Tuesday, December 14, 2021

That’s all I am to him

‘Any mistake I make, I’m out and he starts again. Really, I thought love was forever and that I, Jane, was more important as a person with all my faults than anyone else in the world, but I’m not. At least that illusion is gone. “Do you love me?” He says, “Of course, otherwise I would have chucked you out.” After six years and all we’ve been through, that’s all I am to him.’ This is from the youthful diaries, recently published, of the singer and actress Jane Birkin. At this point - about half way through her decade-long relationship with the French actor and musician Serge Gainsbourg - Birkin had two daughters, a three year old with Gainsbourg, and a seven year old with her ex-husband. Birkin is 75 years old today.

Birkin was born on 14 December 1946 in London to an actress and a spy, and raised in Chelsea. She was educated at Upper Chine School, Isle of Wight. She married the composer John Barry in 1965. The couple had a daughter, Kate, born two years later, but divorced soon after. In the late Sixties, she won acting roles in films with erotic content, such as Blowup and La Piscine, and then in the French film Slogan, alongside Gainsbourg, with whom she started an affair (despite him being nearly 20 years her senior). In 1969, the two of them released the single Je t’aime... moi non plus (originally written for Gainsbourg’s love at the time, Brigitte Bardot). The song became infamous for its sexual content and was banned by radio stations in several European countries.

After the birth of a second daughter (with Gainsbourg) Birkin took a break from acting in 1971-1972, but returned as Bardot’s lover in Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman, and then appeared in Gainsbourg’s first film, Je t’aime moi non plus, which was banned in the UK (but earned her a Best Actress César Award). She separated from Gainsbourg in 1980 but by then she was much in demand as an actress. In 1985, she co-starred with John Gielgud in Leave All Fair; and in 1991 she appeared in in Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse earning her another Cesar award. By this time she was also regularly recording albums. In 1982, she had given birth to her third daughter from her relationship with director Jacques Doillon, though they too were to separate, in the 1990s. She also was to have a relationship with the French writer Olivier Rolin.

Birkin continued film acting and singing into the 2000s though at a lesser pace; and she announced in 2017 that she had no plans to return to acting. Her oldest daughter, Kate, who had suffered from drug addictions over many years, tragically died in 2013. In 2021, her second daughter released a film about her own relationship with her mother, which premiered at Cannes: Jane by Charlotte. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, Interview Magazine, The Washington Post, and several media articles about recovering from a recent stroke (The Guardian and the BBC).

Birkin began keep a diary from the age of 11 and continued sporadically throughout her life - until Kate’s death. In 2018, Fayard published extracts from them in France; and in 2020 Weidenfeld & Nicolson brought out an English edition entitled The Munkey Diaries 1957-1982. Although the French and other editions have been published in two volumes, the second volume covering the years 1982-2013 has not yet appeared in English. According to the publisher: ‘Munkey Diaries re-creates the flamboyant era of Swinging London and Saint-Germain-des-Pres in the 1970s, and lets us into the everyday life of an exceptional woman. There are intimate revelations about Jane’s tumultuous life with her first husband, the composer John Barry, and her romantic and professional collaboration with Gainsbourg, as well as keen insights into a working life as an actor, singer and songwriter.’

In her preface, Birkin explains the term ‘Munkey’. 

‘I wrote my diary from the age of eleven, addressed to Munkey, my confidant, a soft toy monkey dressed as a jockey that my uncle had won in a tombola and given to me. He slept by my side, sharing the sadness of boarding school, hospital beds and my life with John, Serge and Jacques. He witnessed all the joys and all the unhappiness. He had a magic power; we took no planes, stayed in no hospitals without him being by our side.

Father said, “Maybe when we get to heaven it’ll be your monkey that welcomes us with open arms!”

Kate, Charlotte and Lou had his sacred clothes, without which travel was unthinkable. Serge kept Munkey’s jeans in his attaché case until the day he died. Faced with my children’s grief, I put Munkey beside Serge in his coffin, where he lay like a pharaoh. My monkey was there to protect him in the afterlife.

On reading my diaries it seems to me that one doesn’t change. What I was at twelve, I am still today. The lack of confidence, the jealousy, wanting to please . . . I understand better why my loves couldn’t last. The reader will be surprised, as I was, to see how little I talk about my professional life. I hardly mention the films, the plays - not even the songs. When people die, I talk about it months later - the happy times I was too busy living.’

