La belle et la bête
Rarely does the pairing of two people cause such intrigue, fascination and obsession; yet the relationship between the inimitable Jane Birkin and enigmatic Serge Gainsbourg has long captivated the public imagination. It’s been thirty years since they parted – two decades since Serge’s death – and yet a monograph offering a glimpse into the private world of the actress and musician has been published this month.
For Jane & Serge: A Family Album, Jane’s brother, photographer Andrew Birkin, has collated over one thousand personal images of the couple that he shot whilst in France in 1968. The publication of this collection simply proves that no one will let Jane and Serge part. Even Jane herself takes part in this perpetuation, spending her evenings performing the songs he wrote with her in mind, at once preserving his memory and their relationship as artist and muse.
Still held as Paris’s most iconic couple, she the original ingénue and he the troubled artist, Jane and Serge epitomise Parisian romanticism. The pairing of Jane’s doe-eyed naivety and Serge’s eccentric allure seemed to have charmed everyone. At once controversial and passionate – their infamous duet Je t’aime featured aural sex – the couple are as adored today as they were at the time.
Their union produce daughter Charlotte, an actress and muse in her own right of director Lars von Trier. Charlotte starred in a contentious film with her father, Charlotte Forever, which held a sensuality not dissimilar to the air of Je t’aime. Serge and Jane’s relationship was shrouded with this kind of controversy, a permanent cloud of creativity, exoticism and allure still obscuring our view of them as individuals.
What Andrew’s collection of photographs reveals is a poignant and truly intimate insight into a relationship between two people. However, this voyeurism sheds no more light on the true Birkin and Gainsbourg – it simply perpetuates our romantic notion of their relationship, tangible and elusive, forever immovable from the 1970s. We see the tumultuous as passionate, the controversial as exciting, and even Serge’s death as a tragic but fitting end to such an iconic narrative. This photographic insight into their private world of Parisian romance, along with their music and much reproduced style, have preserved the memory – or, rather, the story we have created ourselves – of the irresistible duo.