Jane Birkin is in Australia as a guest of the French Film Festival, and to showcase her unique musical stylings in a concert series that honours the memory of her lover and creative partner, Serge Gainsbourg.
Birkin is in the midst of a whirlwind four-city tour of Australia with her constantly evolving concert series, which was originally conceived as a short tour of the US to mark the 20th anniversary of Gainsbourg's death.
Whilst visiting Japan to offer aid to victims of the 2011 tsunami, Birkin formed a musical alliance with the revered composer Nobuyuki Nakajima, and the two developed new interpretations of Gainsbourg's classic tunes. Along with an ensemble that includes jazz-influenced drummer Tsuotmu Kurihara, violinist Asuka Maret, and brass player Shuishiro Sakaguchi.
The legendary coupling of French enfant-terrible Gainsbourg and high-society Brit Birkin has no contemporary equivalent. Their influence was felt across every artistic fields: they epitomised the French avant garde movement; they releasedsix iconic albums together and worked on many others long after the relationship had ended; the pair held sway in fashion circles and literary gatherings, their very presence cause for celebration at the height of their fame. Birkin is largely still spoken of as being one with the spirit of Gainsbourg, a notion that she has done nothing to dispel.
Their cinematic collaborations bore many varied fruits, each one speaking with a future voice; style-infused works that became trend-setting benchmarks just by their mere existence. Critics were not always enamoured (“An incredibly silly film,” said one critic of their debut together, Pierre Grimblat's Slogan, 1969), but audiences turned out in droves. Birkin established herself as a major box office draw in her own right, working with such notable directors as Roger Vadim (Don Juan 73, 1973), Robert Benayoun (Sérieux comme le plaisir, 1974), Jacques Rivette (L'amour par terre, 1984; La belle noiseuse, 1990; Around a Small Mountain, 2009) and Bertrand Tavernier (Daddy Nostalgie, 1989).
To celebrate her Australian tour, SBS Film takes an entirely subjective glance at five films that defined the allure, talent and intelligence of Jane Birkin. These may not be her best or most well-known works, but they were all elemental in establishing her status as an enduring pop culture icon.
In 2008, Birkin revealed to Britain's Daily Mail newspaper that the teenage starlet agreed to pose nude for David Hemming's camera in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up to impress her lover. Her partner at the time, composer John Barry, said she wouldn't have the courage to do it. “The truth is I did all those things to please the men I liked at the time. I always did what they wanted, as I was scared of losing them. He said I wouldn't have the courage to go naked, so I thought: 'Well, I'll do it and that will thrill him.'" The brief sequence was integral to Birkin's profile soaring over night.
Catherine et cie
Few hold Michel Boisrond's Parisian-set sex comedy in high regard, but it remains notable as one of the key films in Birkin's extensive filmography to take advantage of her sexuality at the height of her fame. Working from a script by a young writer named Catherine Breillat, Birkin plays a 20 year-old who turns to prostitution to make ends meet, only to turn the tables on the men of the day and emerge a stronger woman for the experience. The film came in the wake of soft-core successes such as Emmanuelle (it employed that film's DP, Richard Suzuki) and swam very much against the current of political correctness. It also primed her audience for the most controversial film of her career...
Je t'aime moi non plus
Based upon the erotically-charged 1969 song that brought Gainsbourg and Birkin international notoriety, Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus starred Birkin as 'Johnny', the androgynous lover of homosexual blue-collar guy 'Krassky' (American underground star Joe Dellasandro). Banned in many countries for its references to anal sex acts, simulated oral sex and a graphic asphyxiation scene, the film continues to divide critics (“Gainsbourg's queer-eyed view of Americana is trash of the most beautifully bleak kind,” says Film 4's Anton Bitel) and fuel anti-Gainsbourg advocates (“The dirty old man of French pop,” says one US blogger), there is no denying Birkin's scorching on-screen charisma.
“That remains an important film,” Birkin told the French newspaper L'Humanité in 2006. “It was at the Cannes festival. The film made the same sort of scandal as Je t'aime moi non plus. This time, it was two girls. Maruschka (Detmers), she played the pirate. The press conference was really great, people were so shocked. I understand that too, because the film showed such a state of excitement, where the people were already in a dramatic situation, already in the boat, already in distress.... It was the first time that women came to thank me for a film, for La Pirate. It was as if, for once, I had done something honourable, putting forward these women who wanted to live together. I had never thought of that, because Maruschka's beauty was so attractive. It was really marvellous to find myself before her magnificent breasts.”
Jane B. By Anges Varda
When the Belgian-born auteur turned her loving gaze upon the British-born icon, the effect was two- fold. Varda provided a glorious recounting of the career and impact of one of international cinema's great stars; Birkin provided a playful persona that reacted warmly and naturally to the camera of her long-time friend. The film in infused with the qualities they see in each other – an unshakeable commitment to feminist issues and humanist ideals. Much of this was shot whilst at work on Kung-Fu Master, their other film together that same year.
Images courtesy of Unifrance.org