Jane Birkin: The Life of an Icon in Movies and Music

Jane Birkin in 1971. Getty Images

You know her as the inspiration for the iconic Hermès bag or as the sneaky love interest of a brooding Serge Gainsbourg. But Jane Birkin – who passed away on July 16 at the age of 76 – was also a leading artist in her own right, writing songs, directing films and raising a daughter who would carry on her legacy.

Contrary to her French affiliations, Birkin was born in 1946 in Marylebone, London. She started auditioning in the UK and landed several small roles in films such as Kaleidoscope (1966) and Wonder wall (1968). Her dreams of becoming an actress took her to France, where Birkin would break into the movie and music scene with impeccable fashion, effortless beauty, and above all, artistic talent that cannot be overlooked.

Slogan (1969) Despite not speaking French, Birkin landed the lead female role in this romantic comedy alongside Serge Gainsbourg, who spent more than a decade pursuing his career as a singer, songwriter and actor. Birkin’s charming English-accented French won over the audience. She sings the film’s theme song, “La Chanson de Slogan,” with Gainsbourg, the first of many musical collaborations. The pair also began a relationship during filming, one that would last 12 years and many artistic projects.

La swimming pool (1969) Later that same year, Birkin appeared in a thriller with beloved French actor Alain Delon. It was this breakthrough film that enabled her to move to France full-time to pursue her acting career. With still imperfect French, Birkin’s acting is nothing special, but it’s her epitome of French cool that makes her irresistible to look. In white button-ups, striped swimsuits and perfectly pleated fringe, Birkin rose to fashion icon status while lounging by the pool.

Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg (1969) This album, featuring iconic songs “Je t’aime…moi non plus” (“I love you…neither do I”) and “Jane B.”, helped cement Birkin’s music career. The previous issue, originally written for Brigette Bardot (an earlier lover of Gainsbourg), was given to Birkin. “Je t’aime” was banned in several countries – its whispered and moaning vocals were too overtly sexual – but this only worked to increase its popularity. Birkin’s voice, though brittle and overly hoarse at times, was a perfect fit for the yé-yé style (kitschy, innocent songs by young female singers) that Gainsbourg had adopted for the hits he’d written for Bardot and France Gall.

“Ballade de Melody Nelson” (1971) This song, a standout song on Gainsbourg’s album History of Melody Nelson, returns to the Lolita themes strong in “Jane B.” A reinvention of this character with Birkin’s lilting voice sets the tone for an album of short but indulgent fantasies. Birkin’s song is extremely compelling, her tender vocals merging with Gainsbourg’s more exacting phrasing.

Je t’aime moi non plus (1976) Gainsbourg wrote and directed this film, named after his world-famous song. In it, Birkin is portrayed as an androgynous, naive love interest of a gay man. Joe Dallesandro – an underground star of Andy Warhol films – co-starred and Gérard Depardieu made a cameo, but the controversial content (including a sex scene in the back of a garbage truck) garnered poor reception. However, the film was championed by François Truffaut and would grow in popularity over the years.

kung fu master (1988) In this whirlwind drama, directed by renowned French director Angès Varda, Birkin stars alongside her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, then 17 years old. It tells the story of a bored housewife who falls in love with her daughter’s boyfriend. A beautifully shot film with fantastic acting by Jane, kung fu master is named after the young boy’s favorite video game. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival.

Jane B. by Agnès V. (1988) Varda continued her relationship with Birkin and made a docudrama about the versatile actress and singer. The film consists of vignettes about Birkin’s life, as well as fictionalized recreations of famous or mythological women (such as Joan of Arc). It was created as an ode to Birkin, who was in her 40s and had confided in Varda about her fear of aging. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but feels like the imaginative playtime of two artistic forces.

Fictions (2006) This album confused Birkin’s French audience, as it was mainly in English and featured English songwriters (such as British indie rockers the Magic Numbers). Fictions took Jane’s music in a new direction and broke out into a more outspoken style. A self-written album and titled Return to French Children of Hiver would appear two years later. But Fictions most popular track, a cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” is a perfectly accessible, subtly nostalgic take on Jane Birkin.

Boxes (2007) A year later, Birkin wrote and directed her first film. It is a deeply personal meditation on her three marriages and the three children that resulted from them. Birkin stars and the film was shot at her home in Landéda, France. Secrets are revealed and relationships are broken and healed, as physical boxes filled with the past are opened. Boxeswith its great writing style and intimate atmosphere, it was nominated for the Grand Prix at the Bratislava International Film Festival.

La Femme and the TGV (2016) Based on a true story, the short film The Railroad Lady (TGV is the French high-speed train service) is a bittersweet, tender look at human connection. Birkin stars as a lonely widow trying to reconnect with her life; she falls in love with a mysterious train conductor and eventually tries to meet in person. Jane’s performance feels as youthful as ever, fueled by emotional nuance. The film was nominated for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.

Jane by Charlotte (2021) Charlotte Gainsbourg’s directorial debut is a beautiful documentary about her mother. This stunning portrait shows just how far Birkin has come from her days as an eye candy in To blow up (1966). With a barely discernible English accent in her now impeccable French, Jane gets personal about motherhood over cups of tea and quiet mornings with her daughter. Subtle but efficient, Charlotte’s directing leads the viewer to question both sides of the relationship: what does it mean to be mother and daughter, and at what point does the line blur, never to be in the picture again?

Jane Birkin: The Life of an Icon in Movies and Music

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