The thing about Jane Birkin is that as soon as you feel you have the measure of her – ingénue, Serge Gainsbourg’s muse and lover, stage performer, style icon – she offers up another facet of herself that is as fascinating as the last. Perhaps it is this inability to pin her to a title or bracket that is the key to her longevity in the public eye, particularly in France where she remains hugely loved. It is certainly why we felt compelled to append a story published in the April print issue of Prestige Hong Kong with a supporting feature, to encapsulate the legend in her entirety.
Moving away from her thoughtful ruminatings about performing, here we segue into frank conversation about her daughters, the death of her eldest Kate, whom she had with British composer John Barry, the privileges of the entertainment industry and her place in it as she ages. At no point does the normal public relations manifesto overshadow her words and one gets the feeling that it is precisely this refreshing and down to earth attitude that has seen her forge such a distinct and unique path in life.
Why do you think audiences still listen to your songs?
When you’ve been singing this long, I don’t mean singing on stage but I sang with Serge for Je t’aime… moi non plus when I was twenty so I think people remember where they were when they first heard that song and that’s probably why they’re moved or touched – because of themselves, because I’m a part of their history. I’ve been in France now for nearly fifty years. So I’ve been part of people’s histories for nearly fifty years. And not only for fashion, movies and songs but there’ve been political crises in Paris, political prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi, people that I’ve defended or gone to their countries and they’ve been under siege like in Sarajevo – it means that I care and I like getting to places if I can and I usually can, to sing for people on the spot. I’m lucky because if you have about ten good songs, it means you can sing anywhere. You can sing in a hospital, you can sing – I was in Haiti singing for people who had been in the earthquake. Whilst I’m singing they’re not thinking oh her poor leg is sore or his poor arm so that’s already something.
What do you want an audience to take from your performance?
That they should be moved and have two hours of thinking of something else. Sometimes it helps. When my [eldest] daughter [Kate] died, the only thing I could do was to see three movies a day and maybe the theatre at night. Anything so as to not think about my story but other people’s stories and sometimes their stories are far more tragic. Sometimes with a bit of luck they can be quite funny and I find that in that case, entertainment in its large sense, art in any sense helps people. If it helped me then I think it would surely help anybody. It was about the only thing I could do. So, if people want to think of something else, either because they’re unhappy or because they’re with a boyfriend and they want to bring him along and hold hands because, after all, they’re lovers’ songs, then that’s something. I rather like seeing people holding on to each other as if they were sort of desperate for them not to break up and then they leave the theatre having felt something for themselves. Not necessarily for me but for them.
Your relationship with your daughters is known to be quite wonderful. Does being a mother come first to you or does friendship?
I hope I’m a mother but you never know. If you’re not a mother, then I hope at least I’m a friend. You know, I rooted for them. I wanted Charlotte to be an actress when she was twelve. I wanted Kate to be what she wanted to be: a photographer at seventeen. I wish I’d had more money with Kate, because if I’d had money it would have changed her life. I would’ve been able to give her a fashion coutourier label or help and I think it’s quite difficult to be a photographer where magazines never pay. It’s very difficult to make any money and you’re with actresses who are my other daughters who get so much money. It is sometimes quite difficult to all live in the same world when the salaries aren’t the same. But I was their first fan. Lou developed into a writer, writing music. When I heard it I gave it directly to Etienne Deroux who I knew would produce it much better than I could because it was so obviously wonderful. When Lou found her place at thirty, I had a great sense of relief that they’ve been understood. They can also be artists like me. It is a very lucky profession that you can share with other people. You don’t have to be lonely and usually there’ll be some project that’ll turn up where you can be with other people. I find it soothing to be an artist. I think how lucky we are. So that my three girls are and found their feet, it’s lucky. But it’s a difficult métier too. You’re frightened of getting older; you’re frightened of not getting as many parts. It’s constant competition. I think that must be hard.
Are you still interested in cinema? Would you take a role if somebody came to you with one?
I did it! No one asked me to do anything for about twenty years so I didn’t think I’d do another movie. Then a boy got a hold of me on the internet and asked if I would do a film about a little old lady who waves to a TGV train. It was a true story about a lady who waved to this man on the fast train every day. It’s not that he was going to reply because it went so fast that she could hardly see him but one day the train doesn’t come past her house anymore.
I said, “Come to Paris and see me because I’ve changed and maybe you won’t want me anymore if you see what I look like now.” He came and he said no no no that was exactly what he wanted. He wanted me to film for ten days, so I said ok and followed him to a strange little town in Switzerland. He made me work so hard, I thought, he doesn’t take pity on his grandmother. He put me up onto train rails at quarter to twelve at night he was taking panoramas from underneath and then starting again at seven in the morning.
I hadn’t been out of bed for about two years because of Kate so I hadn’t actually walked. So when he said run for the train, I did of course because there was no double or anything so of course I ran but Zurich station is enormous. I ran once and twice. In the end you had to run ten times. Then I had to catch the train and he was filming and I got to Paris, I couldn’t get out of the train. I had to ring somebody to carry me onto the taxi and carry me home because I’d used the muscles I hadn’t having been in bed for so long. So he nearly killed me but he was very young and I was enchanted by the idea of playing this very ordinary person. I think the cinema is really for people that are young and photogenic – I find myself watching films when people are young and photogenic – or great actresses, which I’ve never been.
If not, that was my last one. I thought no one would ever see this film and it was suddenly picked out to be an Oscar so it was that everyone had seen it in Hollywood. I was quite horrified to see that everyone had seen this old lady waving to the train. It didn’t win but it was nominated. It was quite good fun. Quite good.