“Je t’aime, moi non plus”. This song, written by Serge Gainsbourg for Jane Birkin, could have well been the title of their life. Their love story became the symbol of the 60’s and 70’s in France, and left an incredible legacy of songs, movies, cultural moments and tabloid covers. From their encounter on a film set to their controversial creative collaborations and tumultuous relationship, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg remain one of the most fascinating and celebrated power couples in France.
Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, who were they?
Jane Birkin was born in London in 1946, the daughter of David Birkin, a British army officer and former WWII spy and Judy Campbell, a British actress mostly known for her plays. She grew up in a privileged environment, attending prestigious boarding schools and developing a love for the arts early on. She married a composer, John Barry, at only 19, with whom she had her daughter Kate, before divorcing three years later. After a brief stint in fashion modeling, she began auditioning in London and Los Angeles for roles in movies. She landed a few small roles before being cast by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni for his hit film “Blow-Up”, Palme d’or in 1966. The role brought her to the attention of the French film industry, and soon she was being offered roles in many French movies.
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At the same time, Serge Gainsbourg was already a well-known artist in France and in southern Europe. Born in Paris in 1928, Gainsbourg had started his career as a songwriter and performer in the 1950s. First, with popular folk songs he wrote for himself and other artists, then by cultivating his persona as a provocative and controversial figure who talked freely about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and often appeared inebriated on French TV. Serge Gainsbourg’s music style can’t be easily described. He had a suave, gravelly voice but not a great range. Which is why he would often talk throughout his songs while bringing elements of pop, rock, jazz, funk, reggae and French folk to create a unique sound that was both catchy and avant-garde. What is most known of Serge Gainsbourg’s songs are his provocative lyrics. He would often marry typical French popular music with taboo-breaking subject matter.
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg: How did they meet?
They first met in 1968. He was 40, she was 22 and she had just been cast in the French film “Slogan”, in which he played the lead. According to Jane Birkin, it was not love at first sight. "He had a bad reputation," she later said in an interview with The Guardian. "I thought he was disgusting!" Jane Birkin was already divorced, Serge Gainsbourg had just ended a relationship with the 60’s superstar, Brigitte Bardot. At the time, Jane Birkin’s French was far from perfect. This would often annoy Gainsbourg, who would not hold back any criticism towards her on set. The director, seeing that the on-camera chemistry wasn’t there between his leads, decided to set up a date between the two, off the clock. The rest is history…
Their romantic relationship started soon after filming wrapped up, and it was not long before their relationship began to attract attention from the French press. Jane Birkin was still largely unknown in France at the time, but her relationship with Serge Gainsbourg quickly put her into the spotlight. The French press was fascinated by the couple’s eccentricities, their unconventional relationship and their continued public displays of affection in front of the paparazzi.
In the years that followed, Birkin and Gainsbourg became inseparable, collaborating on music and film projects that would become legendary. In 1969, they recorded the duet "Je t'aime... moi non plus," which caused a scandal with its explicit lyrics and rather “sensual” delivery (we’ll let you be the judge of that!). Although the song was banned in several countries across Europe, it became an instant classic in France, and the song of the hippie years and the youth revolution that was taking place in France in the late 60’s. The song was initially recorded as a duet with Gainsbourg's former partner Brigitte Bardot, but when Bardot's husband threatened to sue, Serge Gainsbourg re-recorded the song with Jane Birkin.
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg continued to record together, producing albums such as "Lolita Go Home" and "Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg," which included hit songs like "La Décadanse" and "69 Année Érotique." Together, they created a string of groundbreaking albums and singles that blended Gainsbourg's signature wit and daring with Birkin's ethereal voice and feminine charm. They also appeared in films together, including "Je t'aime moi non plus," a controversial and often graphic love story directed by Serge Gainsbourg. The movie was banned in many countries, including the UK, but was a success in France. For her performance in the movie, Jane Birkin was nominated for a César Award.
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A tumultuous relationship but a lasting friendship
In 1971, Jane Birkin gave birth to their daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who would go on to become a successful actress and musician herself. But as their creative collaborations continued, the couple's personal relationship grew increasingly complicated. Serge Gainsbourg's heavy drinking and volatile behavior took a toll on Jane Birkin, and tabloïds would often write about the couple's separation then making up over the years. Jane Birkin, who had already achieved success as an actress and singer in her own right, was growing frustrated with Gainsbourg's control over her career and that she had to always be associated with his repeated provocation on French TV on very taboo social issues. She wanted to focus on her career and her children, while Gainsbourg was struggling to maintain his own creative output. Finally, in 1980, the couple ended their relationship for good.
Despite their difficulties, Birkin and Gainsbourg remained close until his death in 1991 at the age of 62. Although the separation had given her back the freedom she was looking for, Serge Gainsbourg left an incredible void in her life, as she described in an interview with The Guardian: “My world was left in chaos, silence and darkness. Serge is dead. Impossible... everything seems fuzzy but with the precision of a nightmare.”
Nowadays, Jane Birkin continues to perform and record music written by Gainsbourg, and released albums like "Lost Song" and "Arabesque," which paid tribute to her collaborations with Gainsbourg. She is still regularly touring and you can watch one of her latest concerts on TV5MONDEplus.
When she’s not singing, Jane Birkin spends her time helping humanitarian causes, particularly those related to the rights of refugees and migrants. She has worked with organizations such as the UN Refugee Agency and Amnesty International to raise awareness of the plight of displaced people around the world.
Jane Birkin has always been a fashion icon, collaborating with brands like Hermès, and she is now an outspoken advocate for sustainable fashion and environmentally friendly lifestyle choices.
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