Remembering Icon Jane Birkin

Revisiting our 2020 interview with Jane Birkin, the late pop culture icon, on what would have been her 77th birthday

This article originally appeared in issue 7 of Mastermind, available for purchase here.

SERGE KAGANSKI In Post-scriptum, the second volume of your diary (1982-2013), one element is striking: your lack of self-confidence. You write here and there that you are not good enough, not talented enough, not beautiful enough, that you are empty, that you are nothing … This harshness toward yourself, isn’t it a bit much considering your success and the richness and diversity of your artistic life?

JANE BIRKIN I don’t think it is too much. Many actresses or artists feel that way – I remember receiving a very sweet note from Carla Bruni saying she felt exactly the same. I could have written that being an actress is to have a flash life, but I didn’t have a flash life. I didn’t find that the films I was in were particularly interesting in the beginning of my career. They got more interesting later. Perhaps it’s a relief to know that if you started off as a pretty face, things can change later for the best. When I met Jacques Doillon, my films became more interesting, if I think of La Fille Prodigue or La Pirate. Those films gave me Patrice Chéreau, and then Chéreau gave me my first live singing performances at Le Bataclan, and Pierre Dux, and new acting tools. Everything in my artistic life became richer, more surprising.

SK Did this evolution of your career help you overcome your lack of self-esteem?

JB I had a lucky artistic career. Anybody in my job is lucky to be able to touch people, to convey emotions. It’s a job where you feel less lonely because you’re in contact with other people. When I did the philharmonic, I saw people holding each other and crying. When ordinary people face difficulties, they can’t scream on the bus, they can’t talk in the Métro, so being able to express ourselves is in itself enormous. I was able to write a record, a play, a film, and now I write with Étienne Daho. It is something so lucky to be able to express yourself.

Jane Birkin

SK Your film career before Jacques Doillon was not bad at all! You were in movies like Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni), La Piscine (Jacques Deray), Le Mouton Enragé (Michel Deville), Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus (Serge Gainsbourg) – daring, interesting movies, even cinematic staples. Even popular comedies like La Moutarde Me Monte au Nez or La Course à l’Échalote (Claude Zidi) were delightful and funny.

JB I love those two films in particular; they were lovely. And I love Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus. But in between those films … Blow-Up and La Piscine were great, sure, but I was nothing in those films. I liked my part in Le Mouton Enragé; at last I had a part where I could be a bit happy and a bit sad, and act with Jean-Louis Trintignant, but my accent is dreadful, and I am not good. But I never disowned Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus; it was a beautiful film and a beautiful period as well. The way Serge made me into a boy, the beautiful and innocent Joe Dallesandro – everything makes this film so pure, strangely, thanks to Serge. It was like a Hopper painting. And I inspired this film with my boyish look. Today, the film is a cult piece. So, okay, my career as an actress was not that bad at the time, but it got much better later.

SK It got better because you met Jacques Doillon?

JB For sure! He saw something in me that most people didn’t see, thanks to Anne-Marie Berri [Claude Berri’s wife and Jean-Pierre Rassam’s sister], who knew me in private. She knew that things weren’t as happy as they seemed; I was going through a slight depression. She knew Jacques Doillon was looking for an actress. No one had the idea that I could play in a Doillon film because of the reputation I had, built by the Claude Zidi movies. I was supposed to be a movie star, a funny English girl for comedies, not an actress for marginal auteur films. It was such a gamble for Doillon to hire me, the same kind of gamble that Chéreau would have later with me. With this gamble, Serge felt that I had changed and that he could give me his own pain to express, and I became a sort of vehicle for transmitting a side of him that he no longer wanted to show himself. At that time, he was “Gainsbarre,” a provocative icon. He was burning 500-franc notes on TV, but he also had a sad side. I don’t know what curious steps made him use me as the vehicle for his own pain. Every time I sang those songs, I thought that it was about my guilt for having left him. But when I was singing “Les Dessous Chics,” I realized that these songs were about him, not me. “Les Dessous Chics” and “Fuir le Bonheur” are two of the most beautiful songs ever written for anybody. All I could do with those songs was to sing them as high as I could to overcome and to use the pain.

I had this stage fright, but I never wanted to get rid of it. I always go through it because maybe it helps me to perform better, to show emotions. Jane Birkin

SK Later, you managed to overcome your fears and make it to the stage.

JB I know that a lot of artists have stage fright. Jacques Brel used to vomit every time before going on stage. My brother said to Chéreau, “Don’t bring her on stage; she’s going to die.” When Serge died, I had to sing “L’Aquoi- boniste” a cappella. I was so blind, frightened. I thought that I couldn’t make it. I had this stage fright, but I never wanted to get rid of it. I always go through it because maybe it helps me to perform better, to show emotions.

SK Working with Jacques led to work with other auteur filmmakers, including icons of the Nouvelle Vague. For example, you made three films with Jacques Rivette. How was that?

