Jane, Champion:
Inspiration Behind Birkin Bag Spills

by Tony Phillips

Be described as “gamine.” Appear in Antonioni’s seminal fashion text: the 1964 Cannes-winning film Blow Up. Be banned by the Vatican. Model. Have a daughter who also acts. Puzzle over “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” working for most, while “Six Degrees of Roger Vadim” doesn’t. Cancel a wedding in order to avoid a “media circus.” Have a comeback. Have a gay best friend. Appear nude. Become politically active almost to the point of embarrassing friends and award presenters. Be one half of a “power couple.” Provide the namesake for a handbag that’s become the raision d’etre for fashionista programming like Sex and the City. Expatriate.

Jane Birkin’s life reads much like the ticks on a Diva 101 checklist, but it’s this last item which stands to make her more relevant to America’s two-term Bush reality than her mini-skirt and close-cropped hair Chelsea girl uniform made her in 60s “Swinging London.” Born well-heeled into the Brit family of Major David Birkin and West End actress Judy Campbell, Birkin enjoyed privilege, but worked hard to debut as a dramatic actress playing a deaf-mute in Graham Greene’s Carving A Statue in London’s West End when she was only seventeen. Her singing debut followed shortly thereafter in the summer of ’65 when she starred in John Barry’s dud musical Passion Flower Hotel which ran for six months at London’s Prince of Wales Theater.

But life wasn’t all work. Birkin had a scandalous reputation as “The Talk of London” to maintain. She married “James Bond Theme” composer John Barry when she was 19 and scored controversy number one rolling around the studio floor wearing just a miniskirt in Antonioni’s Palme d’Or winner Blow Up. The pubic pioneer simultaneously became the first female to immortalizing her bush in British film. But life didn’t imitate art and her first marriage fizzled by the time she moved to Paris in 1969. Still, the Birkin/Barry union lasted twice as long as their musical theater collaboration and in 1967 produced daughter Kate Barry who works as a fashion photographer today.

Though the move to Paris scarcely seemed like expatriation at the time, the change did her good. She met rough and tumble Slavic pop star Serge Gainsbourg during a screen test for Pierre Grimblat’s Slogan in which they later starred. Despite the double-rebound, he from no less than Brigitte Bardot, it was “Me Svengali, you Jane” from Slogan forward. Birkin brought the upper crust accent, Gainsbourg supplied the dandified addictive personality while their sexually explicit 1969 hit single “Je t'Aime…Moi Non Plus” — rumored to have been captured by a tape recorder under their bed — cemented the couple’s place as A List Parisians and they made beautiful music together for the next twelve years in a decadent domestic bliss that could only be called sleazy chic.

When Birkin returns to her suite at The Mayflower on the Park in Manhattan, casually dressed in jeans, boots and smart cashmere sweater, there is a flurry of activity that she’s creating and also starring in. She hauls a scuffed bag stuffed to brimming with notepads, another sweater and something that requires an extension cord that’s half-in and half-out of the bag. “It certainly is,” she replies to whether this is the famous Birkin bag. “And it’s a dead weight.” Hermes Chairman Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermes designed it for her after she dumped the contents of her old bag onto his lap and spent the duration of a long haul flight they shared complaining about the design of her purse.

And her Birkin bag is precisely who she is: familiar, beat-up, but upbeat with engineering that cannot be ignored. If she were American, she’d be Carly Simon. If she stayed put, Sarah Brightman. In her defense, she’s so well-known in France — during our conversation she casually refers to Gainsbourg as “a national hero” — she just assumes the public already knows and wants to know more. Her energy is currently being directed to retrieving a squawking pager buried deep in the Hermesian abyss. She fishes it out and proudly reads aloud the page from her second daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, from the Gainsbourg union. Charlotte has pursued acting and the page details an afternoon audition parlayed into a lunch at which she consumed too much wine. “Drunk,” Birkin beams, “how like her mom.”

