Although Serge Gainsbourg is something of a cultural icon in his native France, most people in Britain will know him for the record he made with Jane Birkin, Je t’aime…moi non plus. Her heavy breathing scandalised the country when it was released in 1969 and the BBC banned it. That didn’t stop it topping the charts where it stayed for nine weeks.
The couple were together until 1981. Jane’s brother, Andrew Birkin, became good friends with Gainsbourg and was a regular visitor at their home in France, as well as spending holidays with them. He’d been working with Stanley Kubrick, researching locations and shooting stills, so he always had a camera with him. He documented their life together, but the pictures stayed in his private collection until art publisher, Taschen, brought out Jane & Serge, a Family Album in 2013.
Jane & Serge, Museum of Fine Arts, Calais
The new exhibition is based on a selection of prints from that book, blowing many of them up to fit the entire wall and adding brief presentations of the cultural context. They span 1964 to 1979 and also include postcards, home movies, film clips and even some of the cameras. It’s organised into six sections named after songs written by Gainsbourg, and although he had something of a wild reputation, the pictures show him in the gentle bosom of family life.
Andrew Birkin shows me round, telling me that he stayed good friends with Gainsbourg until his early death from a heart attack in 1991. He always went to see him when he was in Paris but, by the end, the drinking had got the better of him. Still, his brusque exterior concealed a deep melancholy, probably stemming from his Jewish childhood in WW2 occupied France. I asked Andrew what drew Serge and Jane together, given that when they met she hardly spoke French and his English was rudimentary. “Sex, that was it, sex”.
Serge Gainsbourg in Calais
Jane Birkin at 71 still retains something of her cut glass English Rose accent and has none of the airs and graces you might expect of a movie star. She appears without makeup in jeans and a simple black top. The only hint of stardom is her two year old bulldog who spends most of the time snoring loudly. “Looking at the photographs is a bit weird”, she says. “It makes me feel dead”. She’s far from that and currently is in the middle of a world concert tour singing orchestral versions of Gainsbourg’s songs.
After they split up Serge continued writing songs for her and she made the album “Baby Alone in Babylone” which she considers to be her best record. These days he’s still influencing French songwriters. “He never repeated himself, never became a parody” she muses. “He rediscovered the French language”. Perhaps that’s what holds British listeners back, as the songs are impossible to translate. His most famous song transcended language. “Je t’aime created a fuss all over the world” she says, “I was delighted.”
Although there was a big Gainsbourg exhibition in Paris a couple of years ago, you may wonder why this is being held in Calais. The gallery says that the port is the crossing point between France and England and Gainsbourg looked across the Channel for a more modern sound. He also got his first gig in Le Touquet close by, playing the piano at a hotel there. But Andrew Birkin has another idea. Their grandfather had a textile business in Nottingham and often came here to visit the lace manufacturers of Calais. I suppose you could say that the Birkins have finally come home.
The exhibition runs until 4 November 2018 and is open from 1.00pm to 6.00pm, except Mondays and public holidays. Details on www.calais.fr website
Museum of Fine Arts, 25 rue Richelieu – 62100
Rupert Parker is a writer, photographer, cameraman & TV Producer. His special interests are food & travel & he writes about everything from wilderness adventure to gourmet spa tours. Read about his latest adventures on his website Planet Appetite.