Jane Birkin obituary: British star who became a French pop culture sensation

Birkin’s career spanned chansons and controversy with Serge Gainsbourg and films with directors including Agnès Varda and Jacques Rivette.

20 July 2023

By Ginette Vincendeau

Jane Birkin in Agnès Varda’s portrait film Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988)

The fondness for the British-born actor and singer Jane Birkin in France, her adoptive country, can be measured by the outpouring of tributes that greeted the news of her death on 16 July. The next morning, the daily newspaper Libération devoted no fewer than eight pages (including the front cover) to her, and others followed suit. 

Hailing from ‘swinging London’ and with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) under her belt, Birkin arrived in Paris as a young starlet in 1969 to appear in Slogan. The film was forgettable, but her co-star, the singer Serge Gainsbourg, was not. The two embarked on a relationship that propelled them to iconic celebrity coupledom. They had a daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg (born 1971), and while they split up in 1980 they remained close friends until his death in 1991. 

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin
© Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Birkin’s background combined middle-class respectability (her father was a naval officer) with artistic bohemia: her mother, Judy Campbell, was a famous stage actor; Jane’s siblings would also embrace artistic careers and her first husband (and father of her daughter Kate, born 1967) was the composer John Barry. Across the channel, however, Birkin initially made an impression as a long-legged, mini-skirted androgynous ‘brindille’ (twig, after Twiggy), the incarnation of Carnaby Street chic. 

Her association with Gainsbourg, a maestro of French chanson, brought her instant fame but fixed her beauty, British accent and ‘muse’ status as defining features of her identity: Gainsbourg was almost 20 years older, self-styled as ‘ugly’, a talented composer and brilliant lyricist; she was a pretty child-woman (though in her twenties and a mother) who sang his songs with a little-girl voice, clad in crochet mini-dresses or sprawled over a piano. 

Although it has become a cliché, impossible at this point not to mention the infamous ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’, with its beyond-innuendo lyrics and orgasmic crescendo. Gainsbourg had written and performed the song for, and with, his lover Brigitte Bardot (the recording was withdrawn by Bardot’s husband Gunter Sachs), but Birkin made it her own – something of a mixed blessing. The ‘scandalous’ song was banned on many airwaves, including the BBC. More to the point it stuck to her forever. In this context, it’s to Birkin’s credit that she eventually escaped Gainsbourg’s orbit. Unlike other young female ‘muses’ to charismatic older males (such as Anna Karina to Jean-Luc Godard), Birkin moved on and forged her own independent path, especially in the cinema.

The year of Slogan Birkin also appeared in Jacques Deray’s thriller La Piscine, where her androgynous gamine look contrasted with the more womanly eroticism of Romy Schneider. Generally, Birkin’s film career divides along two strands. She appeared in a string of domestic comedies, such as Claude Zidi’s La moutarde me monte au nez (1974) and La Course à l’échalote (1975), both co-starring Pierre Richard, in which she deploys a zany, faux naif, persona in her trademark accent. These films certainly never made the international festival circuit, but they cemented her bond with French audiences, along with television appearances; she became a household name. While making popular films, she moved into auteur cinema, after Gainsbourg’s own Je t’aime, moi non plus (1976), about a bisexual ménage à trois co-starring Joe Dallesandro.

She began to appear in Jacques Doillon’s intimist, tormented dramas, such as La Fille prodigue (1981). She and Doillon started a relationship and had a daughter, Lou Doillon, born 1982. Over the years Birkin worked with Jacques Rivette (La Belle Noiseuse, 1991; Around a Small Mountain, 2009), Jean-Luc Godard (Soigne ta droite, 1987), Alain Resnais (On connaît la chanson, 1997) and, most interestingly, Agnès Varda. In Jane B. by Agnès V. (1988) Varda explores not only ‘Jane B.’ but the visual construction of femininity in our culture. She also cast Birkin in Kung Fu Master (1988), alongside her own son, Mathieu Demy. 

Birkin with David Bursztein in Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991)

Birkin’s music career outlived her partnership with Gainsbourg while paying tribute to it. After duets, as in ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’ or ‘69, année érotique’, she produced several albums covering his songs, creatively varying orchestrations and making the most of her thin, fragile voice – as in for instance ‘La Gadoue’, where she can be heard in an orchestral version with Gainsbourg, but also, much later, an alternative rock declension with the group Les Négresses vertes. Gradually Birkin took to the stage and toured with her own repertoire, usually clad in her signature ensemble of jeans and t-shirt or sweater. This is how I remember her at London’s Roundhouse in 2008, where, as ever, she won audiences through her warm naturalness.

In film, song and on stage, Birkin established herself as an original take on the Franco-British ‘entente cordiale’, a path later followed by Charlotte Rampling and Kristin Scott-Thomas. She developed deep connections with French society – through her work and her family ‘dynasty’: Charlotte and her family and Lou are also household names, while people commiserated with Kate’s tragic death in 2013. 

She was also known for her political militancy, including campaigning for abortion rights, against the far right, and protesting French government policy on undocumented migrants. “Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, it’s every man for himself just about everywhere”, she told Le Monde in 2017. From the pop icon of the late 1960s (with a Hermès bag named after her), Jane Birkin grew into an artist in her own right and a French national treasure.

  • Jane Birkin, 14 December 1946 to 16 July 2023
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