When she was just twenty, Jane Birkin made her film debut with a jaw-dropping, risqué appearance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s neo-noir thriller Blow-Up. The wide-eyed British actress quickly earned fans for her boldness and nonchalance on camera, as well as for her effortlessly chic style off it.
Historically, Birkin is tied to the legendary rakish singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. They met on the set of 1969 film Slogan (Birkin starred; Gainsbourg scored the film), but their artistic partnership was ignited when she replaced his ex-girlfriend and collaborator Brigitte Bardot on Gainsbourg’s scandalous song “Je t’aime… moi non plus.” The track featured Gainsbourg and Birkin moaning suggestively, and was condemned by the Catholic Church and the BBC. Due to this publicity, the song became a massive hit and cemented Birkin’s devil-may-care reputation.
Their romance ended twelve years later, when Birkin left Gainsbourg for French film director Jacques Doillon, but their creative partnership lasted until Gainsbourg passed away, in 1991. Birkin has kept the collaboration alive with a short film, Mes images privées de Serge, that looks back on their life together, and with a musical revue of his work, Birkin Gainsbourg: Le symphonique, which she performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
When she wasn’t making music with Gainsbourg, Birkin was starring in complex, nuanced films by Doillon, Jacques Rivette, and Agnès Varda; in 1985 she made her onstage debut. She is the mother of actress and musician Charlotte Gainsbourg, singer-songwriter Lou Doillon, and the late photographer Kate Barry. Birkin has received both the British O.B.E. and the French National Order of Merit for her work with Amnesty International and other humanitarian organizations.
I interviewed the icon when she was visiting New York City. Dressed casually in jeans and a cashmere sweater, Birkin kept her namesake Hermès Birkin bag at her feet during our conversation. We sat in the empty nightclub at the top of the Standard High Line hotel, overlooking the city—a terrifying sight for Birkin, who was suffering from vertigo. She resolved the issue by turning her chair sideways to avoid the view.
I. “A TRICKY TIME FOR A TREE HOUSE”
THE BELIEVER: Do you find anything scandalous these days?
JANE BIRKIN: No, not like other people find everything scandalous.
BLVR: Do you feel like one of the benefits of getting older is that you can do absolutely anything you want, frivolous or not?
JB: Anything. The even nicer thing is that you can say to a girl, without it being dodgy in any way, “Oh, you’re really beautiful.” Or I had a spectacularly beautiful taxi driver the other day. At least I thought he was, and I was able to say, because I could see him in the mirror, what a fantastically beautiful nose he had. He nearly dropped the steering wheel, and he said, “Oh, but it’s a broken nose, a very big nose.” And I said that it’s just beautiful, asked him if he had trouble breathing down one side sometimes, and he said yes, he did, and I said I had a husband like that. But it was a gorgeous nose, and I wouldn’t have dared say it [if I had been] younger. [Distracted, she glances out the window at the New York skyline.]
I always thought that if I had a lot of money I would saw off a water tower and live in that. I’ve always dreamed of living in a tree house, because of that wonderful book called Il barone rampante [The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino], an Italian book about a boy that climbed up a tree because he was in revolt against his family. He was a tiny age. He must be nine or something, and he decided never to come down again.
And you leap from tree to tree, and I thought, Ah, yes, to have a tree house! I’m getting older. It’s a tricky time for a tree house, but perhaps just the time for a little water tower. That would be really neat. It’s so pretty. The prettiest thing in the skyline. Nowhere else in the world. I don’t know why, either—why they’re particularly round like that, why they’re sort of charming—but living in that must be nice.
II. “SCOTCH TAPE. EVERYWHERE.”
BLVR: The show and the short film you put together about your life with Serge Gainsbourg are retrospective. Do you feel like you’re done with the past?
JB: I’m going to print my diaries—taking out things that would be possibly hurtful—and then I’ve got nothing more to give of my past. At least, my mutual past with Serge. I will go on singing his stuff. Then, I don’t know what the future will bring, but indeed I will have looked up everything, given over everything that is to do with that life.
You know, my mother [actress and playwright Judy Campbell] used to always say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the house went up in flames?” And we said, “Oh, Mom, it would be dreadful.” And then one day it did! Instead of crying like everyone else would [have] at that beautiful house in Chelsea [in England], she said, “What a pity. If only it could’ve taken the basement with it too.” That’s where she had all her brother’s old papers and things that you’re never going to read again and you don’t know what to do with. She said it was a relief and she wanted to start again in an apartment in Kensington. We found her going over the debris with the fireman and the builders. She brought champagne in and was delighted. And I thought that was wonderful.
BLVR: Did they investigate your mother for arson?
JB: They didn’t, but they should have.
BLVR: What did she think of your career?
JB: I think she thought I would’ve been another Shirley MacLaine. As funny as she thought I was, she thought that they’d missed out, putting me up as a sexy person and then as a dramatic person, and she thought that [was] bittersweet. She liked most of the songs that I sang. She adored Serge, and I think he reminded her of her first love, Eric Maschwitz, who wrote the song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” that made her so famous during the last war.
