or, l'Histoire de Melody Nelson
British actress, singer, and former concubine of Serge Gainsbourg. Big in France.
The London Years:
Jane was born on 14th December, 1946 into a wealthy family. Her father was a big cheese in the Royal Navy, while her mother, Judy Campbell, was an actress.
This meant that the circles in which Jane moved as a young girl were rather exciting. Judy was a favourite muse of Noel Coward, and brought all sorts of interesting characters home to meet the family. Jane attended boarding school, and enjoyed frequent holidays on the Isle of Wight.
Cue the swinging sixties. Teenage Jane began auditioning for theatre roles, and was spotted by Binky Beaumont, who gave her her first acting part. She was cast as a deaf-mute in a production of Graham Greene's Carving a Statue. Now there's a part which is bound to show off one's acting ability. Next came Jane's singing début, in the musical Passion Flower Hotel.
She had been encouraged to audition for this role by John Barry, the composer of the James Bond theme. The pair married when Jane was only 19, and had a daughter, Kate, in 1967. Shortly after their baby's birth, John and Jane divorced. They may have been poorly matched as a couple, but this brief marriage did set the precedent for the kind of man with whom Birkin was to become involved.
She had made her first appearance on film in 1965, and her new career direction would help her to find the love of her life.
The Gainsbourg Years:
They met on the set of Pierre Gramblat's film Slogan in 1968. It doesn't fit terribly well with the story, but it was far from love at first sight for Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. There was squabbling galore during the first few days, until all was resolved by a dinner date. And so was born the most iconic Parisian couple ever to have existed. By the time they met, Gainsbourg was knocking on 40, and already a huge star. He'd just broken up with Brigitte Bardot. His new companion was barely almost famous. Still, as sightings of the rock star with his lanky, strangely beautiful English rose became more and more frequent, Jane Birkin became the talk of the town. The result was that she achieved fame before Slogan was even released.
Jane, of course, could speak hardly a word of French when she arrived in Paris. She learnt, albeit rather slowly. Today, her trademark is her quirky British accent. She also refuses to remember the correct genders of French nouns. This gives her a certain charm, although I do suspect it to be an affectation. Yet this is what made her so appealing to the film directors with whom she has worked. In 1969, she starred alongside Gainsbourg in two more films (see below).
It is not the films for which the couple will be remembered, but the music. Je t'aime... moi non plus had originally been recorded in 1968 as a duet between Serge and his lover at the time, Brigitte Bardot. When they split, it was decided not to release this sleazy number. The following year, it was re-recorded, with the female vocals breathed by Birkin this time. This notoriously provocative track is the reason why most people have heard of Jane Birkin. Je t'aime... moi non plus was banned by the BBC among others, and even earned a statement of disgust from The Vatican. What wonderful free publicity. The single sold a million copies in just a few months.
Later in 1969, Jane and her daughter Kate moved into Serge's Paris home on the rue de Verneuil. In 1970 - 71, he wrote and recorded l'Histoire de Melody Nelson, while she continued acting, before helping him with backing vocals for the album. It is something of a concept album, telling the story of a meeting between a young English girl and an older Frenchman. Sound familiar? This disk firmly placed Jane in the role of Serge's full-time muse. His fixation with her is evident not only in the lyrics, but even in the cover art, which features a doll-like Birkin.
In July 1971, Charlotte Gainsbourg was born. She is now one of France's best-known actresses. The birth of Jane's second daughter encouraged her to put her career on hold for a short while. In 1973, she returned to the studio to record her first solo album. Technically, Di Doo Dah is a solo album, but the songs were still written by her partner, naturally. The remainder of the 1970s was filled with roles in films and less noteworthy albums. In 1979, Birkin's world turned upside down. Gainsbourg fell into periods of severe alcoholism and depression. Scandals filled the media. The pair separated, with Jane taking her daughters and moving out after 12 years in her partner's house. The love affair was over, but Serge and Jane remained close friends up until his death in 1991.
The Doillon Years:
There was an alarmingly short lapse of time before Jane found herself a new lover. In 1980, she met Jacques Doillon on the set of his film La Fille Prodigue. This marked the beginning of a relationship which would prove very useful to Jane's acting career. Her role in this 1980 film already marked a departure from her previous parts. A step beyond the stereotypical English rose in mediocre French comedies. For the first time, she was offered the opportunity to play a serious, tragic lead role. Throughout her relationship with the director, Jane was offered demanding acting jobs, which she played rather well. In 1982, Lou Doillon was born. Jane's third daughter is now a fairly successful model and very successful socialite.
The following year saw the artistic reunion of Jane and Serge. He wrote the album Baby alone in Babylone for his former sweetheart, which turned out to be a huge success. Not only did it sell in huge numbers, but it also received the Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles-Cros.
1985 saw Jane return to her roots, and step back on stage. More significantly, she proudly watched her daughter Charlotte make her acting début, and win the César for Best Female Newcomer of the Year. Yet more media attention was garnered by Charlotte and her father, when the released the duet Lemon Incest later the same year. The title says all you need to know.
The next few years passed fairly uneventfully, with recordings of songs written especially for her by her close friend, and plenty of acting work. 1991, however, brought nothing but sadness. Serge Gainsbourg died on 2nd March, and Jane's father also kicked the bucket a few days later.
Jane Birkin's humanitarian interests led her to make a short film recording the plight of a young Filipino woman later in 1991. The piece was shown as part of a project by Amnesty International. She went on to direct a French telefilm called Oh Pardon tu Dormais!. After this change of direction, Birkin all but disappeared from the spotlight. Her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg took over the baton with her successful acting career. The mother, meanwhile, concentrated on charity work, with the main focuses being AIDS and the crisis in the Balkans.
The few musical happenings in the mid-nineties consisted largely of adoration of Gainsbourg. It was not until 1998 that Jane broke away from her role as his muse. For the first time, she released an album (A la Légère) which contained not a single song written by her former lover. Instead, the tracks are composed by an eclectic mix of French musical talent, including Miossec, Zazie, MC Solaar, and Françoise Hardy. The next album, Arabesque, continued the break-away from Gainsbourg's songwriting, and featured a middle-eastern theme. The latest album, Rendez-Vous is a collection of duets with the likes of Bryan Ferry, Miossec, Mickey 3D, Brian Molko, and Beth Gibbons.
interview in The Guardian