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Q & A: Jane Birkin

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The Scene meets English actress and singer Jane Birkin in Paris to discuss her new album, falling in love with Serge Gainsbourg and the most infamous duet in pop history and why Parisians have such a reputation for rudeness.

The Scene: You're from England and you grew up in London. How did you end up living in Paris?

Jane Birkin: I came to Paris in 1968 to do a movie called "Slogan" and I fell in love with the leading man, who was Serge Gainsbourg. After that he gave me "Je t'aime... moi non plus," the song that was banned by the Vatican, banned by the BBC and was therefore a worldwide success. He and I became the most famous of couples in that strange way because of "Je t'aime" and because we stuck together for 13 years and he went on being my friend until the day he died. Who could ask for more? So Paris became my home. I've been adopted here. They like my accent, when I came here the skirts were shorter than anyone else's. Everyone at home was wearing just the same as me. I was the lucky one because I got here first so they thought it was my fashion.

TS: Where do you feel most at home these days?

JB: I left London for Paris when I was 20, so I've been here for 39 years. So really it's Paris if you had to measure it by what it would be like if you were blind -- I'd know it door to door. Now I've come back to where I started out which is Saint Germain. Although it's changed quite a bit I can remember things here. Like when I threw myself into the Seine to get Serge to forgive me for throwing a custard pie in his face. They'd always be these legendary fights we'd have in nightclubs because we were pretty plastered both he and I. Luckily all the people I've ever loved have always fallen in love with England because of the letter boxes, the pubs, those sorts of things. I've always been rather proud that they always thought it was so extravagant and so completely foreign. Serge always used to say, 'How can it be so strange and so close?' And now of course with the tunnel it's become much easier to come and go so I don't really know where home is anymore. My children are all here in Paris. I've put myself at the exact axis between my three girls. For the moment that's just exactly where I want to be and with a suitcase to hand so that I can shoot off somewhere else.

TS: Tell us more about the incident when you threw yourself into the Seine?

JB: We were in a nightclub and I was with a lot of silly friends who were all extremely drunk and Serge had done something that seemed highly offensive to me at the time. I think he had turned my handbag upside down which isn't such a great offence but it had wounded me because everyone had seen the contents scattered on the dancefloor and as I was picking up my bits and pieces I vowed revenge. There was a custard pie on the table and a few silly people were urging me to do it so that before I knew it the pie had left the table and hit Serge so completely in the face that I couldn't believe I'd managed it so beautifully right, like in a cartoon or something. And he got up, very dignified, and he walked towards the exit. I ran after him and I realised I'd done the worst thing which was showing him up in public. He just continued his walk down the rue la Reine with great crusts of custard pie falling off his face. And I thought, "What to do? How might I possibly be forgiven?" And I realised my only chance was to run past him and intrigue him in some way so that he would follow me. And it worked just perfectly. I got to the Seine and Serge said I was crouching behind a tree waiting to see if he came down the steps as I hoped he would. He came down and then I threw myself into the Seine and Serge was taking off his watch because it was a Cartier and it wasn't waterproof. They had to get the pompiers to help me, it's not a very sensible thing to do. But there I was in Serge's arms and he forgave me. It was very childish but he was very sweet.

TS: Do you think you'll stay in Paris forever?

JB: I don't know that you can ever say that you'll be anywhere forever. But I can't imagine being anywhere other than Paris because I've got so used to the French. I've got used to the things that other people might think of as failings but I find attractive. The qualities and faults I love in a bundle, in the way you do when you love a person. Perhaps you love the faults just as much as the qualities in actual fact. I just remember falling in love here and thinking it was so free and I could spend hours taking a coffee. I suppose I was free because I wasn't under my parents' eye. I knew that I could actually make up my past. The great thing about crossing to another country is that you can exaggerate wildly and you don't wound anybody. So I was free to do exactly as I wanted and probably with the most attractive man in France. I do think about going away but the French have adopted me. Would I be brave enough to go somewhere where I'd be totally unknown? I don't know. You can have weeks or months doing that but not forever.

TS: Parisians sometimes have a reputation for being difficult. Is that fair?

JB: I do encourage people to come here. They mustn't be put off by people being bolshie. You just need to learn to say one thing and that is, "Pardon, Je ne parle pas francais." And then it's fine; everything is ok side and you'll find people every bit as gentle and kind as they are anywhere else. What they get upset about is when foreigners just come bursting into shops and expect everyone to speak English. There's the whole thing about Paris being beautiful. But the people are too. I hate it when people just talk about monuments. What does one really care about monuments? I love the way the English are so polite and cheery but in France it's different. Whatever people say, they open their arms to so many strangers. There are a great many foreign people in France and perhaps I was always meant to be a foreigner -- when you actually appreciate another culture, when you find it such fun. I just find everything else more exciting and I like learning about people. For the history and for the beauty and for the funny French -- they don't obey rules and they're all so individual. You can't muck around with the French and that's something I've come to admire.

TS: Tell us about your new album, "Fictions"

JB: The original idea behind doing the record was the idea of coming home, which in my case was England and I wanted to sing in English for the first time, or practically the first time. The first song on the album called "Home" is by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy and he wrote lyrics about childhood because perhaps that's the home that you really want to get back to and you know you never can. It's kind of him to hand over such a pretty song. And then there is song about a phantom photograph falling off a chimney piece and coming to your feet and that was from a poem by Hervé Guibert which we set to "Pavane Pour Une Enfante Defunte" by Ravel. That finishes the record and you can think of the phantom you want, or whatever ghost, probably in my case Serge Gainsbourg.



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