What caused Whitney Houston to fall

Interview with Jane Birkin: "I didn't want to put icing on my daughter's death"

Literature & Music

  • Text: Jacqueline Krause-Blouin
  • Image: Nathaniel Goldberg

Art means making “something beautiful” out of pain, says Jane Birkin. There are many beautiful things on their new album. And that's actually sad.

"Allô, allô?" It sounds on the line. It really is: Jane Mallory Birkin - icon of the sixties, poet, half of the most scandalous couple in France, mother of three, namesake of the most famous handbag in the world - Queen of Everything. “Just don't ask me how many Birkin Bags I have - I only have one!” She giggles. Her smile is as bright as that of a teenager. But the eternal girl with the famous gap between the teeth is now 74 years old.

In the interview she is elated, but also often contradicts - and one thing is particularly noticeable: Birkin constantly plays down her work. It is thought-provoking when a legend like her blames others, mostly men, for their successes at every opportunity that presents itself. Sentences like "Serge made me good" or "I was nobody" are not saved. And unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be a question of coquetry. And then there is her daughter Kate Barry, about whom Birkin sings for the first time on her new album “Oh pardon, tu dormais”. Barry was found dead after falling from the fourth floor of her Paris apartment. One assumes suicide. That was seven years ago. She was 46. When her mother sings words like “catch me if you can” today, it hurts to listen. But when she asserts that as an artist you are obliged to make “something beautiful” out of your pain, you will believe her every word.

annabelle: Jane Birkin, I couldn't get one sentence on your new album out of my head: “Je voulais être une telle perfection pour toi” - I wanted to be so perfect for you. Who is meant?
Jane Birkin: The line is inspired by one of my theater roles and falls in the play after a terrible jealous drama. The character is then saddened that her lover has seen her as an uncontrolled monster and does everything to erase this memory in him. I can say that I have said this phrase at least three times in my life. But it was always too late. This feeling of wanting to be perfect for a man, even though I was far from it, has often accompanied me.

How does it feel when you see old pictures of yourself today?
I recently saw pictures of myself and John Barry, my first husband, and I barely recognized myself. In all honesty, nothing about me was real. My mouth, those big eyes, the blond hair - none of it corresponded to how I really looked, it was all painted.

It is often said that the pressure on young women is greater today than it used to be, because social media are used to focus even more on looks.
I don't think so. We all wanted to look like Twiggy or Jean Shrimpton in the sixties. And believe me: the pressure was enormous. Today women are much more self-confident and freer. There are girls who love other girls, there are girls who look like boys, there are girls who speak publicly about mental health problems, girls who walk around without makeup, girls who do makeup like professionals. My grandchildren showed me how to edit photos and optimize themselves, but apparently there are also these images that disappear after 24 hours. All of this is very mysterious to me.

Have you ever been able to get rid of this feeling of wanting to please everyone?
No, absolutely not. The only solution for me is not to be in love with anyone. When I'm not in love, I don't feel the pressure to be perfect for someone. So at the moment this question does not arise for me. Luckily. What a relief!

Modest to self-negation: Jane Birkin, Queen of Everything

Image: Nathaniel Goldberg

Modest to self-negation: Jane Birkin, Queen of Everything

Image: Nathaniel Goldberg

Even so, on your new album you sing about how they envy the lovers in the park.
When you're in love it's hell, and when you're not, you wish to be. When I see couples kissing, my heart is pinching and I think: I still know how it feels. So beautiful when you are the only person in the whole world for someone. And when you can't even get your coat off before you start because of all the passion. But we all know this won't last. When I hear sentences like "Love changes and becomes something new", I can only laugh mockingly. We all want the urgency of the first time.

Are you done with love?
Not really. But I don't meet anyone. Or maybe yes. I dont know. Hmm Maybe.

They also sing "if you don't love me, I don't love myself anymore".
Yeah, pretty good line, right?

Have you managed to love yourself no matter which man loves you?
No, because it doesn't matter. I only live for the eyes of others. What am I supposed to love myself? I'm old anyway and it's not so much fun to look at myself anymore. But at least I'm still funny. I just need someone to feel complete. I'm not saying that's right, but that's the way it is. My daughter Lou would get angry again at such statements.

