By Prune Perromat
On Monday night in Manhattan, singer-songwriter, actress and model, Jane Birkin, appeared in front of a packed audience at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF).
Birkin was in the city ahead of a one-night-only performance at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, in New York.
In conversation with Pitchfork's Elia Einhorn, Birkin discussed her relationship with iconic French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg – the father of her second daughter Charlotte – her childhood, career and children.
"Gainsbourg - I didn't know who he was," the British-born actress said of her first meeting with the French musician in 1968, at an audition for the film Slogan, in which they co-starred. "I thought he was called Serge Bourguignon," just like the classic French beef stew.
"He was a faux méchant... He was a very kind, funny, sweet man. Arrogance was just self-defense."
In a composed and affectionate tone, Birkin also discussed Gainsbourg's writing and often-provocative music.
"The sophistication of his writing, the beauty... I hadn't understood at first how clever the writing was," she said. Referring to his 1971 album, "Histoire de Melody Nelson," she said that while it's now considered one of the best records of all time, "At the time it didn't sell well".
"No-one had written a full story on a 45 album. That seemed to be quite extraordinary."
She also proudly recalled her free-spirited and erotic duet with the singer “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” the hit single that was originally recorded with legendary actress Brigitte Bardot. “Dictators banned it in South America and in Spain” and elsewhere, but the record was smuggled in anyway. “It was rather exciting.”
Birkin separated from Gainsbourg in 1981, but she continued to be his muse until his death in 1981.
He "wrote for me from when I was 20 years old until he died. That was my good fortune, that he didn't let go of me," she said.
LSP asked Birkin if she had ever penned anything for Serge. She replied that she was not a songwriter, and that "Serge had the power to say so many things in a few words" - a skill she did not possess. She added that their daughter Charlotte has inherited that gift in some way, as has Birkin's third daughter Lou Doillon.
Before the end of the night, during the Q&A portion of the evening, Birkin – the fashion icon – squinted her eyes to locate the person behind a crystalline voice that had risen in the auditorium.
“Have you ever thought about putting a cat in your Birkin bag?” asked a young girl in the audience, referring to one of the most coveted handbags on the planet - an Hermès tote named after the singer. Looking to her own leather bag placed at her feet, Birkin shook her head and smiled with a feline air. She seemed to be already somewhere else, possibly at Carnegie Hall, resuming her eternal duet with Serge.
“I hope you have a good time if you’re there,” she had said earlier in the evening. “Perhaps you’ll feel a bit sad, but that’s not a bad thing either, missing someone…”
Birkin Gainsbourg, The Symphonic, with Jane Birkin and Wordless Music Orchestra will take place on Thursday, February 1, 2018 at 8pm at Carnegie Hall in New York.