Jane Birkin Remembered: Gainsbourg’s Muse Controlled Her Own Image

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With jane birkinWith the death of France, France loses both an icon and one of its greatest enigmas. Focusing on France is not to belittle the fact that Birkin’s death will be mourned around the world. Along with Brigitte Bardot, Françoise Hardy, and Catherine Deneuve, Birkin was one of the last surviving women of the 1960s who sparked global attention in French culture.

Except that Birkin isn’t French. He was born in London and has stuck to a British accent his entire life. Birkin was perfectly fluent, but fake pure the way he spoke the language he adopted, which reinforced his personality as an eternal child. For the French, this was part of his unique charm, which he set up decades ago and sometimes struggled to escape.

As the partner and muse of the Svengali-like songwriting genius Serge Gainsbourg, Birkin posed for the cover of her album “Histoire de Melody Nelson” in just a red wig and open-waisted jeans, with a plush monkey clasped to her bare chest. Two years ago, she recorded the erotic duet “Je t’aime moi non plus” originally written for Bardot, she. These are the ecstatic groans that echo in the final seconds of the scandalous piece that led to Birkin being censored in various corners and condemned by the Vatican.

Jane met Serge in the 1969 movie “Slogan,” a disposable but fun comedy about a middle-aged advertising executive who is convinced to leave his pregnant wife after falling in love with a much younger fairy (guess who’s playing it). This reluctant sex symbol who dared to appear naked in Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” and played the naive youth seduced by Alain Delon in “La piscine” has never been a great actor – he had neither the training nor the talent to transform dramatically. herself for a role – but she had that much rarer, indescribable quality of star. When the audience looked at Jane Birkin on screen, they saw Jane Birkin… or they saw the figure that Jane Birkin had convinced the audience to be the real her, and it could have been an elaborate performance that would actually last a lifetime.

This paradox was key to its appeal. Was Birkin a doll shaped by the men in her life, or an artist with an instinctive flair? Both were correct. Birkin’s own diaries, which he collects and publishes under the name “The Munkey Diaries,” reveal far less than fans demand. Gainsbourg may have encouraged Birkin to be ubiquitous (as he appears in ad campaigns and disposable comedies), but he’s gradually taken control of his own image.

As we discovered in the two most revealing screen credits, Birkin was extremely insecure from the start: “Jane B. par Agnès V.” and “Jane from Charlotte.” The first is an entertaining postmodern pseudo-documentary on Birkin by pioneering French director Agnès Varda. Along with clips of her most famous roles as Jeanne d’Arc, or the mythological Greek princess Ariadne, a crime movie femme fatale or a pie-faced silent comedian – only Birkin hadn’t acted in any of those roles. This produced B-roll material was shot specifically for the film, as Varda gave the then-forties starlet a chance to play roles that she had been rejected. (The movie is currently airing on the Criterion Channel.)

In contrast, “Jane by Charlotte” is a true documentary made by the daughter of her 12-year relationship with Serge. Charlotte Gainsbourg is one of the most daring and versatile actors of our time, but she can only get so much from her mother, who has been filmed and photographed, skimmed and objectified for much of her life. At a certain point in the 1980s, he rebelled against the reductionist way the world saw him. She got a haircut (she was short in Varda’s movie) and insisted on giving a live concert at the Bataclan in Paris.

Previous performances have involved pantomime to prerecorded sound; Birkin had something to prove. In the ’60s and ’70s, she embodied a new kind of sex symbol: Swinging London’s ambassador in France. While Bardot was lecherous, Birkin was a tomboy: “garconne”, described in “Melody Nelson”. Tall and thin, with bony hips and flat breasts, Birkin didn’t find herself attractive (that was long before Kate Moss turned heroin into a chic aesthetic). Of course, the public disagreed, and the blue-eyed, gap-toothed Jane Birkin genre is still thriving in French cinema every year – all because she has agreed to pose as the underage fairy of Gainsbourg.

Serge’s lyrics were about a 14-year-old singer hitting and then seducing her in his Rolls Royce – a provocation that raised eyebrows at the time and was certainly not allowed by today’s hypersensitivity. Years later, after collaborating with Varda on “Jane B.” Birkin went on to play the predator in the surprisingly non-scandalous “Kung Fu Master.” demi).

Although painfully shy in real life, Birkin pushed himself for the sake of art. In Gainsbourg’s directorial debut, “Je t’aime moi non plus” (as the song), she played a so-and-so-gender waitress to seduce a gay truck driver. Gainsbourg considered playing the role himself, but eventually recruited Joe D’Allesandro, the resident stud of Andy Warhol’s barn.

If that sounds strange to you, consider Birkin’s scenes in Roger Vadim’s movie “Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman” (also available on the Criterion Channel). Bardot plays the lead character who takes Birkin to bed. This is arguably the sexiest scene in French cinema (although “La piscine” comes close) by the fact that we watch Gainsbourg’s girlfriend come to terms with her ex-boyfriend, who was previously married to Vadim. To say that these are different times would be an understatement.

Birkin may have been an object at the start of his career, but mid-life – with his wit and class – he showed he was at the top of the line. Birkin became even more intriguing by restoring her reputation and building a wall around her secrets.

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