The 58-year-old, notorious insomniac and mother of three rapid-fire covers the Butterfly Theory: “Why do people turn left or right? Whatever happens when you leave the hotel — whether the car shows up or your next date is going to be there or not — our lives will change in the next two seconds. In fact, your life was already changed and so was mine because we came into this interview today. We all come from different places.” Then she’s onto Sir John Gielgud sneering “am-bi-tious” upon learning Patrice Chereau cast her as the Comtesse in La Fausse Suivante: “I am rather terrified by stars and potentially vicious people who have a sharp tongue and will suddenly cut you down.” Which brings her around to her new film Merci Docteur Rey, written for her by gay best friend and fellow Parisian ex-pat Andrew Litvack. who then cast her opposite heavy-hitters like Diane Wiest and Vanessa Redgrave: “The English would say it’s very English, the French would say it’s very French and the Americans would say it’s very odd.”

The same goes triple for Birkin. But how does one achieve what she calls “the strange accident” of not being home anywhere, but being at home everywhere? “I was frightened of grand people,” she admits, “my mother was a grand person. That’s why I went to France. She was so magnificent and beautiful; I couldn’t have done a career next door. She might say, ‘This is my territory’ and yet no one could be more loving. She’s the person who started me off in it.” Then Birkin casually mentions, “She’s just died.” Scant weeks before our interview, the 60-year Brit theater veteran passed at 88. She was set to star in the film Boxes with Birkin at the helm. Daughter directing mother for the first time was a month away. “I love her,” Birkin adds, “but realize she and my father were very imposing people. My chance was to get away.”

Yet her art is generated from that loss. Her second marriage ended in 1981 when she left Gainsbourg for director Jacques Doillon, turning sideways to present an in vitro parting shot of her third daughter, Lon Doillon. The scheming director returned the favor leaving her for an already-pregnant mistress when the two split in 1991. That same year, both Gainsbourg and Birkin’s father died within days of one another, yet she honored a prior engagement at the Casino de Paris just months after her triple loss and the results are still talked about today. Birkin and Gainsbourg remained friends after their split and he continued writing music for her — even doodling album covers — right up until his death. In fact, her current tour is culled from classic Gainsbourg repertoire like “C'est Comme Ca,” “Baby Alone in Babylone” and “Les Dessous Chics” reworked for maximum Arabic flavor by Algerian violinist Djamel Benyelles. The project began in 1999 when Birkin with an hour slot at the Avignon Festival beamed out live by tastemaker radio station France Culture. Birkin’s been touring it ever since, releasing a studio album in 2002 and a live DVD/CD this year.

In fact, “works harder” could tag the Birkin brand. “I’ve never been as good as other actresses,” she admits, “I’ve never won prizes, but you want to hear that you can sing well. Not that you haven’t got much of a voice, but you were very charming. No! If I tried that hard on Serge’s songs it’s because I want to say they’re wonderful, but also I am singing them pretty well by now.” The specific choice of Arab arrangements is just another indicator of being at home in the world.

Even her split with Doillon reinforced that global idea. In a way that makes one sure she’s joking, she says the two-timing “made me want to go to Sarajevo and get into a tank. I didn’t care what happened. I was at last on the road to doing something my father would have done.” The punchline? She actually went to Bosnia and got in a tank in the spring of '94 when the French humanitarian association Paris-Sarajevo-Europe brought her along and she helped distribute books, records and computer software to the war-torn city in her own tank. In addition to 70 films in 30 years and a tour schedule that makes Cher look like a lazy bird, Birkin finds time to be incredibly noisy about everything from defending illegal immigrants to the French "3,000 scénarios contre un virus" AIDS project. She even shot a short doc about a young female Filipino political prisoner for Amnesty International.

“It’s possible to be happier in a foreign land,” Birkin sums, “no one’s got tabs on you. You can do things, but they do turn up. My mother once asked, ‘Was it really essential to do nude photographs tied to a radiator?’ I didn’t think it would come out in England. How naïve can you be?” That’s not exactly a rhetorical question. “My mother turned down a play with Peter O’Toole because she had to say fuck,” Birkin recalls, “she had to fit with my father’s slot of what was proper in England. I had no such trouble. I’m at home with princes and paupers alike. I’ve had an upbringing where I know which fork to use, but the best thing to do in that situation is just eat with your fingers.”