The Steely Fragility of Jane Birkin

Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988)

In 2009, Jane Birkin, who passed away this past weekend at the age of seventy-six, was in Venice to promote Around a Small Mountain, the fourth film she’d made with Jacques Rivette. One interviewer, Stuart Mabey, backed his way into a question that just about anyone who met her would want to ask. “I think the word ‘iconic’ is misused sometimes, and you may not want to hear it,” but there it was, half-wrapped in an apology. “Really, given the very small talent that I had,” Birkin replied with a beaming smile, “my good fortune has been inestimable.”

Birkin’s modesty here is endearing, but it also belies the arresting presence she brought to films by many of the major directors of the past six decades; to the albums and singles she recorded with Serge Gainsbourg, and later, on her own; and to the overall look of London’s fashion scene in the Swinging Sixties. But good fortune did play a supporting role at crucial moments. She was, after all, the daughter of Judy Campbell, the British actress known for her work with Noël Coward, and David Birkin, a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy and a spy during the Second World War.

Jane grew up in an affluent West London neighborhood with her older brother, Andrew Birkin (an accomplished screenwriter and director who has worked with Stanley Kubrick and the Beatles, and whose photographs, from his new book, Serge Gainsbourg et Jane Birkin: L’album de famille intime, are currently on view in Nice through October 1), and her younger sister, Linda, a sculptor. By the time she was seventeen, Jane was modeling and auditioning, and in 2008, she told the Guardian’s Laura Barnett about the time she thought she’d try out for a role in a production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

“I went to the wrong theater,” Birkin recalled, “and found myself auditioning for a part as a deaf-mute girl in Graham Greene’s play Carving a Statue. I forgot the words, but a man with extraordinary blue eyes said: ‘It doesn’t matter—she’s perfect.’ It was Graham Greene.” In 2020, she told the Guardian’s Tim Lewis that Greene’s eyes “were so blue, it was like looking straight through to a blue sky through a skull.”

That same year, 1965, Birkin was cast in a musical adaptation of Rosalind Erskine’s novel The Passion Flower Hotel, and she met and immediately fell in love with composer John Barry, who was primarily known at the time for his scores for the James Bond movies. They married and, two years later, had a daughter, Kate Barry, who grew up to become a successful fashion photographer. Kate suffered from severe bouts of depression and addiction, and in 2013, she fell to her death from her fourth-floor apartment in Paris.

Birkin’s career in film began with two small uncredited roles in Richard Lester’s The Knack . . . and How to Get It (1965) and Daniel Petrie’s The Idol (1966). She had a few more on-screen moments in Jack Smight’s Kaleidoscope (1966), but the breakthrough came with Blow-Up (1966). John Barry dared her to take her clothes off in front of Michelangelo Antonioni’s camera, and the twenty seconds or so of nudity that made the final cut scandalized the British press. After appearing as Penny Lane in Joe Massot’s psychedelic Wonderwall (1968), Birkin left London—and Barry—for Paris.

Though she didn’t yet speak French, Birkin had landed a leading role in Pierre Grimblat’s Slogan (1969)—cowritten, by the way, with Melvin Van Peebles—as the young British lover of a forty-year-old director played by one of France’s greatest singer-songwriters, Serge Gainsbourg. Birkin and Gainsbourg soon became one of Europe’s most famous couples, especially after the release of their single “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus,” with its overtly sexual lyrics and hot and heavy breathing. Originally recorded with Brigitte Bardot—that version didn’t get released until 1986—condemned by the Vatican, and banned in several countries, “Je t’aime” was ostensibly sold in the UK only to those over twenty-one, and it still became the first foreign-language tune to hit the top of the charts. The B-side: “Jane B.”

“I really came into my own with Serge because he did nothing all day long but think of jolly things to do with me,” Birkin told Tim Lewis. “So I was extremely happy. He was as jealous as I was. And although now people consider him as really quite a genius in France, which indeed he was, he was never a boring genius. He never said: ‘Well, now I’m going to go up to work.’ I never saw him work. No, when I did rather bad films, he had a tendency of writing his best stuff because he was pissed off that I was not there. He used to come on to all the film sets, then sit miserably in the hotel bedroom where he wrote ‘The Man with the Cabbage Head’ or Melody Nelson. In that way it was a rather ideal thirteen years.”

As Jessica Kiang notes in the essay accompanying our release of Jacques Deray’s sultry thriller La piscine (1969), Gainsbourg issued a public warning to stars Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet to keep their hands off Birkin, who plays the eighteen-year-old daughter of the old friend (Ronet) who barges in on a couple (Delon and Romy Schneider) enjoying a summer holiday on the Côte d’Azur. In 1971, Birkin gave birth to Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Birkin later—and often—claimed that her daughter was a far more talented actor than she ever was.

