Song of Serge
INTERVIEW:Jane Birkin, whose breathy duet with Serge Gainsbourg caused a scandal in 1969, tells TRISH DESEINEabout her life with the French idol
Have you noticed that chocolate cakes these days, instead of being a “nemesis” or “death” or a “chocolate overload” have become “orgasmic”?
In 1969, when I was five years old and growing up in the Presbyterian farmlands of Co Antrim, using such a sexually explicit word was as frowned upon as the supposedly under-the-bed-recorded (they weren’t) climaxings of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s 1969 hit song Je T’aime Moi Non Plus.
By the time I arrived in Paris for good in the mid-1980s, the heavy breathing between Gainsbourg and Birkin was over, Jane had left Serge for French film director Jacques Doillon, and Serge was pretty much drinking and smoking himself to death in full public view on French TV. “Killed by his image”, as Jane puts it.
It seemed to me that there wasn’t a French TV variety show (and there were a lot) without Gainsbourg muttering his way through interviews in a haze of Gitanes smoke. Once he added to the cloud by burning a 500 franc note in protest against the taxes he was paying. Plus ça change . . .
He was known for saying the most outrageous, exquisitely poetic things, in varying degrees of inebriety, to other sofa-lounging, blasé-looking artists and intellectuals – and once, notoriously (less exquisite perhaps, but in English) “I want to f**k you” live on TV to Whitney Houston.
Now, 20 years on, I’m meeting Jane Birkin at her home in Paris, as she prepares for her world tour singing Gainsbourg songs, rearranged à la japonaise with Japanese musicians. and a date at the National Concert Hall in Dubin on January 17th.
Save for the low snoring of Dora, the bulldog, it is very quiet in Birkin’s cosily English, fabric-clad, cabinet de curiosités, Parisian home, tucked in the corner of a garden courtyard in the 6th arrondissement.
She still has the same balletic, boyish frame, and, despite having been very ill for a good part of 2012, looks 15 years younger than her 66. Her intonation is aristocratic, her turn of phrase funny, articulate and ingénue, always the English rose.
Naturally, our conversation revolves around Gainsbourg, the most high profile love of her life who died in 1991. I ask her why she often refers to such a publicly controversial figure as pudique (modest) when she speaks of him. For Serge (she pronounces it Seige, like beige), she explains, it was the words that counted, no matter how savage and shocking they might be. “He had a phrase: ‘Take a woman for what she’s not and leave her for what she is.’ Well he was with me!
“I said, ‘that’s the most horrible thing you can say,’ and he said, ‘but it’s so clever’. I said, “it’s clever but it hurts so much.”
“He couldn’t resist a blague (joke) on somebody. Like with Yves Saint Laurent, who adored him, and he adored Yves. But when he started off his ready-to-wear collection, Serge said, “I only do haute couture.”
Besides Gainsbourg and “that” song, outside France Jane Birkin’s name is mostly connected with what she recently referred to as “that bloody bag”, the Hermès Birkin. Created for her by Jean Louis Dumas, patron of Hermès, when, not realising who he was, she complained about her useless basket as its contents spilled out in front of him on a plane. Birkins now hang on every celebrity arm from Kim Kardashian’s to Victoria Beckham’s (who is reputed to have more than 100). Birkin has only ever owned four, each of them personalised with charms, beads and stickers, and then auctioned off for charity.