg, Agnès Varda, Jacques Rivette, Michelangelo Antonioni; actress, singer, and director muse to Gainsbourg and Jacques Doillon; mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lou Doillon, and the late Kate Barry; humanitarian and recipient of the O.B.E. and the French National Order of Merit; British-born icon of French chic; inspiration for that bag—does not like to say her own name. Nor does she care to speak in first person. Talking to her, you begin to understand that “you” or “we” or even “one” is actually “I.”
“It used to drive my mother crazy,” Birkin said last week by phone from Paris, where she was getting ready to travel to New York City for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s joint retrospective honoring her and Charlotte Gainsbourg, opening this Friday. “She used to get so cross. She’d say, ‘When you say one or we, do you mean just you?’ But I find it difficult to even say ‘I.’ I don’t know what that says about oneself, but there you are.”
The “we” is certainly not a royal “we,” even though Birkin was born in London to the actress Judy Campbell (herself a muse to Noël Coward) and David Birkin, a Navy commander. Even though Birkin memorably made her film debut in her native country when she was just 20 with a nude appearance in Blow-Up, and married James Bond film composer John Barry.
The avoidance of “I,” in this age of narcissism, is refreshing, if a bit mystifying. But throughout her life that is exactly what Birkin, now 69, has always been. She eventually found her way across the “tiny bit of water” between England and her adopted France, made a film and fell in love with Serge, with whom she also recorded an explicit duet he’d written for his ex, Brigitte Bardot. “Je t’Aime Moi Non Plus” was denounced by the Vatican—an early, minor scandal in a career characterized by controversy and a willingness to take risks, whether in film or on the behalf of others. (In later life, Birkin has become known for her humanitarian work, most notably with Amnesty International and to free Nobel Peace Prize winner and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.) Birkin’s true self hovers somewhere in that tiny bit of water between her two countries, rendered in speech appealingly inflected with both accents, utterly down to earth in her beloved jeans. She is incredibly close to her children and grandchildren. She does not listen to her records or watch her films—at least, she says, not with the sound on.
But come Friday, the rest of us will have a chance to see many of her films again in the Lincoln Center’s retrospective that features some of her and Charlotte’s most provocative and famous works—including Charlotte in two films from Lars von Triers’s Depression trilogy; Jane alongside Serge in Slogan and also with Andy Warhol star Joe Dallesandro in Je t’Aime Moi Non Plus; Jane and Charlotte in Agnès Vardas’s Jane B. for Agnes V. and Kung Fu Master!, about a single mother’s relationship with a 14-year-old boy from her daughter’s school. Birkin, Gainsbourg, and Dallesandro will appear in conversation at several of the screenings, and works by Birkin’s daughter, photographer Kate Barry, who died in 2013, will be on exhibit.
Last week, ahead of her trip to New York for the film series, Birkin spoke with me by phone from Paris.
Hello, Jane, and such a pleasure. How is your day in Paris?
Hello, hello, I think it’s going fine. I suppose I don’t really know what’s going on in Paris as I’m getting ready to go to New York. But I’ve just seen a great film with Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert. It’s called Valley of Love, or some sort of stupid title like that. It’s quite remarkable, though: They go to the desert because their son has died and he left instructions to his mother and another set of instructions to his father that he wants them to meet in Death Valley to “find” him. It’s a wonderful film, and needless to say it made you cry so much when Depardieu can’t say his text—he’s sitting in the desert and he thinks he’s seen his son. It’s quite unbelievable, a really great performance.
And then the night before I’ve gone off to see Mustang for the fourth time, with my grandchildren. Anyone I like I take them to that film because you’re absolutely sure they’ll thank you after. It’s really gratifying, a really gratifying film.
Isn’t it? I loved Mustang, too. And I’m looking very forward to your film retrospective at Lincoln Center.
You know, Joe Dallesandro is coming up for it from Los Angeles. That’ll be strange to see him after, what, 45 years? He’s probably been looking me up on the Internet to see how much I’ve changed!
And what about you, are you looking him up? How much has he changed?
Not that much! He looks rather good, actually.
Well, you look rather good yourself.
Oh, no, I wouldn’t say so. Maybe up to three years ago it was okay, but now I’ve rather gone to grass. Or whatever it’s called. Gone to seed! That’s it.
You looked pretty fantastic in the front row of Dries Van Noten’s show earlier this year.
Maybe, maybe. Well, how kind.
You also happen to be one of the most admired women in the world. An icon, even, to use an inflated word—though I don’t think it’s an exaggeration in your case. What is it like to live alongside your own myth? Or, how aware of that are you, even?
