London-born singer and actress Jane Birkin died Sunday at the age of 76, according to sources close to her and police. She was an icon in her adopted France, known for her turbulent relationship with French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, who was 18 years her senior.
A resident of France since the late 1960s, Birkin was known as l’Anglaise pr?f?r?e des Fran?ais (France’s favourite Englishwoman).
“This death is so sad. She was a beautiful person,” former culture minister Roselyne Bachelot told BFM TV.
French media reported that she was found dead at her home by her caregiver.
Birkin crossed the Channel in 1968 at the age of 22 to star in a film alongside Serge Gainsbourg. It was the start of a 13-year relationship that made them France‘s most famous couple, in the spotlight as much for their bohemian and hedonistic lifestyle as for their work.
With her doe eyes, soft voice and androgynous silhouette, she quickly became a sex symbol, recording a steamy duet with Gainsbourg in 1969 entitled, “Je t’aime … moi non plus” (I love you … me neither).
Banned on radio in several countries and condemned by the Vatican, the song was a worldwide success.
Despite their famously turbulent relationship, Birkin often spoke fondly of Gainsbourg.
“He and I became the most famous of couples in that strange way because of ‘Je t’aime’, and because we stuck together for 13 years and he went on being my friend until the day he died,” Birkin told CNN in 2006. “Who could ask for more?”
“Paris became my home. I’ve been adopted here. They like my accent,” she said.
Famed Song: Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus (I Love You…. Me Neither)
Pie in the face
Birkin was born in London on December 14, 1946, to a naval officer and an actress.
At 17 she married John Barry, the famed composer of several James Bond theme songs, with whom she had a daughter, Kate. But the marriage lasted only three years.
Her film debut in 1966 made waves with a full-frontal nude scene in the swinging ’60s classic “Blow Up” by Michelangelo Antonioni.
After meeting Gainsbourg, who was 18 years her senior, in 1968 on the set of a romantic comedy – he was her co-star – she moved permanently to France, where she would remain for most of her life.
Their musical and romantic relationship was tempestuous. During one of their raging rows, Birkin tossed herself into the River Seine after throwing a custard pie in Gainsbourg’s face.
They had a daughter, Charlotte, who herself became a hugely successful actress and singer.
Birkin finally walked out on France’s favourite bad boy in 1980 and went on to blaze her own trail.
Life after Gainsbourg
In Birkin’s approximately 70 films she was directed by some of France’s – and the world’s – leading directors, including Bertrand Tavernier, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, James Ivory and Agnes Varda.
But, she remained forever associated with Gainsbourg, who continued to write songs for her after their split, including “Les dessous chic” (Chic underwear) about lingerie being used to try cover up a relationship on the rocks.
“It’s the most beautiful song about separation you could ever have,” Birkin told AFP in a 2018 interview.
A chronic alcoholic, Gainsbourg died of a heart attack in 1991 aged 62.
A few years earlier he was in the audience to hear Birkin perform her first solo concert at the age of 40 at the Bataclan theatre in Paris.
In 1998 came her first record without Gainsbourg, “? la l?g?re” (Lightly).
She wrote her own album “Arabesque” in 2002 and in 2009 released a collection of live recordings, “Jane at the Palace”.
‘Jane B’ – from Jane Birkin
But she repeatedly returned to Gainsbourg’s repertoire, singing his hits accompanied by a full orchestra around the world, including in 2020 in New York where she performed with Iggy Pop.
The English rose of French chanson became something of a national treasure, one whose foreign accent made the French swoon and gave her an endearing air of fragility in her adopted country.
But for all her success, her life was also marked by tragedy. Her eldest daughter Kate Barry, a photographer, reportedly committed suicide in 2013 after falling from the fourth floor of her Paris apartment.
She also fought leukemia in the late 1990s
and suffered a minor stroke in 2021 that forced her to cancel an appearance at the American Film Festival in Deauville, France.
The Birkin bag
With her flared jeans, mini-dresses and messy bangs, Birkin was an “It girl” in the 1970s.
In 1984, Herm?s named one of its handbags after her. In July 2015 Birkin asked Herm?s to remove her name from the iconic bag, one of its best-sellers, over what she called “cruel” crocodile farming and slaughtering practices.
“I have asked Herm?s to rename the Birkin Croco until they adopt better practices that meet international standards for the production of this bag,” Birkin said in a media statement at the time.
She was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2001 for her services to acting and British-French cultural relations.
Besides Charlotte and Kate she had another daughter, singer Lou Doillon, from her 13-year relationship with French director Jacques Doillon.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and Reuters)