the show at proud is an intimated documentation of serge gainsbourg and jane birkin’s early years seen through the eyes of janes brother andrew, a photographer who was working with stanley kubrick in paris at the time when jane met serge. the show is up from 11th september to 26th october if in london be sure to see it.
some snippets: in february 1969, a french singer-songwriter released a duet with his british girlfriend. featuring sexual allusions including groaning and heavy breathing, the song was banned in several countries and denounced by the vatican. je t’aime… moi non plus was recorded by serge gainsbourg and jane birkin in 1968, months after they met on the set of the film slogan; they would be together for the next 12 years. birkin’s older brother andrew – a director and screenwriter – took pictures of the couple throughout their relationship. as a new exhibition of photographs opens at proud gallery in london.
“my sister and i were staying in the same little hotel in paris, under the shadow of notre dame, when she met serge – that summer, i was working for stanley kubrick taking location shots for his film napoleon, which never got made, and jane was making slogan with serge. she was on the rebound from her break-up with john barry and told me about someone she called ‘that dreadful man serge bourgignon’; she railed against him, saying ‘he’s so arrogant and snobbish and he despises me.’ i hadn’t met him at this point and i thought: ‘the lady doth protest too much’.”
“when i met serge, it was love at first sight for me – i absolutely adored him, he was this wonderful mad, extrovert russian jew who’d spent half of world war ii up a tree, according to him. i think he actually spent a couple of nights up a tree, although he’d worn the yellow star for years in occupied france. for a project, i met hitler’s architect albert speer at his heidelberg eyrie in 1971, and he asked if jane and serge would sign a copy of je t’aime… for him. serge did so, probably relishing the irony, and when he made his rock around the bunker album a few years later [featuring lyrics about nazi germany], he gave me a copy to send to speer. his parents had arrived in paris after fleeing the 1917 russian revolution, and his father – who was a brilliant pianist – had to perform in casinos.”
“after slogan finished, jane landed a part in a film called la piscine with alain delon, and was summoned to st tropez. because delon was in the movie, and was not unattractive in those days, serge – who perhaps under normal circumstances might have played hard-to-get and let her go – quickly hoofed it down to st tropez, in her shadow as it were.”
“i’d always photographed jane. my family were quite bohemian: although at the time it suited the press to portray jane as being the daughter of an arch-conservative naval officer, in fact he wore a ring in his ear and was more of an artist. yes, he had been in the navy during the war, but more as a spy than anything else – and my mother was an actress, noël coward’s leading lady during the second world war. it was a very liberal upbringing – and serge fit right in.”
“serge had his first christmas with our family in 1968: jane brought a demo lp they had recorded together and played a few songs for us. later, away from our parents, she said ‘there’s another song on here – what do you think of it?’ i heard je t’aime… moi non plus and i was bowled over – i thought it was fabulous, i loved it. it was very erotic but also very romantic. i remember being in a restaurant in paris before the record had come out and serge had the demo. they had a turntable with loudspeakers, and serge went over and asked them to put it on. neither of them were household faces in the summer of ‘69. we were eating our meals, and the song came on – it was rather wonderful looking around when the heavy breathing started, looking around the restaurant and pretending not to notice, seeing people’s jaws dropping.”
the couple had a daughter in 1971. in a book of the jane and serge photographs published by taschen, andrew describes the day jane gave birth to charlotte: “a telephone call came to say that jane was due to give birth at any moment, so i hoofed it to london, where i found serge pacing up and down the hospital corridor, knee-deep in gitanes butts. we went to the pub across the road, and by the time we got back to the hospital, charlotte had arrived … serge was ecstatic.”
“serge adored jane, and she adored him – for the golden years, which lasted for about seven years, and then it was the alcohol that kicked in with serge. he drank too much, and became difficult to live with. i didn’t mind that he was drunk, as it usually meant i would win at chess. he liked playing for money, and was the better player: when sober he would win usually, but if he was drunk then i would win. he seemed such a gregarious extrovert, but alone with him i saw his melancholic side.”
“in a sense, they never really did break up. the catalyst was a film director called jacques doillon… he was much closer to her age, and flattering – good-looking, and charming, and very bright. serge did the classic thing of saying ‘i think he’s wonderful’, and inviting him out to dinner – wining and dining the opposition, as it were. he’d written a few songs for jane, but now he started writing them full-time – and some of his best songs for jane were written after they’d broken up, when she was with jacques.”
“jane and jacques were together for about 10 years, and what broke it up with them was that after serge died in 1991, jacques began having affairs with the reason that he couldn’t compete with a ghost. they had always really had a ménage a trois – not sexually, but in terms of company. whenever i went to paris, even after she and serge had broken up, jane would say ‘oh do call in and see him’ or ‘he’s coming to dinner tomorrow’. then when he died, jane berated herself, thinking if she’d stuck around she could have saved him from the alcohol, which undoubtedly was a contributing factor to his early demise – he was only 62 when he died. undoubtedly, now looking back, he was – and remains – the love of her life.”
the show is up from 11th september to 26th october if in london at proud: 32 john adam street, london WC2N 6BP post a comment for us if you have seen the show. by uh