Oh, no! One is not aware. I think it [all happened] because I was pretty—otherwise I was very ordinary in France, really. But I had this extraordinarily strong English accent. You couldn’t actually do films where you played, I don’t know, Isabelle Adjani’s sister or Isabelle Huppert’s mother. You can’t, because of this accent! So either I should have been more serious early on (which is a possibility) or decided that it didn’t matter (which is what I did) or try and make it more so (which I certainly didn’t do). I was lucky when I was older, around 40. I did Agnès [Vardas’s] two films, of course, but I also did a play with Patrice Chéreau [La Fausse Suivante], which was probably by far the best thing I had ever done. And he was quite brave. Because up until that time I’d been this sort of funny, sort of everyone likes you, sort of bit of the furniture . . . but no one thought you could get up in the theater and be the countess. So he was brave.
You were brave, too.
I was brave, too, maybe, but I knew I was way behind all the other cast. So I learned the lines in advance, and I took a coach. From then on, I took it very seriously to try and be as good as everyone else. That gave me a singing career, which I never would have done otherwise, and I played Le Bataclan. And I was 40. And I did it because I had done the play with Chéreau just before. I think my agent at the time said to me, “You know, this is the Bataclan.” And he said, “It’s your last chance.” This way of saying it! And so I said, “Well, I’ll do it.”
All around Paris there were posters saying, “Will she dare? Will she dare?” And so it was even more frightening, the thought that people knew you were frightened. So I cut my hair off and wore boys’ clothes and did my first concert, and it was at the Bataclan and Serge was there and it was quite extraordinary.
It must also have been quite liberating, though, after you’d pulled it off and it was a success.
It was, but I didn’t dare be happy. I was afraid that if for one second I was happy or pleased with myself that I’d be punished next time round. You have to go in every night, and, you know, I’ve done lots of plays that way and a lot of concerts that way. If you’ve got a great many concerts to do, then don’t even start feeling pleased, at least not in London or Paris. If it’s far away, then you can sometimes—and in plays I was always helped by my partners because they were such good fun, so at ease. You don’t even have to look at the audience; you look at them. It’s not such a bad thing, not to let yourself be pleased, to always search for something.
Isn’t that what it is for any artist—to never be content, to always be after the next thing? And yet, from the outset it looks like you often had this wonderful freedom in your life. You fell in love, you made work together. Do you think that emboldened you or helped you take certain risks?
I don’t think I was brave; I was dared to do it. For instance, because John Barry didn’t think I could do it. That was for [the nude scene in] Blow-Up. He said, “Well, you turn the lights out anyway, so you wouldn’t dare do it.” So for that I did dare! And when I look back at my diaries from that period—which I want to publish one day—I see that for two years the only thing I cared about was being pregnant with Kate. That was the only thing. And my fear of losing John, which was a fear every minute of my life with him.
Absolutely! And rightly. So the thing of being attractive—I was so overwhelmed to be with someone who was so careful in music and could stand up and conduct these orchestras and do, say, The Lion in Winter: just breathtaking music. But all my prayers were for Kate. I was so afraid of losing her. And now I have.
I’m so very sorry. It’s still recent, I know.
Yes. Oh, my God, she was funny, so funny, and adventurous and such a wonderful photographer. Her photos will be shown at Lincoln Center, pictures of actresses and film stars. There’s another exhibit of hers opening in Paris in two weeks’ time. The woman who showed it is showing them again, exactly as they were before, exactly the way Kate wanted them. She was very meticulous, as you can imagine.
And it’s true, I was quite young when I had her, but I thought, “Well, I’m having this baby and no one else will do it like me, so: Shut up!” Being a mother gave me incredible confidence. I was so happy. After that, with Serge, with “Je t’Aime Moi Non Plus,” I don’t remember being shocked or not shocked when the pope decided we couldn’t play the record or had it banned by the Vatican. I just remember thinking it was all terribly funny.
Which it is—how uptight they were. I guess that’s what I mean about being in love, taking risks, not caring what anyone thinks.
Maybe it’s also because you’re not at home. I didn’t know then that I was going to spend the rest of my life in France. I could be free. I mean, I couldn’t go back to London. My mother [Judy Campbell], who was a wonderful actress for Nöel Coward, a great, dark-haired, husky beauty—I couldn’t be compared to her if I wasn’t in England. That tiny bit of water between England and France, it was breathtaking because you felt so free. And a new language—I mean, I learned it off a tablecloth! That was for the first [French] film, which was not a very good film—Slogan—but I was lucky because it meant I met Serge.