Link to Irish Times website here.
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.
But here in France, much more than bag or song muse, Jane Birkin is an adopted national treasure and has already written an entire page of France’s cultural history. Much of it is linked to Gainsbourg, but Birkin has been a prolific screen and stage actress and tireless musical performer in her own right for more than 40 years.
Her two other famous loves, either side of Gainsbourg, were the British film music composer John Barry, and the French film director Jacques Douillon. With each of them, Birkin had a daughter – with John, Kate Barry the photographer; with Serge, Charlotte Gainsbourg award-winning actress and fashion icon, and with Jacques,Lou Doillon, an actress and singer whose first album has been a huge hit in France.
I asked her what she considers taboo these days – as someone who broke so many of them back in the 1960s. She seems genuinely confused, as if she doesn’t know the meaning of the word. Then says, determinedly: “Torture or the death penalty in any way. That. As for homosexual marriage, well, why not ? Good luck to them. The only marriage I had was one that didn’t last at all. I found it more exciting not to be married, but if they want to go along that route …
“With adoption, I really don’t know what to think. They would have a chance as much as my children have. I haven’t changed husbands that often, but there were three children and none brought up by the originals, if you see what I mean. I think you need to watch out that you don’t blame the children for somebody walking off. So will homosexuals make it better than we made it? Maybe. I’m sure in the long run it will become so mundane and normal that in 20 years’ time one won’t even think about it.”
I’m thinking three changes of partners in a lifetime is pretty good going and, when it came to Gainsbourg especially, wonder how a woman goes from all-consuming passion to leaving the man (and apparently breaking his heart) and then staying inseparable from him – whilst inspiring his very best music – for a further 20 years.
“You feel so guilty and you don’t know why you left in the first place and on the other hand life had become intolerable and he was a very difficult, difficult man as well.
“He was the first one to say ‘I was impossible, I drank too much, I hit her around’.
“I didn’t have to say anything because he was saying: ‘Don’t blame her’, he couldn’t have been sweeter, he didn’t want me to become unpopular, so, sweeter you couldn’t get, so of course I went in with the food.”
My food antennae prick up here, and I ask about “the food”.
“I was scared stiff something would happen to him so I used to go and take him meals at lunchtime and then he’d turn up at my house whenever he wanted.
“And then when I was pregnant with Lou , I just went in with things that were bigger and bigger and one day I went in with a Lancashire Hotpot and I said, ‘Look, something’s changed’, and he said ‘what?’ and I said ‘Well, guess’ and he said ‘You’ve cut your hair’ and I said ‘No, no, it’s not that’ and he said ‘You’re wearing a dress’ and I said ‘No, no it’s not that’. In the end, I said ‘ Serge I’m having a baby’.
Was accumulating relationships and babies and families-in-law really – as today’s upper-middle-class-based, family political correctness would have us believe – as simple as that? Did Birkin’s families seamlessly merge into inclusive islands of love where any trace of ancient bitterness miraculously dissolved with a jolly stew and lots of wine around a big, noisy table? Her answer to all that is to be found in a film.
“I made a film called Boxes with John Hurt and Geraldine Chaplin. I thought it was a very good way of not talking about oneself but at the same time being exactly the sort of person who I felt I was – a failed mother with all the children screaming at you, and looking crucified.
“Plus the thing of a dead father coming back on the balcony to visit his daughter, played by Lou, divinely. Plus the father coming back from America, so guess who?
“I thought, it’s better to give them all dialogues where they kick back at me saying ‘it wasn’t all like that, why do you write your own story?’ It was an important picture about the grief when someone’s dead and the making so much of them that it probably hurts other people because when you’re dead you sort of go up a staircase of glory.”
I’m thinking how true this is in Ireland too, and how much I love that in both countries, excesses are still forgiven and forgotten so quickly, often affectionately.
Speaking of Gainsbourg, Birkin adds: “He always thought he’d get a second chance you know. With heart attacks, he loved to say, ‘I’ve killed all my doctors’.
“He had a little teaspoon in his jacket and he used to make himself vomit after meals and that way he thought he could eat again, and drink again. So, something he must have read somewhere about a Roman emperor or something.
“The Irish would have loved him because he was so funny. I think perhaps the quality one loves most in a man or in a woman, is somebody who makes you laugh.”
Jane Birkin sings Serge Gainsbourg (Via Japan), is at the National Conert Hall, Dublin on Sunday, January 27th at 8pm. See nch.ie