It’s difficult to take in the fact that it’s 50 years since that breathy moaning on Je t’aime…moi non plus (I love you…neither do I) shocked and thrilled a generation. The record was banned by the BBC and condemned by the Vatican. It was a huge hit and Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg were catapulted onto the world stage.
I’m standing in the Museum of Fine Arts in Calais at the exhibition Jane & Serge, a Family Album where Jane Birkin and her brother Andrew, surrounded by Jane’s family and staff and her bulldog, are talking to a group of French and British journalists. Jane is a slight figure, dressed in blue jeans and a black sweater, a gamin with an upper-crust English accent that becomes subtly French when she can’t translate a word or expression into English. She is also very funny, with a down-to-earth attitude that you don’t expect from such a fêted French icon.
What was Serge like? “He could be fairly impossible” she says with that familiar gap-toothed grin and a slight – but undeniably – Gallic shrug. They were certainly very different; Serge came from a Russian-Jewish émigré family, Jane from a comfortable middle-class background. She was 20 years his junior. He was moody, intense, melancholy; she took a quieter role. “He was a genius writer; I was just pretty”, is her take on the relationship.
The two met on the set of the French film Slogan. Serge was already the darling of the French intellectual scene with a slew of songs, lyrics and music to his name. Jane had an established acting career which included her nude appearance in Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-up.
Andrew met Serge at around the same time. A screenwriter and film director, he had worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey and with the Beatles on Magical Mystery Tour. He became incredibly close to Serge and Jane who said “I fell in love with Serge, Andrew fell in love with Serge, Serge fell in love with Andrew, we were a trio, in Yugoslavia, France, Spain, Italy. Andrew came with us everywhere, and, with his camera, our joy, our laughter, our total surprise was recorded by him”.
The exhibition is a seductive mix of around 60 of Andrew’s photographs, films and videos, postcards and a few cameras. It mainly covers the 60s and 70s though it touches on their lives before and after the love affair ended in 1981.
Andrew had been taking photographs of Jane for years; now he took magazine shots and spectacular, intimate family images of the pair. They show an enchantingly young Jane with an ingenuous smile and the man who the French press described as l’homme à tête de chou (the man with the cabbage head). They’re by a hot dog stand, kissing in the back of a car, at Jane’s house in Normandy, entertaining friends. She’s at a fashion shoot; he’s embracing his dog Nana.
In 1972 Serge had his first heart attack partly brought on by excessive drinking and smoking. Jane left him in August 1980 due to drinking and his obsessive character and moods that were as black as his Paris house.
Despite the split, Serge continued to write songs for Jane. The album Baby Alone in Babylon is still the album she loves the best. Was he trying to get her back? I ask. “Oh no”, she says emphatically.
Andrew flourished in the film world, adapting Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose then working on Perfume and The Cement Garden. He vividly remembered the last time he saw Serge. He brought a bottle of rare absinthe round to the house; Serge put on a video then fell asleep and Andrew left. Serge died on March 2, 1991 from a second, fatal heart attack.
Jane has given readings of his written works and continues to talk about Serge on videos and tv. She is currently seducing the world once again with orchestral versions of his songs, in London, New York and, of course, France.
I left a little wiser about these two extraordinary artists who burnt a brief trail through my young universe but wanting to discover more beyond Je t’aime…moi non plus. What a successful exhibition.
Jane & Serge, a Family Album by Andrew Birkin is at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Calais until 4 November 2018.
60 exhibition photographs are reproduced in Jane & Serge, a Family Album by Andrew Birkin, Taschen, Cologne, 2013.