You know her as the inspiration for the iconic Hermès bag or as the slinky love interest of a brooding Serge Gainsbourg. But Jane Birkin—who died at 76 on July 16—was also a distinguished artist in her own right, writing songs, directing films and raising a daughter who would carry on her legacy.
Contrary to her French affiliations, Birkin was born in Marylebone, London in 1946. She began auditioning in the UK, landing several small roles in films such as Kaleidoscope (1966) and Wonderwall (1968). Her dreams of becoming an actress took her to France, where Birkin would burst onto the film and music scene with impeccable fashion, effortless beauty and most importantly, artistic talent that can’t be overlooked.
Slogan (1969) Despite not speaking French, Birkin landed the main female role in this romantic comedy alongside Serge Gainsbourg, who was more than a decade into his career as a singer, songwriter, and actor. Birkin’s charming English-accented French won over audiences. She sings the film’s theme song, “La Chanson de Slogan,” with Gainsbourg, the first of many musical collaborations. The pair also began a relationship during filming, one which would be 12 years and many artistic projects long.
La Piscine (1969) Later that same year, Birkin appeared in a thriller with the beloved French actor Alain Delon. It was this breakthrough film which allowed her to move to France full-time in order to pursue her acting career. With still-imperfect French, Birkin’s acting is nothing special, but it’s her embodiment of French-girl cool which makes her irresistible to watch. In white button-ups, striped swimsuits and perfectly quaffed bangs, Birkin rose to fashion icon status while lounging by the pool.
Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg (1969) This album, with iconic songs “Je t’aime…moi non plus” (“I love you…me neither”) and “Jane B.”, helped solidify Birkin’s music career. The former song, originally written for Brigette Bardot (a previous lover of Gainsbourg’s), was given to Birkin. “Je t’aime” was banned in several countries—its whispered and moaned vocals were too overtly sexual— but this only worked to increase its popularity. Birkin’s voice, although frail and overly breathy at times, perfectly fit the yé-yé style (kitschy, innocent songs from young female singers) that Gainsbourg had adopted for the hits he’d written for Bardot and France Gall.
“Ballade de Melody Nelson” (1971) This song, a standout track on Gainsbourg’s album Histoire de Melody Nelson, returns to the Lolita thematics that are strong in “Jane B.” A reimagining of this character with Birkin’s lilting voice sets the tone for an album full of short yet indulgent fantasies. Birkin’s track is supremely compelling, her tender vocals melding with Gainsbourg’s more demanding phrasing.
Je t’aime moi non plus (1976) Gainsbourg wrote and directed this movie named after his world-famous song. In it, Birkin is portrayed as an androgynous, naive love-interest of a gay man. Joe Dallesandro—an underground star of Andy Warhol movies—co-stared and Gérard Depardieu made a cameo, but the controversial content (including a sex scene in the back of a garbage truck) brought a poor reception. The film was defended, however, by François Truffaut, and would grow in popularity over the years.
Kung-Fu Master (1988) In this whirlwind drama directed by renowned French director Angès Varda, Birkin stars alongside her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, then 17 years old. It tells the story of a bored housewife who becomes infatuated with her daughter’s friend. A beautifully shot film with stellar acting from Jane, Kung-Fu Master is named after the favorite video game of the young boy. The film was nominated for Best Film at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival.
Jane B. by Agnès V. (1988) Continuing her relationship with Birkin, Varda made a docudrama on the multifaceted actress and singer. The film consists of vignettes about Birkin’s life, as well as fictional recreations of famous or mythological women (such as Joan of Arc). It was created as an ode to Birkin, who was in her 40s and had confided in Varda her fears of aging. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, instead feeling like the imaginative playtime of two artistic forces.
Fictions (2006) This album confused Birkin’s French audience, as it was mainly in English and featured English songwriters (such UK indie-rockers the Magic Numbers). Fictions took Jane’s music in a new direction, breaking out into a more distinct style. A self-penned album and return to French entitled Enfants d’Hiver would appear two years later. But Fictions’s most popular song, a cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” is a perfectly accessible, delicately nostalgic look into Jane Birkin.
Boxes (2007) A year later, Birkin wrote and directed her first film. It is a deeply personal meditation on her three marriages, and the three children which resulted from them. Birkin stars, and the film was shot in her home in Landéda, France. Secrets are aired and relationships are broken and healed, all while physically opening boxes filled with the past. Boxes, with its stellar writing and intimate mood, was nominated for the Grand Prix at the Bratislava International Film Festival.
La Femme et le TGV (2016) Based on a true story, the short film The Railroad Lady (TGV is the French high-speed train service) is a bittersweet, tender look at human connection. Birkin stars as a lonely widow attempting to reconnect with her life; she falls in love with a mysterious train conductor, eventually attempting to meet in-person. Jane’s performance feels youthful as ever, sparked with emotional nuance. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 2017.
Jane by Charlotte (2021) Charlotte Gainsbourg’s directorial debut is a beautiful documentary about her mother. This stunning portrait shows how far Birkin has come from her days as eye-candy in Blow-Up (1966). With a just-perceptible English accent to her now otherwise-flawless French, Jane gets personal about motherhood over cups of tea and slow mornings with her daughter. Charlotte’s directing is subtle yet efficient, guiding the viewer to question both sides of the relationship: what does it mean to be a mother and a daughter, and at what point does the line blur, never to be in focus again?