Nous Vous Aimons: Jane Birkin Is Awe-Inspiring Compared to Today's Botox-Riddled Sex Goddesses, Finds Rachel Halliburton
Halliburton, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)
Jane Birkin--Sixties sex symbol, chanteuse, actress and, latterly, French icon--confesses early in my interview with her that she is jealous of her bulldog Dora. Though both are international travellers, Dora has one distinct advantage: rather than being plagued by a passport, she is blessed with a small injected microchip. "I would love to have a chip," Birkin declares, "I wish they'd wham one in straight away. I'm always losing passports, so I'm constantly in that awful queue when you think, 'Oh no, not at my age, not again.'"
It is difficult to believe that, at 58, Birkin thinks anything is inappropriate for her age. It was 1966 when she made cinematic history by appearing as a full-frontal nude in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup--"I only did it for a dare"--and 1969 when she shocked the world by recording the orgasmic "Je t'aime" with her lover Serge Gainsbourg. Almost four decades later, she retains her gamine figure, while her dark hair is swept up chaotically around an animated face, dominated by her famous gap-toothed smile. When we meet at the Sloane Hotel in Chelsea, she reveals that she has also kept her talent for upsetting world leaders. In 1969, it was the Pope; now it is the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who recently banned her from performing in Russia "because I stuck up for the Chechnyans".
For someone who has whipped up so much controversy in her life, Birkin seems strikingly unworldly. Her sentences tumble out in long streams of consciousness, and she is happy to come across as terminally distracted. She tells a story about her portrayal of a countess--in a drama by Marivaux--who falls in love with a girl dressed up as a boy. "The director made me put my hands right against the actress's chest to show how in love I was with the character she was playing, so the actress said: 'Don't you think Jane will notice that I've got a pair of breasts?' And he said: 'To be honest, I don't think Jane will notice anything.'"
Yet Birkin notices a lot more than she pretends. Her hectic work schedule is testimony to the grit that is hidden beneath her eccentric exterior. In the four decades since her first cinematic appearance, she has notched up more than 72 films (some terrible, some impressive); her singing career continues to take her all over the world; and after being courted by more than one director, she is in Britain to play Gertrude in Hamlet. "I've been asked to play Gertrude three times in the past year," she says. "This time I knew that the director, Rupert Goold, had done a production of Paradise Lost, which I'm told was extraordinary--and fallen angels is one of my favourite themes."
Gainsbourg, who died in 1991, haunts the conversation. Birkin was briefly married to the prolific film composer John Barry in the Sixties, and left Gainsbourg for the film director Jacques Doillon in 1981, but it is the iconoclastic French musician who continues to shape her life. For her current tour as a singer, she is performing some of Gainsbourg's songs scored to Arab-influenced music, and even though none of them is causing as much outrage as "Je t'aime" or "Lemon Incest" (which he infamously performed with their daughter Charlotte), she has received much acclaim for the way she has sustained his legacy. …