Would you say that you and Serge Gainsbourg created each other?
No, he was an amazing person long before I even stepped into his life. Even back when Brigitte Bardot fell in love with him. I, on the other hand, was a nobody. He gave me his prime. I didn't create anything on him, he was his own invention and no one will ever be like him. It is very rare for a poet to be not only melancholy but also incredibly funny. I really like the way Bob Dylan writes, but I don't think he's having much fun with him. Serge always made me laugh. The problem with him was his love for alcohol. And that also sealed the end of our love. That and the fact that I met Jacques Doillon and was at a point in my life where I thought I could start all over again.

What was it like working with Brigitte Bardot?
Wonderful, she was a darling!

«I only live for the eyes of others. What am I supposed to love myself? "

Even though you were your successor?
Yes, there was no trace of resentment, Brigitte was very sweet, had absolutely zero ambition to make this film, and really just wanted her after-work drink every day.

I think it's weird playing a bed scene with my husband's ex.
Why weird? Serge was the greatest artist of our time and Brigitte Bardot the most beautiful woman on the planet. What's weird is that Serge fell in love with me after Bardot! It was stupid of her to leave Serge for the terrible Gunter Sachs.

They are said to have refused to sing “Je t’aime… moi non plus” with her on set.
Oh, I can't remember exactly. I only remember that we had to shoot the bed scene and ask the director what exactly we should be doing. He just said: "You know, just start!" Bardot suggested we sing “Je t’aime… moi non plus”, but I just started singing “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean” (laughs). It was definitely hard for her - Serge had written “Je t'aime… moi non plus” for her, they sang it in his little studio, totally in love, and shortly before Serge wanted to release it, Bardot forbade him and left to Gunter Sachs. Then I came, sang it and the song became a number 1 hit all over the world - but it was her song! You once said that Serge Gainsbourg was a genius and that you were just plain good-looking yourself.

Why were you so unsure, even though you had already achieved so much?
It wasn't flirtatious, it was the truth. Between the ages of twenty and thirty, I mostly looked good and made stupid comedy films. I was pretty and funny to look at, that was it. As I got older, I cut my hair short, made more serious films, acted in theater, started singing properly, and things got more interesting. Serge wrote “Histoire de Melody Nelson” while I was just producing garbage.

Why did it take so long for you to be taken seriously as an artist?
Because I wasn't one before. Again, I was a pretty, funny, sexy thing with a goofy accent. For many it was a surprise that I was able to carry the demanding films by Godard or Agnes Varda - mostly for myself. The posters for my first concert at the Bataclan said, “Will she really make it?”. Later I was invited to the Cannes Film Festival because I was in films that had been nominated, before I was only there because the parties were good (laughs). It's exciting how life often takes another turn when you're in your forties.

This annoying cliché that beautiful artists have to cut their hair and remove make-up in order to be taken seriously persists.
Yes, it was actually like that for me. I was just thinking: If I don't look like anything, then they don't look at me and instead finally listen. That worked. I don't know how my daughters did it. Lou is so beautiful, but the people on the street always speak to her about her music, not how she looks. It was different for me. I was overshadowed by the divine Serge. And rightly so.

Gainsbourg was a provocateur. Do you think it would be difficult for him to live in this day and age when everyone is constantly outraged?
Who knows. We were always outraged (laughs). “Je t’aime… moi non plus” was censored by the Pope. Or I think of the moment when Serge said "I want to fuck you" to young Whitney Houston live on state television. He was a little out of control at the time because I left him and he lost his family. He just wanted to provoke one scandal after another. But at least he was authentic.

You continued to sing Gainsbourg's songs even after you separated. Kind of bizarre singing about the heartache you caused yourself, isn't it?
Yes, that was awfully difficult and strange. But I felt so guilty that I had to do it - I had caused enough pain already. I also believe that you have to turn grief into something beautiful.

What was it like for you to unite children and your career back then?
Well, when I got on the set of "Swimmingpool", the director Jacques Deray yelled at me because I had my child with me. I thought that wasn't a problem because Alain Delon and Romy Schneider brought their children with them too. But in the film I was supposed to be 17 and untouched and Deray was afraid that journalists would see me with my child and that would destroy the illusion. I locked myself in and cried until Romy came and comforted me. She got Deray to apologize. I should have taken my children with me much more often, I see my daughter Charlotte do it for granted, and I admire her for it.

