Jane Birkin will always be France’s favourite “petite Anglaise”, but few will have even guessed at the depth of the insecurity suffered by the “little English girl” – until today.
The British-born actress and singer captured Gallic hearts when, aged 21 and the epitome of London’s Sixties cool, she took up with singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg – 20 years her senior and the bad boy of French popular music.
The public was fascinated by his excesses and his outrageous behaviour – he once burned a 500 franc note live on television to protest at his tax bill and had made a reggae version of La Marseillaise – and by her Sixties style and heavily accented French.
Their turbulent relationship hit the headlines many times during a 13-year affair which saw the release of their controversial duet Je t’aime... moi non plus (I love you...me neither), which Gainsbourg originally wrote for Brigitte Bardot, a record condemned by the pope and banned by radio stations in the UK for being “sexually explicit”.
The decades passed, the couple split, Gainsbourg’s drinking and smoking caught up with him, and he died, but in her adopted homeland Birkin, now 72, will always be remembered as his muse and as a star in her own right.
Today she has released the second volume of her memoirs, covering life after Gainsbourg. In this weighty 432-page book called Post-scriptum, Birkin reveals that she never completely got over him. When they split in 1980, she writes that he told her: “You are on your way down, I am on my way up.” But when he died aged 62 in May 1991 of a heart attack, “my world was left in chaos, silence and darkness. Serge is dead. Impossible... everything seems fuzzy but with the precision of a nightmare.” Four days later, Birkin’s father died; in less than a week she had lost the two most important men in her life, two men who, she says, had loved her “unconditionally”.
In the book, Birkin’s emotions run the gamut from extremes: insecure and unhappy one day, overjoyed and passionate the next, via hysterical tantrums, outbursts, tears and depression. She also displays a remarkable talent for mocking herself, recalling how, when invited to take a role in a theatre production of a play by the 17th-century French writer Marivaux, she thought she was in a play by Marie Vau.
What Birkin, riddled with insecurities and convinced she was “suffering from mediocrity and no personality”, wanted above all was to be loved.
“I think I’m nothing, I’m persecuted by women who I love more than myself... Oh for the face of Nastassja Kinski, of Fanny Ardant, oh, the talent, the courage, the qualities. I have nothing interesting to say...” Birkin writes.
She also writes of her troubled relationship with her daughters: photographer Kate Barry – from Birkin’s marriage to the Bond film composer John Barry – who died in 2013 after falling from her fourth-floor Paris apartment; actress Charlotte Gainsbourg; and model Lou Doillon, the result of her relationship with the French film director Jacques Doillon.
Birkin recalls how, as a teenager, the increasingly troubled Kate skipped school, stayed out late at Paris nightclubs, took drugs and stole her clothes. She recounts how she ended up screaming “thief, thief” like a madwoman after Kate “borrowed” a purple Yves Saint Laurent jacket from her wardrobe. “I thought they’d send me to an asylum,” she writes.
Daughter Charlotte once said she wanted to be “an actress like my mother and a drunk like my father”, but Birkin admits she was no stranger to alcohol. “I drank quite a lot... reading back [the diary] it’s crazy. Even more so now. It’s crazy to write a diary and remember all the things we did and even the surprise of where we found ourselves when we woke up,” she said in a recent interview.
Birkin, who has made 13 albums and starred in films and plays, and was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2002, says she conducted her life and love affairs with “an absolutely unfounded optimism”, but stopped writing her diary on the evening her daughter Kate died. (Shortly afterwards, the leukaemia returned requiring intensive treatment; she is now in remission.)
“How could I write after that? ... it was like I was living a parallel life. The carpet had been pulled from under my feet. I fell ill... and why not,” she writes.