Jane Birkin Looks Back, And Back and Back: A Conversation with an Icon

The actress looks back at her life and career in a joint retrospective in New York with daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Jane Birkin

Jane Birkin has lived a lot of life. From the memorable way in which she arrived in the public eye—nude, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow-Up—to her equally memorable marriage to Serge Gainsbourg, which had its share of controversy (including a run-in with the Vatican), the British-born French icon has embodied risk-taking. Today, “Jane and Charlotte Forever,” a retrospective devoted to the filmography of Birkin and her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, opens at the Film Society at Lincoln Center in New York. Here, she looks back, and explains how to stay young.

Did you ever see yourself doing a retrospective with your daughter? Never. Never, and I couldn’t give somebody the idea. It took New York and it took the Lincoln Center for this to happen. I felt that she’d done so many marvelous films that to find ten of my own would be quite, quite difficult, but she just seemed to be so thrilled that we were asked to do it as a couple, and in a professional status as well. What made me particularly happy is that it seems to have made Charlotte happy too.

What’s it like to see her daughter Alice Attal grow up and start her own career? They just modeled together. I think it’s good fun. It’s good fun, and at Alice’s age, Charlotte was already doing movies, which I thought was good. Serge was just about to do an album with Charlotte called Lemon Incest, which I love and never came as a shock or a surprise or even a worry, knowing Serge’s great love for Charlotte. I knew she’d get covers, but I thought it would be good for them to not to be just like I was, which was just scandal. If she could do a film at the same time and people could take their hat off to her as an actress, and not just as Serge’s elige, prodige. It would be good for it to be both.

Before that film, what were your daughters – Gainsbourg, photographer Kate Barry and singer/actress Lou Doillon – like growing up in your house? Did they put on plays or anything like that? Yes, there were messes. I used to love the thing of doing fancy dress parties. Charlotte was so beautiful as a what’s it called, coccinelle, a ladybird, and all her school friends came as flying ants and it was quite lovely. She was about six. She was wonderful to make up, but the person who made her up and dressed her up all her life was her sister Kate. All her life. At the top of my parents’ staircase in London, at my mother’s house, Kate had a Polaroid camera, and she was taking Charlotte’s photo from a very young age. I think it determined both Charlotte’s future and Kate’s future, strangely.

How did having children change your relationship with the press? The press all seemed to be so kind and nice and sweet with all of us, and me since I arrived in Paris at 20. Then suddenly I saw how things could turn when I’d separated from Serge and was shacked up in the Hilton with the girls. There were feet in the door and they were taking pictures in the bedroom without you wanting to. I always felt that perhaps Charlotte and Kate had been perhaps on too many pictures with Serge and me, and it was perhaps more grown up not to have your children on photos or to involve them. Unless I suppose when they start doing movies at 15 and winning prizes – then they’re on their own. Then, when I had my last daughter, Lou, with Jacques Doillon, I was living in a house behind a wall. I no longer did photos with my children. All that had finished. Jacques hated it and I thought it was much better, he was right, and that I shouldn’t do one picture of me pregnant or anything. But when she was born I remember looking up very much other famous people’s babies and I thought, ‘Hmmm, why can’t I show mine, she’s so much prettier, you know?’ I saw Johnny Holliday’s daughter and every other daughter it seemed to me were born on the same date as Lou. But I stayed firm and I did no photos with Lou, and then what happened when she was 15 was many tears. She said, “Were you ashamed of me? Why were there no pictures of me?” So I thought, we can never do right.

Is it hard looking back and being asked about the past? Well, we don’t do retrospectives every day. [Laughs.] It would be hard if it was all the time, but that’s not the case. It’s all right. In France, they’ve known me since I’ve been 19, so they’ve seen all the good things, all the sad things, all the ups and downs.

Has it been hard to age in the public eye? Do you worry about people’s judgments? No, it’s not very hard. I would be worried about judgment morally. But if it’s just aging on the face, then – well, some people have really made a lot of effort to change their faces, and I love those people. I think they’re really brave, because if you make a mess-up of it, then you’re done. You can’t go back. So I think if anything, it’s probably people that are much, much braver than I am. I don’t know, it would be so awful if you did too much, wouldn’t it? It seems to me that that’s more difficult. It doesn’t mean that one has more admiration for people that bare their faces at 80. What does happen – and you’ll find it happens – is that you begin to admire people that are 80. ‘Oh, but it’s lovely to have all those lines!’ The models who are 80 years old suddenly become very attractive, men and women. And you think, ‘Oh, how lovely it would be if there were some pensioner that suddenly realized that you were the woman in your lives, that would be so touching.’ Whereas when we were young, we thought that 40 was a big step – not necessarily in the right direction. It was worrying to be 40. Now I think that 40 was just the most wonderful age – a toddler. And 50 for that matter, even 60. Then you think, well, let’s try 70. And we’re lucky, because in my parents’ day, it was old to be 70. It really was. Unless of course you could be, which is so much more interesting. When you’re with Agnès [Varda], actually, you don’t see her age – you could just see that you’d go around to her house, started looking up books and films, and it would go as fast as anything. So in that case, it doesn’t really matter what age you are. It’s in fact people that always have an appetite for life that you want to be with. You want to be with people that are funny, not sad. You want to be with people that are constantly curious.

Did you learn anything from your daughters as you watched them them grow up? I think it was far more interesting watching somebody like Charlotte, who made a law unto herself to have no makeup, to bare herself as she was. I would give that advice for sure. We were all covered in makeup, we were so frightened of taking off our false eyelashes and our daisy – you know, we had ridiculous makeup in 1968. One would want to claw it off. Fringes. It’s just so much more intriguing to show your real face as fast as you can. It’s fun to make up, no doubt, it’s just I would have thought it’s less worrying if you show your face as it is than going under false pretenses. In my case, you wanted to look like Jean Shrimpton: you went to bed with an eyebrow pencil, in case John Barry would wake up in the night and see you hadn’t got bigger eyes with daisy round them. It shows such lack of self confidence. If you can just show yourself as you are, then people take you for what you are. It’s much more frightening to think they’re going to suddenly see the truth and not like you anymore.

What would be your best advice about aging? Stay curious.

Photos: Jane Birkin Looks Back, And Back and Back: A Conversation with an Icon

Jane Birkin in “Jane B. par Agnès V.”, 1988 Courtesy: Cinelicious Pics

Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Antichrist,” 2009. Courtesy: The Kobal Collection / Zentropa

Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, 1971 Courtesy: Taschen

Jane Birkin and Joe Dallesandro, “Je T’aime Moi Non Plus,” 1975. Courtesy: The Kobal Collection

Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, “The Science of Sleep,” 2006 Courtesy: The Kobal Collection

Agnès Varda and Jane Birkin in “Jane B. par Agnès V.”, 1988 Courtesy: Cinelicious Pics

Charlotte Gainsbourg in “L’effrontée,” 1985 Courtesy: The Kobal Collection

Jane Birkin in “Love on the Ground,” 1984 Courtesy: The Kobal Collection

Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, 1969 Courtesy: Taschen