THERE is no way I can get Jane Birkin out of my life.
In 1969, the year I matriculated, her and Serge Gainsbourg's Je t'aime moi non plus was a big hit. Banned by the SABC, sold from beneath the counter in my home town's only record shop.
While Europe and the US were engaged in a sexual revolution, it was this shy schoolboy's first experience of what it might sound like when people are making out. (If only I had known at the time that Gainsbourg composed the song for a former lover, Brigitte Bardot!)
Of course, South Africans did not get to see Michelangelo Antonioni's movie Blow-Up (1966), in which Birkin plays opposite David Hemmings. In those days, censorship did its best to protect our tender innocence. Over time, my curiosity got the better of me, and I read, listened and saw everything I could get my hands on about Birkin (and Gainsbourg).
I could never understand what my goddess saw in the ugly Frenchman with the eyes that permanently resembled mouse fannies during mating season.
Soundtrack for our erotic lives
Birkin was an English country flower, and the 40-year-old Frenchman with the horny reputation he had carefully built up since 1959 picked her at 20 and taught her that you don't have to sing if you can whisper; when she sang, he asked her to do it an octave higher than her natural pitch.
Crazy about her androgynous side, Serge explained.
Thus was born her swooning singing style. Thus, likewise, her willingness to be candid about all sorts of things and create the randy soundtrack for our collective erotic lives.
The Vatican didn't like Jane and Serge, the BBC and SABC even less. Our censors freaked out about her bare breasts, even though they resembled bee stings, even though she had the most beautiful, sensual long legs imaginable…
Serge was Jane's Svengali. Even after she left him for the French film director Jacques Doillon after 10 dramatic years of marriage, he wrote songs for her and never again committed himself to holy matrimony. One of them, Vieille Canaille (You Rascal You), was aimed at Doillon.
Her life with Gainsbourg was frenetic. Their daughter Charlotte was raised by au pairs with Kate, her daughter from her first marriage to the composer/conductor John Barry. At night they hung out in nightclubs and returned in the morning in time to have breakfast with the children.
Gainsbourg's house on the Rue de Verneuil, Paris, was painted entirely black inside, with odd little ornaments on the mantelpieces and objets d'art among his furniture collection. No one was allowed to move or touch anything. He was obsessive about it — just as he obsessively chain-smoked Gitanes, drank, and involved Birkin in his erotic sphere.
After Serge's heart attack in 1973, Birkin bought them a house in Cresseveuille, to be close to their friend, the singer Regine. But Serge didn't want to go walking with Jane in picturesque towns nearby, such as Honfleur. He wanted to go jolling at night in the gambling halls of Deauville.
From Gainsbourg to Doillon
In her Gainsbourg biography, A Fistful of Gitanes, Sylvie Simmons says that when Birkin left Gainsbourg in 1980, she'd only had two real lovers, Barry and Gainsbourg. She was ready for a new man in her bed, years of heavy smoking and drinking having dimmed Gainsbourg's flame.
Birkin herself was more candid. Simmons quotes her: “I was ready to go, it didn't matter with who. Maybe it was my age — 34, 35. You're supposed to always stay the same, and suddenly you're not."
Doillon led her from a film set to a hotel room and she never returned to Serge's bed. She was the epitome of sexual fluidity long before bi became fashionable; after Gainsbourg's death and Doillon's prostate problems, she isolated herself.
But she remained friends with Serge and made albums of his music until after his death. Oddly enough, one of her best albums is the one she provided the lyrics for, Enfants d'hiver (2008).
Larger than life
Now, after Birkin's death on July 16, it is easier to gain perspective on Serge and Jane.
He was the attention seeker, the child of refugees from Ukraine. Hedonist, composer, lyricist, film director and actor. Sensationalist with daring songs about sex and incest; Bardot's lover while she was still married; the artist who had to endure the most radio bans; the man who held press conferences in his hospital bed, and who recorded the French national anthem in reggae form.
Jane was in a different league. Born as Jane Mallory Birkin on 14 December 1946, child of a British actress and a Royal Navy commander. Actress and the sensual counterpart of Twiggy. Notorious for her anglicised French pronunciation, an actress who was at home on stage in classical and modern theatre. Singer with a sexual label around her neck, but film actress who could hold a candle to the biggest names in the industry.
But above all she was a fashion icon, the English woman who endeared herself to the French in such a way that President Emmanuel Macron saluted her as a French icon when she died. There has certainly not been a decade since the 1960s in which she did not sling something over her shoulder that spread to women and men across the world.
Her Hermès handbag is legendary. She was on a flight in first class in 1984 when her handbag broke and her belongings fell out. She complained out loud that Hermès didn't make a handbag big enough for all her stuff. She did not realise that Jean-Louis Dumas, chair of Hermès, was sitting next to her.
The company launched the famous Birkin line of handbags later that year. Production is still limited, which means they are in high demand and very expensive.
After Birkin's death, the fashion designer Anna Sui compiled an inventory of things that made her fashionable — from shrunken T-shirts to cropped jeans and espadrille shoes. Birkin popularised striped Breton sweaters, as well as a hairstyle that looked as if she had tackled it with scissors herself. Her preference was bohemian, even when it came to sheer evening gowns.
Jane Birkin entered my consciousness for one reason but remained there for others. As is surely the case with everyone who ever heard her whisper, or who had too much stuff for a small handbag.
I include music by Gainsbourg and Birkin in the playlist.
Romance of A Horsethief (1971); Don Juan, or if Don Juan Were A Woman (she plays Brigitte Bardot's mistress); Dark Places (1973); Serious As Pleasure (1974); Death On the Nile (1978); Evil Under the Sun (1982), Love On The Ground (1984); Leave All Fair (1985), and Boxes (2006).
French movies: Jane B. par Agnès V. (film by Agnes Varda). Avoid Je t'aime moi non plus, Serge Gainsbourg's directorial debut in which Joe Dallesandro “plays” opposite her.
♦ VWB ♦
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