Icons / July 2016

La Belle et la Bête: Birkin & Gainsbourg

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin were the golden couple of their generation, and their grand amour continues to inspire and fascinate.

For a pair of lovers whose passionate and tempestuous affair made them the glamorous poster couple of their era, their first encounter on the Parisian film set of Slogan in 1968 could scarcely be described as love at first sight. The stunning upper-class British actress starring in the low-budget French flick complained bitterly to her visiting brother, “He’s horrible! … Serge Bourguignon! The man in the film with me. He’s meant to be my lover but he’s so arrogant and snobbish and he absolutely despises me!”

Then again, the unlikely beginning of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s tumultuous relationship entirely befitted the unlikely coupling. Her, the dewy 22-year-old ingénue from Chelsea (infamous for becoming the first actress to go full-frontal in mainstream cinema in the 1966 film, Blow-Up) with the leggy thoroughbred gait, unforced beauty and effortless style, and him, the louche, jolie laide 40-year-old musical genius as revered for his exceptional way with a lyric as he was notorious for his Gitanes- and alcohol-fuelled hard-partying lifestyle — no wonder the press and public were mesmerised by this seemingly far-fetched yet strangely perfect union of opposites.

Controversy trailed in Birkin and Gainsbourg’s wake from the get-go. Singer, songwriter, composer, pianist, painter, auteur, author, gambler, Pygmalion, alcoholic, poet, lothario, actor, misanthrope, provocateur, a modern-day Baudelaire, a 20th-century Rimbaud, flâneur, French national treasure and the list goes on — there is no pithy way of summing up who Gainsbourg was and why his prolific artistic output continues to be so influential over two decades since his demise (everyone from Portishead to Beck, Madonna to Sonic Youth, Air to John Zorn have declared him as a profound influence). His and Birkin’s place in the pop-cultural pantheon was cemented by ‘Je t’aime…moi non plus’. It may sound relatively tame to the contemporary listener jaded by the twerking hijinks of the Miley Cyrus generation, but back in the day, the duet became quite the cause célèbre. Gainsbourg had originally recorded the song with screen siren Brigitte Bardot, with whom he was having an affair after his first two marriages ended in divorce. For fear of incurring the wrath of her husband, Gunter Sachs, the multi-millionaire German playboy and scion of the Opel motor dynasty, Bardot begged Gainsbourg not to release the recording with its explicitly sexual lyrics, backing of ecstatic feminine sighs and climatic culmination in the finale. Gainsbourg acquiesced, re-recording it in 1969 with Birkin. Thanks to its unabashed eroticism, Gainsbourg and Birkin’s romp on vinyl was condemned by the Vatican and banned by the BBC, thus catapulting it right to the top of the British charts.

"Thanks to its unabashed eroticism, Gainsbourg and Birkin’s romp on vinyl was condemned by the Vatican and banned by the BBC, thus catapulting it right to the top of the British charts."

If one were to conjecture a typical day in the life of the Gainsbourg/Birkin household based on the countless paparazzi snaps of this golden couple throughout their 13-year affair — they never married — one might get the simplistic impression that life was one long night on the tiles, dressed to kill. Lithe and lovely, Birkin had the sort of fabulously androgynous figure that had designers like Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy queuing up to dress her. She was never without her voluminous wicker basket — these were the days before she met Jean-Louis Dumas, then-Chairman and Artistic Director of Hermès, on a flight to London in 1981, who offered to design a travel bag capacious enough for Birkin’s needs and which has since gone on to become the brand’s most coveted style of maroquinerie. Gainsbourg was always in impeccable tailoring — often pinstriped — inimitably accessorised with his dishevelled, devil-may-care and debonair attitude and his signature pair of white Repetto jazz shoes, always worn sockless.

When the two children were young, the couple’s ritual was to feed them dinner in the evening, tuck them into bed, get dressed to go out for dinner then stay out all night club-hopping, returning just in time in the wee hours for the school run, sleep through the day, then fetch the girls from school. Rinse, repeat. The conclusion that life for Gainsbourg and Birkin was essentially a non-stop dusk-to-dawn bacchanalia, punctuated by the odd parenting duty or two, is all too easy to make. In December 2013, Birkin’s brother Andrew Birkin, whom the couple was very close to, put together Jane & Serge: A Family Album, published under the aegis of Taschen. A familiar presence in the couple’s life throughout their relationship, Andrew Birkin was an avid photographer and took thousands of candid photographs of his sister and Gainsbourg, few of which have ever been published. The book offers a rare, authentic, intimate and far more accurate view of daily life for the couple. Much like Andrew Birkin was instantaneously captivated by Gainsbourg — outrageous one moment and introspective the next, with an outré sense of humour and rapier wit — the rest of the Birkin clan (mother, Judy Campbell, the English stage actress and Noël Coward’s muse, and father, David Birkin, a Royal Navy lieutenant-commander and World War II hero) took immediately to Gainsbourg, whom they met at the end of July 1968 during a visit to Saint-Tropez, where Jane Birkin was based, having landed the plum part of Penelope Lannier in La Piscine, also starring Alain Delon.

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Joycelyn Shu