The French, though, were charmed by Birkin’s wispy British accent, and moviegoers around the world were drawn to the elegant lines of her slim figure; the delicate shape of her lips, which always seemed to be slightly parted to reveal the thin gaps between her teeth; her impeccable sense of fashion; and the way she could make just a pair of jeans and a t-shirt hang—or cling—perfectly. Hermès famously created a high-end handbag for her (and of course, anyone else with the means), the Birkin.

Birkin played Bardot’s lover in Roger Vadim’s Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman (1973), appeared alongside Pierre Richard in Claude Zidi’s Lucky Pierre (1974)—“Jane, so funny, so smart, so fragile, so generous, so everything! A piece of my heart goes with her,” Richard tweeted on Sunday—and portrayed the androgynous Johnny, who catches the eye of Joe Dallesandro’s gay trucker in Gainsbourg’s directorial debut, Je t’aime moi non plus (1976). Looking back on her work on the film with Gainsbourg in 2016, Birkin told Craig Hubert in the New York Times that “I’ve never known him happier. He was so happy with what we gave, and we gave everything. I was so pleased to have pleased him.”

Between two Agatha Christie adaptations, John Guillermin’s Death on the Nile (1978) and Guy Hamilton’s Evil Under the Sun (1982), Birkin left Gainsbourg, whose alcoholism was making him impossible to live with. The two remained close, though, and Birkin carried on recording and performing his music long after he died in 1991.

In 1981, Jacques Doillon directed Birkin in The Prodigal Daughter, the first of several features they made together over the following ten years. “They were probably the best films I did,” Birkin told Hubert. “Jacques is somebody who is quite extraordinary with actors. He would rather do one hundred takes if necessary. He’s looking for the accident; he’s not looking for the polished performance. I knew that if I jumped, he would be there to receive me. He wouldn’t opt for anything less.” In the New York Times, Elisabeth Vincentelli writes that her performance in Doillon’s The Pirate (1984) “felt like a new Jane Birkin, inhabiting her physicality in a way that was almost dangerously unrestrained—and it earned her the first of three César Award nominations.” Doillon and Birkin’s daughter, the singer, actor, and model Lou Doillon, was born in 1982.

Immediately after Birkin saw Vagabond (1985), she jotted off a note of appreciation to director Agnès Varda—who couldn’t read Birkin’s handwriting. Varda invited Birkin for a long walk and the two of them dreamed up a pair of interrelated films. Kung-Fu Master! (1988) was Birkin’s idea. She plays a woman who, having just turned forty, finds herself romantically drawn to a fourteen-year-old boy (Mathieu Demy, the son of Varda and Jacques Demy) who’s obsessed with video games.

Following a sort of dream logic, the playful Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988) is both the director’s portrait of the actor and a telling self-portrait. Varda’s admiration of Birkin is “unequivocal,” writes Glenn Kenny in the New York Times. “And it not infrequently bleeds into outright cinematic adoration.” Birkin “embodies the strong subject who chooses to be relatively agreeable to a certain level of objectification. While the word feminism is never uttered in this movie, Jane B. par Agnès V. is an exemplary feminist work, one in which two female artists, self-aware but hardly self-conscious, create beauty by exchanging notes.”

Jean-Luc Godard cast Birkin in Keep Your Right Up (1987) “as a hedonistic young woman zooming around with her lover in a convertible,” writes Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “Birkin spoke with humor and generosity about the bizarre experience of being directed by Godard on his most cantankerous and difficult form.” In Bertrand Tavernier’s Daddy Nostalgia (1990), Birkin plays a screenwriter who bonds for the first time with her dying father (Dirk Bogarde).

Rivette first directed Birkin in La Belle Noiseuse (1991), which Ryan Gilbey, writing for the Guardian, calls a “spellbinding four-hour study of a painter (Michel Piccoli) and his new muse (Emmanuelle Béart), in which Birkin played the artist’s wife and former model, who must deal with the indignity of having her younger self literally painted over.” Birkin worked with Alain Resnais just once, taking a modest but memorable role in the 1997 musical Same Old Song.

In 2007, Birkin took the first and only feature she directed to Cannes, where it premiered in the Un Certain Regard program. Boxes, written shortly after her father died, is loosely based on her own life, and Birkin herself plays Anna, a middle-aged woman sorting through her memories. The cast includes Geraldine Chaplin as her mother and Michel Piccoli as her father as well as John Hurt, Annie Girardot, Adèle Exarchopoulos, and her own real-life daughter, Lou Doillon.

Her other surviving daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, came to terms with her mixed feelings toward her mother by directing her own first feature, Jane by Charlotte (2021). In the New York Times, Beatrice Loayza calls it “a meandering and elusive documentary portrait” and suggests that Gainsbourg “might have made the film for no one but herself.” Perhaps Gainsbourg needed the framework of the project in order to eventually bring herself to say, as she does toward the end, “I have always loved you, but it’s much clearer to me now.”

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