English actress and singer Jane Birkin beautifully shifts between breathy French and British accents. She speaks of her time with former partner Serge Gainsbourg, one of France’s most brilliant artists, with great fondness. It was a romance that unfolded in the public eye after they worked together on the 1969 film Slogan. The couple would go on to record the controversial, erotic duet “Je t’aime… moi non plus.”
Jane’s career in music and film would continue to blossom, as she worked with French cinema greats including Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, and Birkin’s third partner, Jacques Doillon. Daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg follows in her mother’s footsteps as an actress driven to complicated roles — and both women are now the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. Jane and Charlotte Forever runs through February 7.
Birkin is still hard at work. “I’ve written a play,” she revealed to Flavorwire on the eve of the retrospective. “I’m going to publish my diaries. God, that sounds so . . . I’ve not been holding them like Virginia Woolf or something. I think that it might be interesting to edit them and have comments. That could potentially be quite good fun. I’ll also be with the symphony orchestra on Serge’s songs.”
We also spoke to Birkin about working with Warhol Superstar Joe Dallesandro, performing Gainsbourg’s music over the years, and what advice she gives to Charlotte about acting in difficult movies.
Flavorwire: There’s such a fascinating merging of your life and art in Jane B. by Agnès V., which you filmed with Agnès Varda. It portrays an honesty and innocence. There are elements of a fairy tale — and you say fairy tales are real in the film. It toys with how we identify you as muse and movie star, and how you view yourself, wanting to be “known and unknown.” How do you experience Jane B. by Agnes V., both as fiction and as document? As an active creator of this film, what memories does rewatching it evoke?
Jane Birkin: I haven’t rewatched it since I made it. I remember thinking that I wasn’t somebody that could do everything. Some things I was able to do for her, and some things less so. It was nothing to do with me saying anything. She knew so much about painting — and suddenly you were the woman in the painting or suddenly you were opening a box, and you’d be in front of it at the same time. It was because of her fascination with paintings. I remember we had to go off to Belgium to try and find someone dressed as an angel. I didn’t understand the word. I called it “dénonciation,” which means “being denounced.” And she said, “There is something in your makeup that makes you say ‘denounced.’” I think she knew me pretty well. And she had the decency, when I handed over a very small script, which was about me falling in love with a boy of 12 . . .
Yes, Kung Fu Master [co-starring Varda’s son Mathieu Demy]. You filmed it at the same time.
Yes. She said she didn’t have the same hang-ups as me. She didn’t want to go back to childhood, but she said that she would do it, because it was a part of me. She felt she should do it. In the end, we wound up with two films after filming for a year and a bit.
I also remember I didn’t want to be a Spanish dancer [in Jane B. by Agnès V.]. I made quite a fuss about it. She asked me if I could be a croupier, and I said I didn’t know what they did. She said you must know. They’re in gambling joints. Agnès’ father used to spend all their money in casinos. That’s why she wanted me to do it. I think it says an awful lot about Agnès — but dressed up as me. I found it more interesting than somebody doing a documentary on me. It was a strange mixture, with, in fact, a great deal of Agnès.
You said you haven’t rewatched the film. Is that something you do with all your movies?
I never do. I was tempted the other night, because I saw one of Jacques Doillon’s films was on. I’d always imagined I’d been pretty good in Jacques’ films [referring to La fille prodigue and La pirate]. Even when it was at Cannes and booed, I thought I’d been pretty good. I looked at a bit of La fille prodigue with [Michel] Piccoli, and my voice was so awful I turned the volume down and thought, “Oh my god.” I find it absolutely un-lookable. I think that probably nothing can stand up, but maybe The Pirate. I haven’t given it a look again. I just hope it’s all right. I think it was one of the films that completely changed my career, because suddenly a sweet comic actress became a dramatic sort of person.
So much of your work has an element of this real/fictional paradox, because you created music and movies with those closest to you, including your partner Serge Gainsbourg. This also became part of the controversy behind some of your works together and Serge’s with Charlotte. As an artist, how difficult is it for you to put so much of yourself in your work without becoming self-conscious or second-guessing yourself?
It seemed quite normal. I would have been very insulted if Serge did “Je t’aime… moi non plus” with somebody else, because I knew what sort of inspired him. . . A doctor said the other day, “Your architecture has changed.” My architecture at that time was looking like a boy. So of course, since I knew that probably it had been floating around in his head, but suddenly it seemed possible because he was with this androgynous person. That seemed normal then. With Jacques [Doillon], I knew that I had inspired The Prodigal Daughter with [Michel] Piccoli and then The Pirate, too. It was roughly about our lives. That seemed normal. And then when he didn’t do films with me, that seemed to me to be miserable. It went on for about another ten years of making films with irresistible 18-year-olds, and that was very difficult.
I was just very lucky that whilst he was doing that, I was singing with Serge, with whom we had a sort of . . . he said he always wanted to write songs for me, so he did until he died. The last album was with him. So in a way Serge let me be his female side. He became more and more outrageous, calling himself “Gainsbarre” [a wild alter ego Gainsbourg adopted and mentioned in his songs] and being outrageous, which of course he was. But he gave me the rather romantic person of Gainsbourg.
Histoire de Melody Nelson is such a gorgeous album. What does it mean to you?
