Jane Birkin certainly had that je ne sais quoi. The London-born, Paris-based musician, actor, activist and model enjoyed a hugely prolific career across six decades. She was also the ultimate style icon, the originator of French girl cool. With the sad news that she has passed away at the age of 76, we look back at Jane Birkin’s life and why she was affectionately known as “la petite Anglaise” in her adopted France.
“When you start recognising that you’re having fun, life can be delightful,” Jane Birkin once said. The English-French singer-songwriter, actor and activist, who sadly passed away at the weekend at the age of 76 at her home in Paris, certainly lived a colourful life.
“Because she embodied freedom, because she sang the most beautiful words of our language, Jane Birkin was a French icon. A complete artist, her voice was as sweet as her engagements were fiery. She bequeaths us tunes and images that will never leave us,” President Macron tweeted on Sunday.
Birkin was born in Marylebone, London, in December 1946 and raised in Chelsea. At the tender age of 17, she met the James Bond composer John Barry, whom she married in 1965, going on to have a daughter Kate two years later. Marrying young and becoming a mother did not stop Birkin from throwing herself into London’s Singing Sixties scene, where she pursued a career in acting.
She made her screen debut in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s Blow-Up in 1966, before crossing the Channel to star in the 1968 film Slogan. It was here she met co-star Serge Gainsbourg (she divorced Barry in the same year). On paper they were no match. She was the English rose, elegant, beautiful, a free spirit… he was an unkempt, rough-round-the-edges artist and 18 years her senior.
And yet they fell head over heels in love, enjoying a 12-year relationship. Birkin moved to France – later becoming a French citizen – and the couple started working together, famously recording Je t’aime… moi non plus in 1969. The erotic song with its suggestive lyrics (it was originally written by Gainsbourg for Brigitte Bardot, but she thought it too scandalous) immediately caused controversy, condemned by the Vatican and banned from the radio in many countries. Despite this, it catapulted the duo to stardom, and they went on to collaborate many times over the following decade, both musically and on screen.
France’s most famous couple were revered as much for their bohemian lifestyle and effortlessly cool aesthetic as their work. In 1971 Birkin had a daughter with Serge – the actor and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg – and the glamorous family were often spotted on sun-soaked vacations in the South of France.
Whether on the beach in Cannes or lunching at Club 55, Birkin’s style was faultless. Sexy, laidback and yet unfailingly chic, she was as elegant in a pair of high-waisted denim flares and unbuttoned white shirt, a woven basket bag on her arm, her hair artfully tousled as only French women know how, as she was in the shimmying Paco Rabanne designs that she so loved. Shrunken tee-shirts, babydoll crochet dresses, striped Breton sweaters… all were given the Birkin touch. “She set a style example for a generation of women,” the designer Anna Sui said after her passing.
But behind the facade, Gainsbourg’s alcoholism and violence made him “a very difficult man to live with” Birkin once said, and in 1980 they separated. Two years later, Birkin had her third daughter, the musician and actress Lou Doillon, with director Jacques Doillon. Again, sadly, the relationship did not last, and they separated in the 1990s.
Indeed, it was not long after she had Lou, that Jane Birkin had a chance encounter with Jean-Louis Dumas on a flight. Explaining to the CEO of Hermès that she couldn’t find a bag suitable for her needs as a young mother, it inspired him to create something that was suitable for globetrotting women. The prototype – a roomy rectangular leather holdall – went on to become one of the most in-demand accessories in the world – the Hermès Birkin bag.
Though Birkin is often defined by her passionate relationship with Gainsbourg, and the anecdote of the Hermès Birkin bag is well documented, this is to do her a huge injustice. She forged her own path throughout her six-decade career, recording no less than 20 albums in that unique, whispery voice for which she was so famous.
She also appeared in more than 65 films, a list that is as varied as it is exemplary. From her early roles in the likes of La Piscine and Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye to later appearances in Evil Under the Sun and La belle noiseuse, she has always captivated on screen, earning three Cesar nominations. Her modelling career was equally illustrious, with Birkin recently appearing in a campaign for Saint Laurent as the face of the maison’s iconic Le Smoking tuxedo at the age of 69.
She was also a prolific social and political activist, using her platform to campaign voraciously for Amnesty International, Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, women’s and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and the fight against AIDs, amongst other things. “You can always do something,” she once said, when involved with an Amnesty campaign against torture. “You can say, ‘I am not OK with that.’”
Until recently, Birkin showed no signs of slowing down. Just last summer she was touring with her latest album Oh! Pardon tu dormais… Described as her most intimate and open album yet, it touches on not just her past with Gainsbourg, but also the death of her photographer daughter Kate, who fell from the window of her apartment in Paris in 2013. Raw and hauntingly beautiful, it is an extraordinarily honest document. ‘I didn’t know how to make it otherwise,’ she said at the time of its release. ‘I’ve always been attached to personal songs written by others.’
She had also been promoting her daughter Charlotte’s directorial debut and exploration into her mother’s life, Jane by Charlotte. The film – which premiered at Cannes, comprises a series of conversations between the two women, as they reminisce about the past, capturing Birkin as a mother, wife and artist “with the eye of the daughter.”
When not working, Birkin spent time between her beloved Paris and a house in Brittany, where she spent many happy hours with her bulldog Dolly and her grandchildren, rock pooling on the beach. “If you fall in love with a country and its people, that makes any country warm to you,” she once said. Jane Birkin may have been France’s favourite “petite Anglaise” but it is a sad adieu for all of us.