A week before her concert appearance in Tokyo, I call Jane Birkin. That’s Jane — heavy breathing on the raunchy 1969 Serge Gainsbourg classic, “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus” — Birkin.
“Hello . . . hello, the reception isn’t very good. I am on top of a mountain somewhere near Madrid. Can you hear me?”
She’s speaking on her manager’s mobile phone, while taking a few hours off between shows on her European tour. She must be exhausted, I think. Clearly the only heavy breathing I’m going to hear is of a nonsexual kind. Still, I’d better lay aside my daydreams anyway, as I’ve an interview to conduct. I make a note: “Speaks pretty good English for a French woman.”
Hold on. What? She’s English? What about “Je t’aime”? It’s as French as croissants for breakfast. The Pope condemned it and the prudish English banned it, but the French openly embraced it and kissed it on both cheeks. She’s not French? That’s just not right.
“It doesn’t surprise me that people think I am French. I am never off the TV there and I have only been on about two TV shows in England,” she says with a laugh.
Born in 1946 to actress Judy Campbell and Maj. David Birkin, a war hero, stage-lights attracted Birkin early on and she appeared, at the age of 17, in the play “Carving a Statue” by Graham Greene. She made her singing debut the following year in “Passion Flower Hotel,” a musical by John Barry (composer of much of the James Bond film music). At age 19, she married the composer and had her first child with him.
Her first film experience came with Richard Lester’s “The Knack” in 1965, and she then came to international attention a year later in Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult movie “Blowup” by appearing nude in a controversial scene that she agreed to do partly just to prove her husband wrong (Barry didn’t believe she would do it).
After Birkin and Barry divorced she moved to France and met Gainsbourg on the set of the film “Slogan” in 1969. It was love at first sight: She soon found herself married again and they became the beautiful, hip young couple around Paris. (She gave birth to their daughter, Charlotte, in 1971.)
It was also in 1969 that Birkin and Gainsbourg shocked the world with their piece de resistance: “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus.” Gainsbourg had originally sung it with Brigitte Bardot, but that recording was scrapped after the French actress got cold feet. Birkin, however, had no reservations about moaning into the mic. Partly thanks to the controversy, the single went to No. 1 in the United Kingdom and across Europe. Coupled with the “Blowup” scandal, the song solidified her image as a sex kitten — an image she pursued throughout the ’70s.
She has appeared in more than 70 films to date, including the Gainsbourg-directed “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus,” and has countless CDs, concerts and stage appearances to her credit. Even after Birkin and Gainsbourg separated in the early ’80s, they enjoyed a strong friendship and he continued to write songs for her, even after her subsequent marriage to director Jacques Doillon (with whom she had a child in 1982.)
After a personally difficult ’80s, Birkin attempted to shed her sex-kitten image in the ’90s, appearing in such serious dramas as “The Trojan Women,” by the Greek tragedian Euripides, at the National Theatre in London. Not that she’s tried to cover up her sexuality entirely, though. On the live CD “Arabesque” (recorded at a March 2002 concert at the Olympia Theater in Paris) her trademark fragile sensuality has matured into something deeper and richer, supported by the strong yet delicate musicianship of the Arab musicians.
How did “Arabesque” come about? “I was given an invitation, carte blanche, to do an hour at the Avignon festival in 1999 and I talked to my musical director Philippe Lerichomme, who was also Serge’s musical director, and he said if I was going to perform Serge’s songs I should approach them in a completely different way to how I have been presenting them for so long.”
Going through ideas with the Algerian violinist Djamel Benyelles, things soon fell into place. “We first tried the song ‘Elisa’ in an Arab style and I realized I was onto something. It was so exciting.”
They then went on to reinterpret other Gainsbourg songs, including “Couleur cafe,” “Haine pour aime” and “Baby Alone in Babylone.” The success of the Avignon concert sparked the idea for similar concerts around the globe, accompanied by the same four Arab musicians, including Benyelles.
“We played in Algiers after the earthquake and it has been great to take it to the U.S., where The New York Times did a whole-page feature, and to places like Vietnam, Tel Aviv, and to Gaza in Palestine.” They also played at four prisons in France and enjoyed sold-out concerts in Tokyo in 2003, inspiring the current return visit. Taking the “Arabesque” concert to her homeland helped Birkin, and Gainsbourg, to finally garner the kind of recognition in the U.K. that they receive elsewhere around the globe. “In Britain, they now, at last, understand myself and Serge — the Japanese were much quicker though.”
Having been closely associated with Gainsbourg for so long, it would be understandable if Birkin was frustrated with the fact that her career can’t really be discussed without his name (and “Je t’aime”) constantly popping up. Yet this isn’t the case:
“I am incredibly happy to have been associated with the best poet France has had since Apollinaire. He wrote for me 80 of the most beautiful songs anyone has ever had written for them. I feel I am taking a piece of him on with me. I feel I owe him that at least,” she says, “I am more than proud.”
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