Stars aligned for Anglo-French liaison

Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s romance captivated France, says Samantha David

21 March 2018
The couple out for a drive to Blenheim Palace, near Oxford
By Samantha David

The love affair between Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg is perhaps one of the most legendary of the late 20th century, encapsulating much of the fascination between the British and the French. He was a bohemian musician from a Jewish family, crumpled and unshaven; she was a skinny British actress with the face of an innocent angel.

When they met in 1968, on the set of the film Slogan, the chemistry was immediate. “He’s horrible,” she is reported to have told her brother Andrew. “He’s arrogant and snobbish and he absolutely despises me!”

The spark soon turned into a blazing inferno; the following year they released their iconic collaboration Je t’aime, moi non plus, which Gainsbourg had originally written for his ex-lover Brigitte Bardot. The explicit content of the track scandalised Europe; the Pope condemned it and the BBC banned it. But, of course, it went straight to the top of the charts – and has remained popular ever since.

Over the next decade the pair collaborated on various creative projects. Their daughter Charlotte was born in 1971, after which Birkin returned to work as an actress. Individually and separately they achieved success, becoming one of the most famous media couples in France during the 1970s.

Gainsbourg’s drinking was becoming increasingly heavy, however, and eventually, in 1980, Birkin left him for film director Jacques Doillon.

In 1981, Gainsbourg married French actress Bambou (aka Caroline Von Paulus) but his health was failing and in 1991 he died of a heart attack, aged 62. According to her brother, Birkin was devastated by the news, which contributed to the collapse of her relationship with Jacques Doillon in the mid-90s. Since then, she has lived alone. Her daughter with Serge, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is one of France’s leading singers and actresses.

Throughout her relationship with Gainsbourg, Birkin remained close to her brother Andrew, a photographer and film director, and his photographs of the pair were collected into a book, Jane and Serge, A Family Album published in 2013 by Taschen. This book is the basis for an exhibition Andrew Birkin’s photographs at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Calais, which runs from April 7 until November 4.

Pictured above: Serge and Jane posing for a French magazine in 1969

Shazia Boucher, the curator of the exhibition, says that the public’s enduring fascination with Jane and Serge is due to a variety of factors. “Their relationship was incredibly public, even before the era of internet and social media. No detail was hidden, so people felt they were like family. On the other hand, they were incredibly beautiful, glamorous, attractive people. It was easy to fall in love with them. But what has made them enduring is their talent.”

The collective memory of Jane and Serge, she says, is like a wonderful dream, although under the surface there was a much darker side. Gainsbourg was an alcoholic, prone to erratic behaviour, particularly in the years leading up to his premature death, and his relationship with Jane lasted just over a decade.

Gainsbourg’s talent was extraordinary. A trained classical musician, he revolutionised French popular music, writing around 550 songs over his lifetime along with film scores and other music which continues to inspire musicians and artists today.  

“Their story is continued by their daughter Charlotte, and also by Jane’s daughter, Lou Doillon.” (Birkin’s eldest daughter Kate Barry committed suicide in 2013.) “So it still hasn’t stopped. Charlotte synthesises her parents; their talent and their glamorous looks. So the entire family remains intriguing.”

She says that their relationship has a particular resonance in Calais, which has always been something of a hinge between England and France. “It’s an Anglo-French love affair.” The expo, she says, is also a hinge between the past and the present, a man and a woman.

“The English influence has enriched Calais over the centuries. Now there are difficulties with immigrants but in fact, Calais has a long-established relationship with England. So it feels completely natural to have the Jane and Serge exhibition here in Calais.”

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