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Interview with Jane Birkin

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Jane Birkin

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© Nico Bustos

Madame Birkin, you were an icon of style and transgression in Swingin’ London. What do you remember about those times?

I don’t remember much! Maybe it feels more important now, looking back, but for us Swingin’ London was just something really exciting – King’s Road, the new Fashion, the fact that for the first time fashion was not something for 40-years old, but aimed at the young. It was great to see all these mini-skirts parading over London.

 

It took only one scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up to launch you into stardom. How did it go?

Antonioni was a master and a gentleman. He was such a perfectionist, I believe he was an architect before becoming a film director. He was in control of everything – he didn’t like the clothes I was wearing for the scene, which I had bought in King’s Road, so he changed those, and then he changed my hair color, and then he went on to change the colors on the set, he controlled every single detail. When he asked me to take my clothes off for the scene, I asked my husband at the time, John Barry, and he said to me: «Michelangelo Antonioni is the greatest director in the World – if you have to be naked, you might as well do it for him».

 

And then came the artistic association with Serge Gainsbourg. You went from fashion icon to music icon. Was music already part of your life?

I had done a musical when I was 17. I knew I had a voice, but my pitch was rather high. And of course, I was married to John, one of the greatest film composers, so it happened that I would sing a song here and there. But Serge had an intuition, he asked me to sing even higher, and that’s how Je’t aime… moi non plus came about… which was considered too scandalous to be released as a single, so we ended up producing a whole long-playing, to hide it in there among the other tracks. But it became such a success that me and Serge ended up making a record a year for every year, up until his death…

 

You worked with some of the greatest filmmakers of all time – did you have any favorites and what did you learn from them?

Jacques Doillon was the most exigent, he would shoot a scene one-hundred times. What he was really looking for was an accident, something unexpected that would happen in front of the camera. A great lesson. Agnès Varda was the most curious person I ever met – she never stopped being interested in everything. I remember once we were together on a stop-over at the airport in Madrid, and I thought, we are just going to sit at the lounge having a drink, and she said «we have to rush to go and see the Prado!» and she dragged me there. Jacques Rivette’s style of work was the most fascinating – you had no idea what the film was about, he would give you a little piece of paper with some notes for what you had to shoot on that day, and find out only the day after what the scene was about, and only at the end of the shoot what was the story of the film, if you had saved all the little pieces of paper!

 

And then you decided to go behind the camera yourself. How did it happen?

It was my story, and I decided I was the best person to do it. I was very lucky with the casting, in finding two talented actresses to play my girls, Natacha Régnier and Adèle Exarchopoulos, before she became famous for La Vie d'Adèle. I asked Geraldine Chaplin to play me and she said: «you missed me by ten years. But I will play your mother instead!».

 

In Locarno we will see you as well in an unusual role in a small film directed by Timo von Gunten, La Femme et le TGV. What attracted you to this project?

I liked this story about loneliness, and the fact that it was based on an actual person. We worked for one week, every day, from 8 in the morning to midnight, but it was worth it. Everybody was very young and filled with energy, and I liked that.

 

Massimo Benvegnù

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