Melody, when it came out, it didn’t sell at all. And he was properly miserable. He wrote another one, which was called The Man With the Cabbage Head [L’Homme à tête de chou], which was another long-playing album of a story. They both have a story. And I thought that no one ever made a story in a record. By that I mean that there was the death of Melody Nelson at the end, like there was the Man With the Cabbage Head, who went mad and his head turned into a cabbage. Both of them were concept albums, and neither did anything. It was enough to cry for, because in London, with Andrew, my brother, we heard the drums at the end of Melody Nelson. It just seemed so miraculous and so wonderful that I thought people would be bowled over by Melody Nelson. And the funny thing is, what is the record that every single professional person likes now? Melody Nelson. So there’s something in the charm of what he’d written that captivated and was so very unique. Maybe it was the baroque sounds of the music or maybe something was too early. Serge was always ahead of his time. He’d have to wait for people to catch up.
What challenges has performing Serge’s music presented you with as you’ve played it over the years?
I’ve been doing it for so long. I’m going to do it with a Philharmonic Orchestra in France. I’m going to start off in Montreal. . . . I don’t know, I’ve been going around saying Serge’s lyrics and taking the music away and having somebody tinkle about on the piano. Maybe I’ll do it a few times this summer again. But I think that 25 years after his death, it’s going to be a very, very great celebration in France, and everyone is going to be doing things. I think I’ll be happily out of the country and doing Serge with the symphony somewhere.
I loved your duet with Bryan Ferry for “Dream Home Heartache” on your album Rendez-Vous. You also performed with Françoise Hardy. What kind of artists are they, and what did you learn about yourself as a singer after working with them?
Bryan Ferry was a delight. He was exactly what I thought he’d be. Without being particularly close, it was very seductive.
You feel that in the music.
Yes, very. Françoise is somebody who has always fascinated me, even before I lived in France. When I was there when I was about 15, my parents sent me to a finishing school in Paris. It was Boulevard Lannes. It was the same number as Edith Piaf’s. So when she died, we were very in tune with that house. We had little cards proving that we lived in the house. And I showed mine to a policeman, and of course the policeman made room for me to come through the crowd and go to the house. I heard the crowd shout, “It’s Françoise Hardy!” I kept my mouth firmly shut. . . . I’ve always loved her.
The film Je t’aime moi non plus, written/directed/scored by Serge, co-stars Joe Dallesandro. Did I hear right, is he coming to the retrospective?
Oh yes. When my daughter died [referring to Kate Barry], Joe wrote to me. We hadn’t communicated I think since the film, I don’t know how long that had been, but it was a terribly long time. When they asked me to do this retrospective with Charlotte I said, “Oh, ask Joe to come, too. I’m sure he’d love it.” When I heard he was coming, I felt great joy. Je t’aime moi non plus, I haven’t seen it recently, of course, but its innocence is entirely due to Joe. He had something that was… it’s just a magical piece of casting.
I rather enjoy it. It deals with a kind of frustrated romanticism, a bittersweetness, a nihilism, and an anarchic humor. I love it, because it feels like a punk Truffaut movie. Was it hard for you to find your character Johnny’s tenderness in that bitter world?
No, I felt as if I was privileged to be this character, because it was so Shakespearean. Because having [co-star] Hugues [Quester] there as well, and his [character’s] jealousy, he was searing at me for going off with his boyfriend [Joe Dallesandro’s character Krassky]. I knew it would end badly for me, probably. But, what to do? It seemed to me that when I have to say the words “I’m a boy” and turn over, I just thought it was one of the most magical things when I had to actually defend [the film]. When people screamed and shouted and said the whole thing should have come out in a pornographic theater . . . well, it did in London. It came out in something called the Classic Moulin [the first British porn complex, with five screens]. And my mother said, “What are you doing in the Classic Moulin?” I said, “I don’t know. We’ve done a film where François Truffaut has stuck up for us, saying how wonderful it is. It came out on the Champs-Élysées.” And she said, “Well I don’t know about the Champs-Élysées, but here it’s come out in Soho.” I felt very badly for my parents, who all my life have stuck up for me, formidably. [laughs]
Charlotte’s work with Lars von Trier has been controversial and intensely involving, not unlike your own. Do you ever have conversations about creating this kind of art or offer advice to her?
No, not really. When I was doing the last [Jacques] Rivette film [referring to Around a Small Mountain/ 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup], and she was doing Antichrist, we did have very humorous afternoons. I was waiting for somebody to come and give me the script to learn for the afternoon, but not doing much. And Charlotte told me all the things she was doing — that she was having to masturbate in the woods and had to hack someone’s legs off or something. I thought her afternoon was far more entertaining. We had a good laugh.
I think there’s something in Charlotte she wants to get out. The challenges of difficult films and complicated directors have the most valuing… she [likes] the complexity. And she would go as far as she would have to go in films. A million other actors . . . they want somebody to believe in you so much, that you can do anything. Charlotte can do anything, and it’s entirely believable. I was just pleased. She’s been courageous enough to always use her bare face and not have any camouflage, no makeup, nothing. That’s wonderful, because you don’t have to be worried about anything. She’s totally in the role of whatever she’s doing. In other films she’s had to be a junkie or something like that, but she did a couple of French films that were so funny. I know that she has that in her, too. She’s having fun. She’s doing four or five films a year and living in New York and being happy. Even though things were so gloomy in both our lives, I think she’s come away to a free zone. I think London is too close, because of memories of my parents. Paris is obviously too painful, too. New York . . . I can feel it here, you can breathe, and nothing has to have any reference to anything.