Jane Birkin - cherchez la femme

Mark Ellen ( 19 March 2019 )

That most French of Englishwomen, Jane Birkin is celebrated.

For a moment in the Sixties, French girls ruled the world. Brigitte Bardot was so freewheeling and voluptuous that one of her early movies was called And God Created Woman. Chic blonde starlet France Gall headed up the Yé-Yé girls, a gaggle of frisky chanteuses singing Beatle-flavoured ‘yeah-yeah’ pop hits in flat shoes and slacks. Juliette Gréco mesmerised audiences with her brooding poetic ballads and bohemian charm, and Bob Dylan fell in love with Françoise Hardy – we all did – after simply seeing a picture of her.

Entranced by this sultry vision of beatnik pulchritude singing the mournful Tous Les Garçons et Les Filles alone on a bar-stool, he wrote a poem about her on the back sleeve of his fourth album and, spotting her in the front row at the Paris Olympia in 1966, refused to perform the second half of his show until she’d been brought backstage to meet him.

But none of them caused more of a stir than the coltish Jane Birkin (who is actually English). Married to John Barry, composer of the Bond soundtracks, she’d run into Serge Gainsbourg on a film set in 1968 – she was 21, he was 40 – and jumped ship for a tempestuous affair with the randy old goat that lasted 13 years. Gainsbourg was renowned for his suggestive cabaret and, a year later, the pair released a single that so shocked the British public it was temporarily banned from the radio. Even its title was outrageous – Je T’aime... Moi Non Plus, meaning ‘I love you – me neither’. Full of heavy breathing and squeals of delight, it was clear that their long winter evenings were not spent playing Monopoly. To further fuel the controversy, Birkin arrived at gala events on the arm of her Gauloises-puffing paramour sporting a see-through dress.

Her film career was long, if undistinguished, but she’s still making records (her latest is Jane Birkin Sings Serge Gainsbourg) and is widely revered as a Sixties icon today, all three of her children working in the same achingly fashionable world she’d helped to create. The 46-year-old Kate Barry is a photographer, Charlotte Gainsbourg (42) a singer and Lou Doillon (31) a model. 

Jane Birkin Sings Serge Gainsbourg (Capitol pop)

Where are they aujourd’hui?

Brigitte Bardot 

The pneumatic poster-girl made 47 films and is now a feisty 79-year-old animal rights and political activist. She’s had four husbands and one son, attacks French immigration policy and has been fined five times for inciting racial hatred. Approach with caution.

France Gall 

The fringe-flicking ingénue made 21 albums and more than 60 singles, but felt exploited by the pop world and dived off to make a feminist musical. She had two children with the late French songwriter Michel Berger and is now a well-preserved 66 and the patron of a charity helping homeless women.

Francoise Hardy 

Six decades of recording (in six different languages) haven’t cured her ‘painful shyness’ but she’s worked with Blur and put out a duet with her husband in 2000 with their son on guitar. Absurdly pretty at 69, she’s still performing and turning heads on the Champs-Elysées.

Juliette Greco 

After countless movies, recordings and glamorous pals – Jean-Paul Sartre and Miles Davis among them – it’s possible that life got a bit dull for the deep-breathing bohemian chanteuse. But at 86 she still gives the odd performance – accompanied by husband numéro trois on piano.

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