You think it gets better from generation to generation for working mothers?
Yes. My mother told me earlier that I was very privileged to be able to combine my job and family so well. As a young mother, she was offered a role on Broadway that she was dying to take on. But my father forbade her because he had already rented a house for the Easter holidays (laughs). I would have told him something else! But my mother didn't have the money or the confidence to do her own thing. I think she regretted that later.

"I was a pretty, funny, sexy thing with a stupid accent"

How was it for you to grow up with a famous mother?
Why do you think I fled England? Just because my mother was so beautiful and popular. And because she was a celebrity at the theater, I stayed away from the stage for a long time. Anyway, in the sixties we didn't want to have anything to do with the past. We didn't want to look like our mothers with their fourties looks, I wore mini skirts and straight hair! I always wonder that young people are so nostalgic for the sixties - we were so arrogant when we were young and only interested in new things, in what we created ourselves.

How can you imagine everyday family life in the Gainsbourg / Birkin house?
Serge and I were out until five every night and got home just in time to have breakfast with the kids and take them to school. We slept during the day and eventually picked them up from school, played with them in the park, and then went out again in the evening. I don't know if that was best for the kids, but it was a lot of fun for me! Serge was always very dominant, he decided what his day should be like, and the children had to submit to it. Today it is often the other way around.

On your new album, you speak for the first time about the death of your daughter Kate seven years ago. Why were you ready now?
I dealt with pain on this album, so it would have been a lie not to address my daughter's death. It took seven years to halfway grasp that loss. I couldn't even talk about it before. When I was on tour, I came back to the hotel crying and met my musical director Étienne Daho. I had seen a pedicure set and suddenly remembered Kate's feet. That's when I collapsed. He said to me, "Jane, you have to write about it." My first song about Kate was "Cigarettes". At first I was a little bit worried because the song sounds a lot like Kurt Weill and the melody is so lively.

Were you afraid it might shock?
Yes, but it still felt right. It's shocking too! I think of their beautiful feet and then I remember where they are now. Or her beautiful ash blonde hair and then I remember it was stuck to her bloodied face the last time I saw her. It's still a shock and you can hear that in the music too. I didn't want to put icing on my daughter's death. I often listen to the album when I'm alone, but I always skip this song, it hurts too much. The album is a lot about death, "Jeux interdits" tells of how my two daughters often played in the cemetery. And “Ghosts” and “Catch Me if You Can” are also about Kate - she is very present on this album. She is beautiful to talk about, but it doesn't make anything better and it doesn't make anything worse (her voice breaks for a moment).

In the song you wonder if maybe your daughter's death was just a stupid accident. Are you pursuing this question?
It's a riddle. Charlotte initially believed that there must have been someone else in the apartment pushing her. There are so many questions. If she was just trying to ventilate the cigarette smoke, why did she move the desk to one side? She was preparing food for her boyfriend and his two children. Why then? I will never know Kate was not always easy to get along with. The day before her death I asked her if she would like to come on tour with me because she had recently had a serious breakup and had moved and I was afraid that she would be sad on her own. But she assured me that everything was fine and that she had to work. Kate had mood swings, sometimes she was extremely upbeat and then really, really sad, that was part of her character, just like her father.

Do you believe in the afterlife?
No. But I like the idea that people never really go away and sniff around as ghosts and one day take us away - like Peter Pan.

You have been in the hospital a lot lately, has the diagnosis of leukemia changed your attitude towards death?
No, I didn't take it all that seriously. I had a lot of fun with the nurses and doctors and didn't want to worry about what exactly leukemia is. I know that I'm going to die, and I once mentioned it to a friend in passing. She cried so much afterwards that I decided not to talk about it anymore. The doctors have found temporary solutions to my illness and I have confidence in them.

What's good about getting older?
I have no idea.Basically just that you can compliment young men on how they look without them feeling bothered.

Jacqueline Krause-Blouin

Editor-in-chief

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