I think she was, on the whole, happy. She was a very critical person, which meant that if I didn’t do things in English theater, it was because I was afraid that she would criticize. She was an actress, and that probably was why I did my career elsewhere, so as not to be compared to her.
I was happier, freer, and had more delight in France. You never think about it in the moment, actually: all the nude photographs, the things I would have never dared to do at home for fear of shocking my father’s family. I think my mother turned down a play in the royal court because she had to say “fuck” once.
BLVR: How did you get to be so brave that you were willing to take off your clothing?
JB: I wasn’t brave.
BLVR: You seemed brave.
JB: No, no. I didn’t go for anything indecent. I put Scotch tape everywhere, when I had to do films when anything might be seen.
BLVR: What do you mean, you put Scotch tape everywhere?
JB: Scotch tape. Everywhere.
JB: Of course.
BLVR: Is that a thing?
JB: It’s certainly a very clever thing to do. Technicians always have that. It’s not sticky, you know, gaffer tape. So once you have the tape on, it doesn’t feel as if you’re naked, because they can’t catch you out. Nothing feels vulgar. You’ve got no bosoms anywhere.
Brave was walking on a tightrope for the circus. It was a wonderful show we used to do once a year. It wasn’t that high, but it would’ve been unpleasant to have one leg on either side, as my mother said, rushing after me with a little shell to put it just there. Dressed as a rabbit, I was. That was somehow humiliating. I thought it was such a dangerous thing to do.
BLVR: I love the idea of your mother rushing after you with a little shell.
JB: Yes, she did—and that was dangerous. I suppose it was quite brave to have sung for the first time for real at the Bataclan [theater], because I was forty, and I’d only done playback accompany until then, so suddenly to sing for real—that was frightening.
But I had just done a play where I played the countess in Chéreau’s La fausse suivante, and that was really brave [because] I was not exactly the casting one would imagine to be a character in Chéreau, in old-fashioned French. But once he decided it was me, and once I’d said yes, then for nothing did I want him to be disappointed in me. So I would go to any length to know the lines before the other actors. It was passionate work. It was wonderful. And the Jacques Doillon films La fille prodigue and La pirate—those were brave because they were dangerous films. There was a lot of dialogue, and they were adventurous films for somebody as placid as I had been seen to be. These were hysterical films of nervous depression. That was dangerous.
And then it was so exciting to go into Sarajevo during the war in a tank. I wouldn’t consider that being brave, either, because I had no notion of what it was like being fired on, and when we were, I thought somehow it was fireworks. There was no blood. I hadn’t seen anybody until then. I hadn’t thought about it at all. I just thought about my father in the last war and how pleased he would’ve been to see me in my tank.
BLVR: What made you go to Sarajevo?
JB: Life had been so disappointing at that particular point. It seemed the very least I could do. I’d been looking at the television, thinking, Really, what can I do? What can I do? These poor people. This sort of siege. No one had been in there for four years. No one seemed to care about them anymore. Yes, there is something you can do, and you can try and get there. If you’ve got a few songs, you can sing in a basement.
I didn’t say specifically where I was going, but I asked my ma, “What did you do in the war when your flat blew up? What did you take with you?” She thought for a very long time. Then she said, “Schiaparelli Shocking Pink perfume.” I said, “No! You didn’t take the baby food or warm clothes?” And she said, “Oh no. When you’ve got nothing else, what you want is the superficial, for your morale.” I thought that was such a wonderful reply that, immediately with [my daughter] Lou, we ran down the road and I bought up, I don’t know, twenty, thirty undergarments in silk. They were light. Then I thought, Perfume. Indeed. I bought lipsticks. But not crummy things—Guerlain. Then seeds for pretty plants for them to put on their balconies. To eat, of course, but also for them to look pretty. Everything that my mother had inspired. When I got into Sarajevo, of course they were happy to see the baby food and the computers and the books, but when I pulled out the silk underclothes: wow, Ma was right. The whoops of joy! It was fabulous.
III. THE BAG
BLVR: Is it stressful being a fashion icon?
JB: I never considered myself as a fashion icon and, in our days, nobody was. No one had contracts with fashion houses. We just wore exactly what we wanted. My good fortune was that Serge had enough money to have dresses made by Saint Laurent, just for a one-off at a ball or something.
BLVR: Do you get residuals for the Birkin bag?
BLVR: Do you at least get a lifetime supply?
JB: Certainly. They’re not stingy. The head of Hermès was a darling man. I was in this plane with him and I drew it for him. He said, “It’s so good. Can we call it after you?” I was so flattered because the only other thing in that store that had a name was the Kelly [named for Grace Kelly], and I never considered myself much, so to suddenly be on the level of Kelly—I was deeply flattered, so I didn’t ask for anything.
BLVR: It’s funny. You do have such an illustrious, long career where you’ve done film and music, and somehow a bag is what you’re most known for.
JB: Well, I did draw it.
BLVR: Oh, I know, but you’ve done so many other things too.
JB: It was funny to come to New York when they only knew the bag. They said, “Birkin? Like the bag?” So I said yes. That bag is now going to sing. If you’re going to be known for something, why not the bag? The song and the bag.