JB Jacques Rivette was one of a kind. I had the good fortune to work with him and, by the third film, felt so happy and so lucky. In the beginning, I was uncomfortable getting the script every day at the last minute before shooting, but after getting used to it, it was so exciting: “How do we know what comes next? Maybe when we get out of this hotel, we’ll be run over by a bus?” If we knew what was going to happen, if we knew our dialogue for the next scene, we would have had different expressions. Not knowing what was going to happen to your character five minutes later was actually a way of being constantly surprised and juste. On his last film (36 Vues du Pic Saint-Loup), he gave me the dialogue to learn one month before shooting. I learned it, then I did it well in two takes, and I thought I was so good. When you watch the film, it’s the one scene that doesn’t seem natural! In all the other scenes, you’re fishing around to find what you’re going to say. It’s like life. When you don’t know what you’re going to say, like now in this chat, you search a bit, you don’t say your words immediately, so Rivette’s method was very accurate.

SK How was your experience with Jean-Luc Godard on Soigne Ta Droite?

JB A nightmare! Caroline Champetier, the cinematographer on that film, was also crying. She told me that I shouldn’t take Godard’s negative comments personally, that he was always like that. I wanted to be so good for him, but he was fearful, he was in a horrible humor. He didn’t even say goodbye. This bad mood made Godard somehow attractive, but it didn’t make this film a fun thing to do.

SK Your partnership with Agnès Varda was better, I guess?

JB We got along well, and not so well, and that made it exciting. She made me do things that I didn’t want to do, but she also let me do the things that I did want to do, like the scene in Jane B. par Agnès V. where I’m being burnt at the stake as Joan of Arc, or being a Dickensian pauvrette. But I didn’t want to be a Spanish dancer. When I saw her son, Mathieu Demy, I realized he was the child I wanted for Kung Fu Master. But the script I had written was far more romanesque. Agnès didn’t want that; she didn’t want me and Mathieu going to hotels. And my script didn’t feature the AIDS topic. Agnès felt that she couldn’t make a film at that time without mentioning AIDS, but that led to awkward scenes with my parents. In the two films we made, some things worked, other things didn’t, but Agnès changed my life [with her] curiosity. She had a curiosity gene in her nature that made her more interesting to be with. A day or a night with Agnès was unforgettable. She was the exact opposite of lazy people like me who just want to go to bed and watch television. Sometimes, she used to drive me mad because she said things like, “Oh, we must go to this film festival!” And I said, “Why? Because your films are in it?” And she said, “Yes.” It was about her films, but she wanted my company. Other times, Agnès was so impudent, so cheeky and such fun. One day on a plane, she cuddled up and went to sleep. Before sitting, I asked her, “Why are you smiling?” and she said, “Because I’m in love.” I said, “Who are you in love with?” and she said: “Jacques [Demy].” The whole thing was so charming!

Jane Birkin

SK You also directed your own films: Oh Pardon! Tu Dormais, and Boxes. Did you want to prove something to yourself?

JB When I did Kung Fu Master with Agnès, I was always saying, “Why don’t we do this or that?” and she ended up saying, “Look, if you want to do your own film, do it yourself.” She was right, and that gave me le culot [the courage] to decide to make a little film. I said to Jacques, “It’s about a girl who can’t sleep all night. I’ll make a short film.” He said there was no room for short films in theaters and told me to make an entire film. I had been his assistant on La Fille de 15 Ans, so I knew that you could do very long takes, that you could put the light on a perch and film around the actors and do everything in one take. I was able to do Oh Pardon! Tu Dormais. I had Jacques Perrin as an actor and producer. I was able to cast Christine Boisson, whom I admired. The text was good, so it became a play.

SK Singing is also a huge part of your artistic career. You said that the songs written and composed by Serge after you broke up were deeper than earlier pop songs like “Di Doo Dah.” Do you think that sad songs are always better than fun songs?

JB I have a tendency to like sad songs. I like when music is minor and not major. I am not saying that “Di Doo Dah” or “69 Année Érotique” are bad; I just prefer “Baby Alone in Babylone,” “Les Dessous Chics” and earlier songs like “La Décadanse,” “La Ballade de Melody Nelson” and “L’Homme à Tête de Chou.” I now do these Serge songs with a philharmonic, and the best are the sad songs. In this repertoire, there are “La Javanaise” and “La Chanson de Prévert,” which are a bit lighter. These tunes are so beautiful; it’s amazing that they didn’t do any covers [of them] in America.

SK Would you say that Serge’s songwriting evolution followed the arc of life, that fun pop songs go with youth and that sad songs come with age and maturity?

JB No, not for me, because I never particularly liked fun songs. I always liked Gustav Mahler. I also liked quite easy music, like the musicals that my parents loved, My Fair Lady, things like that. I never got a chance to be in a musical; it’s everything I would have loved. But I realized the other day, singing with the philharmonic, that Serge gave me a one-person musical: all these songs he wrote and composed for me. That’s what I’ve got, that’s what my show is. In the end, I did a musical. To fully answer your question, at some point, I could not sing “Di Doo Dah” anymore because I was no longer that person. I was no longer the attractive Lolita. Being a poupée has come to an end for me. But I can still sing “Ex-Fan des Sixties,” for example, because the song has to do with nostalgia.