A review of the book in the Evening Standard notes that the ‘relentless introspection comes at the expense of a more detailed survey of Birkin’s early career’; and The Guardian says ‘reading these diaries is like being trapped at a particularly demented piece of performance art, where the actors are clearly having much more fun than the audience.’ The Spectator says the ‘book is lachrymose to the point of sogginess’; but the Daily Mail calls it ‘enchanting’. Some pages can be read online at Amazon or Googlebooks. Many of the published extracts are identified only by the year they were written and a day of the week, but some are fully dated, such as this one.

13 November 1974
‘Dear Munkey,

The silence is so awful I have to write to someone. If I had done something, at least I would have a thing to be ashamed of, but I have nothing because I love someone; I love Serge more than any living thing, I would not lose him or his love for me for anything but sometimes I feel that he could write me off as a ‘bad lot’ and think no more of me. I don’t think he cares about me, except that I am his, but if I was even TEMPTED to be all that is bad, he would never have to think of me again and he would lie to the next girl. He would say, “La petite Birkin is my fabrication; I can make any number of them and better and younger but they’re nothing without me.”

He said last night that I drank only because he let me drink, that I lived only because he let me live. I’m his “poupée” (“doll”) with my “qualités’ as a poupée but completely re-makable with better material than me. All this is maybe just self-protective for my feelings, but I’m sure if I put one foot astray, he would be incapable of taking me back for me. I would have made my “erreur” and that would be an end to it.

My erreur tonight was being one hour late for dinner because I was honest and told him I was having a drink with C and we’d join him at the restaurant. It was 8 o’clock and I turned up at 9.30. He said he would be there at 9, so I was chronometrically half an hour or so late.

The reason was C. I wanted to talk to him. I’m twenty-seven, nearly twenty-eight. I’m afraid I have put him in a mess in spite of myself. I don’t know what he expects of me. I told him I love Serge, that no one can take away that love, it’s important. I care tor C, I like him, I wanted him to be my friend. It’s unimportant except I have a right to have a friend. He’s never tried to make love to me. He’s interested in me as a person. Why I do certain things, why I am embarrassed about certain things, what makes me not a cardboard poster, because that’s what most people associate me with. I wanted Serge to like him, I wanted him to like Serge the way I do - I’ve gone on and on about him. If only I’d kept my big mouth shut. Its almost like Bobby telling cousin Freda about his love life and expecting her to say “Poor Bobby”. I know that. I can’t say that he’s like a girlfriend. But people are doing far worse things, sneaking and not getting caught. Everyone has been unfaithful but I haven’t. So why should I suffer for what I haven’t done? I don’t want to have a sneaky “amant” (“lover”) like the bourgeois people do. I didn’t knock it off with Trintignant. Why? Serge. I didn’t want to spoil my thing with Serge.

Serge is sleeping peacefully and maybe he’s had affairs but is far too clever to tell me about then. And the strange thing is that I now know I wouldn’t mind as much as I thought. I would still love him, maybe hurt, certainly furious, but not to breaking-up point. I love him too much for that. I can’t imagine having a holiday, having a memory, having my life end with anyone but Sergio. So what does the rest matter? I wouldn’t like to look like a fool over the other girl, but if she was a pute or a thing of the moment, would I really die? I don’t think so. I feel happy. I love Serge, I’ve come into my own, I’m standing on my own feet. I had a drink; maybe I wanted a drink. I wanted to talk; I talked. In ten years I’m finished, no one will love me any more, I’ll be old and “moche” (“ugly”). My problems won’t interest anyone, I will no longer be à la mode. I won’t be twenty-seven, I will be thirty-seven and it’s over. I don’t want to get old. I won’t get old. Well, Serge will be looking at girls of seventeen and if I get jealous he will go “Allez-y ma vieille” (“Go ahead, old girl”) and it will be too late, even to have a drink, even to have a friend, and I will realise that life has gone and I’d be bitter of all the things I could’ve done if only I’d known.

But Serge has been twenty-seven, he’s had fun with what he wanted, with who he wanted, in Paris. I’m not asking that, a weekend to screw all Paris. I don’t like screwing. I just want to be wanted and not feel ashamed and old and responsible. And if after six years being with someone you turn up late - and each to his own, and considering everything I have done - and with a child in tow . . . well, I thought Serge loved me more than that, but sometimes he makes me think because of what he says or doesn’t say that six years is nothing, I’m only an episode in his numerous adventures. He’s allowed to be proud of it, to shout about it, and I’m nothing more than Dalida, or Gréco, or Bardot and I’m certainly much less than his precious wife, because he married her.

Any mistake I make, I’m out and he starts again. Really, I thought love was forever and that I, Jane, was more important as a person with all my faults than anyone else in the world, but I’m not. At least that illusion is gone. “Do you love me?” He says, “Of course, otherwise I would have chucked you out.” After six years and all we’ve been through, that’s all I am to him.’

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