Jane, Je T’Aime

18th July 2023

The pop-culture scene in France, when I lived there in the early 90s, was more culture than pop. 

Having been raised on a diet of Bananrama and Hot Gossip, there seemed something strange in the French celebrity press. Rather than the pursuit of youth, on which I was breast-fed, French icons seemed decidedly old. 

Johnny Hallyday – of an age with my mother – was regularly clad in leather, on a motorbike, on the front of supermarket magazines. Bardot, then approaching 60, was another bosomy, up-do regular – increasingly famous for protesting (immigrant policies) and supporting (animal rights) than for acting. Perched on a chair in the golden hour of a Côte d’Azur evening, Brigitte was a rose-hued, over-wrought, crackpot meringue.

Then there was Serge. 

Gainsbourg had cast a spell over the French, and in 1990 I wondered why. Superficially, he presented as anti-hero. Old, grumpy, ugly, smoking, and endlessly chewing on sarcasm. It seemed that the algorithm of French culture was fully eluding me. 

And then, at the age of 62, he died. 

It was a Saturday when the news came out, and I watched telly as France sank into a weekend of overwhelming sorrow. An emperor had fallen. 

Gainsbourg’s music filled the airwaves, his lyrics were deconstructed and freshly examined. A friend had given me a book of Serge’s songs. That weekend I pulled it out, and began to read. 

I was 25 years old when I was properly introduced to Serge Gainsbourg – this garrulous, provocative, angry, amusing, insightful musical genius of France’s post-war culture. 

I realise now that he was staging the protest that I had yet to know in my own soul – that rejection of propriety and suppression of nature which traps people, cleaving their private and public lives apart, and forcing a secret life to make up the difference. 

Gainsbourg provoked through beauty – his wonderful melodies, his soaring orchestrations, his cleverly alluring words. He was a woman’s man, and seemed always to have a famous beauty wrapped around his insouciant, smoking frame. 

And as I grew to love Serge, I grew to love Jane. 

Jane Birkin was a British actress who, herself, loved to provoke – albeit in a more classic manner. To her first film premiere with Gainsbourg (Slogan, 1969) at the age of 22, Birkin – an effortlessly elegant waif with imperfectly perfect teeth – wore a sheer dress which was more idea than reality. 

Fresh off the Dover mailboat, she became embroiled with the drunken, rebellious poet at the centre of France’s pop-culture. The previous year (1968), they had recorded what would become their most famous and scandalous duet.  

‘Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus’ is a song for the ages. 

It speaks of lust in the language of love, and rejoices in detailing sexual acts which, to the outrage of the Vatican, veered from positions missionary. Gainsbourg had already recorded it with another nubile lover, Bardot, in 1967 – but it had not seen the light due to the latter’s displeased husband.  

Play the song! Play it now! 

It remains so seductive and oh so modern. And through it all, the super-high, clear, sonorous little voice of Jane Birkin shines forth. 

In a melody of breathtaking beauty, she is no second fiddle to the man beckoning her to the sheets. On the contrary, she narrates what will take place in exacting detail, and the extent to which it will deliver pleasure. Time and again Gainsbourg negates what Birkin has to say; sardonically, in a manner so enthralling that one easily feels part of an aural threesome.

Je t’aime (I love you). Moi non plus (Me neither).

I love that it was a scandalous song. I love that it reached Number 1 in the UK. I love that the Pope decried it. I love that Jane was no surrendered woman in its storyline. 

Birkin was the most English Frenchwoman I knew. She spoke français with imperfect perfection, and towards the end of her life, spoke English with French cadence. 

After they divorced, under circumstances of violence and booze, she held constant to her love of Gainsbourg – the man and artist – and held the values of family at the centre of how she organised her life and children after he was gone. 

Her effortless pragmatic chic became the brief which directly gave rise to the Birkin bag. That simple hand-stitched tote would become a global hit for Hermès, in yet another genre of art touched by Jane. 

She was an important voice in France, with the cut of a woman who had seen things, and the intellect of one who saw events with an outsider’s insight. All the while, the Catholic Church slowly imploded under its own repressed sexual obsessions, presided over by a Vatican in denial.

Jane Birkin (76) died in Paris last weekend. Many of her peers, and one of her daughters, have gone before her.

But the Crackpot Meringue (88) is still with us. Outspoken as always, she found a moment of nostalgia before moving to political point-scoring [which I will here pass over]. 

Bardot’s tweet honours the Englishwoman whose voice stood for a certain way of being French.

“Jane is gone. When one is so pretty, so fresh, so spontaneous, with a child’s voice, one has no right to die.”

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