Perhaps it’s a relief to know that if you started off as a pretty face, things can change later for the best. Jane Birkin

SK Over the course of your life, do you feel that melancholy has grown and taken over the fun?

JB I love comedies. I’m happy that I was loved by the French for being the funny English girl, because being funny is also a part of my life. I think Serge loved me because I made him laugh, possibly Jacques as well. I find it much more difficult to make a funny film than to make a sad film. It’s so much easier to cry than to have a fou rire. I admire Gérard Depardieu and Pierre Richard in La Chèvre, in that scene where they couldn’t stop laughing. What a wonderful thing to have been able to do. When my father died, and when Serge died, Charlotte [Gainsbourg, her daughter] and I listened to cassettes of Coluche in my car. I’m infinitely grateful for comedy. If I had to bring a film to a desert island, it could be a Bergman movie, but I’m not sure. The other night, I watched The Producers [by Mel Brooks] for the 10th time. I know every line of dialogue. On that desert island, maybe I would take The Producers or Some Like it Hot [by Billy Wilder].

SK After Serge passed away, you worked with many great musicians from different generations and countries: Alain Souchon, Françoise Hardy, Miossec, MC Solaar, Beth Gibbons, Neil Hannon, Brian Molko, Caetano Veloso, Étienne Daho, etc. You explored many new directions.

JB I did it because I asked Philippe Lerichomme, my artistic director, “Do you think I’m worth anything without Serge? Do you think I can dare to make a record with anybody else?” He said, “If you’re going to be unfaithful, you must be totally unfaithful.” So he found me Souchon, Françoise, Miossec, people I knew and people I didn’t know, and thanks to Lerichomme, we made a wonderful record, À la Légère. I don’t know if the album sold well, but never mind. It was thanks to Philippe that I was okay to go on singing and to have fun. It’s good fun to sing; it’s less lonely, it’s lovely, you meet friends again.

SK Another strong side of your life is that you were sometimes openly engaged in social or political issues like the war in Yugoslavia or, more recently, awareness-raising about global warming. Is it important for an artist to show political consciousness?

JB Sometimes it’s easier to do something than not to do something. When I was a healthier person, going to places like Haiti or Sarajevo was something I rather liked doing. I like meeting people, and in places filled with suffering, people are full of resources. They’re much funnier; they’re brave and cheeky. If I had a life of doing just that, I would have liked it. That kind of life would have been shamefully fulfilling.

It’s quite rare to be completely satisfied as a mother. The most important thing for me is to know they’re happy. Jane Birkin

SK Did you sometimes feel guilty about being a successful artist when there is so much pain and misery here and there?

JB No, it’s not that, because you get other people’s pleasure immediately. You see smiles on their faces. It’s very gratifying. The people at Médecins du Monde [Doctors of the World] can’t wait to get a phone call and go someplace where they can be useful, and that’s exhilarating. I often signed petitions in newspapers, but I think you have to know the subject quite well because things are always more complicated than they seem. I’m always grateful to Olivier Rolin [a French writer] if he can tell me what he thinks about something because he’s usually got a total knowledge of things. Is it a good idea to go and sing in Russia? Should I go and sing in Istanbul? How to know? Sometimes, you defend people who can be disappointing later on. I supported Aung San Suu Kyi for 15 years, and now, what can you say about her and the Rohingyas, who are rejected in Myanmar like the Roms are in France? When Aung San Suu Kyi was in prison, it seemed right to defend her. Now, I feel disappointment, without knowing the entire question either. I think that some big companies are dreadful. People should be more shocked by their behavior. They don’t pay taxes; they go to other countries where they use people indecently. Big companies have to change. Morally, maybe we could do small things, like not buying certain products, and it could be every bit as important as signing a petition in a paper.

SK After reviewing your career in this conversation, one might wonder again why you are so hard on yourself in your diary.

JB Better to be hard on myself than let somebody else be hard on me! I am not pretentiously trying to pretend that I did nothing good. I think I’m lucid about what was okay or more than okay. When you write a diary, it’s not written to be published. It’s very rare to write things down when you are very pleased with yourself or when things are going really well. After the shock of Kate [the late photographer Kate Barry, her daughter] dying, some people said that perhaps I should start writing again. But no, I could never write a diary again because, subconsciously, I’d know it might be published, whereas, in all honesty, I had no idea when writing this [diary] that it would be published one day. And after something as shocking as Kate’s passing, I really don’t know what I would have written. My brother lost his son when he was 20. My sister-in-law gave me a notebook to write to Kate. That was sweet, but I didn’t find that I could do that.

SK In the book, you write a lot about your daughters. Like all mothers, you fear being a bad mom, but being a mother and making your daughters happy is obviously central in your life. Are you proud that your daughters became good artists in their own right? Do you feel this is also the result of the education you gave them and the role model you were for them?

JB Many mothers have felt like me. It’s quite rare to be completely satisfied as a mother. The most important thing for me is to know they’re happy. Yes, pride … I would be proud if they’re happy. And I’m happy if they are. Their happiness counts more than careers and honors.

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