A strange set of serendipitous circumstances led renowned French chanteuse Jane Birkin to cut a new concept album at age 74. “Oh! Pardon tu dormais…” was released last December abroad and reissued in the U.S. in February.
It started as a TV movie of the same name she wrote and directed in 1992 starring Jacques Perrin and Christine Boisson as lovers in a late-night, real-time bedroom feud. A few years later, it transformed into a popular long-running stage play in which she played the female lead herself.
“I thought I might as well, since I knew the character so well,” she says. A young composer named Étienne Daho started coming backstage to see her, and he proposed she extend the project into a musical monologue; it eventually became her 14th studio album.
“It’s rare for a singer and a songwriter to be interested in the theater, but when Étienne first came along to see the play, he said he had known the feeling of the girl and the man. He’d been through something very similar himself, he told me,” says Birkin, who eventually agreed to work with him and his collaborator Jean-Louis Pierot.
“So for the last 20 years, he’s been saying, ‘Why don’t we make a long-playing record?’ But it was never the right time for him or me.”
Birkin’s play-album-TV movie concerns a couple that verbally scraps one evening.
“It’s about asking questions at the wrong time of night, and not getting the replies you want, and then it’s turning into a nightmare,” she says. The drama ends with the woman barking like a dog in despair and defiance.
After touring the world with her 2017 orchestral reimagining of her work with her ex-beau, the late Serge Gainsbourg —“Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique” — she finally felt ready, and contacted Daho, who was still so enthusiastic that he already had most of the Brecht/Weill-like “Oh! Pardon” melodies written by the time she arrived to record them in February 2020 before COVID-19 shut studios down.
Birkin admits it’s taken getting used to, promoting her album via Zoom and socially-distanced TV appearances in France. But the British-born beauty has been adapting to dramatic changes her entire life, since she first left swinging London in 1968 for Paris to star in director Pierre Grimblat’s film “Slogan,” even though she spoke no French at the time of her audition.
Then married to composer John Barry, she fell in love with the suave Gainsbourg on set, and by 1969 moved to France and recorded the landmark duets debut “Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg,” featuring the steamy sex-simulating single “Je t’aime…moi non plus.”
The photogenic couple’s 13-year relationship was celebrated by a huge 2019 Paris gallery exhibition of candid shots taken by her brother Andrew Birkin and fellow photographer Tony Frank.
“I know the photos by heart,” says Birkin, describing the 1960s-70s images which capture the lovers’ apparently effortless instinct for just being cool.
The Galerie de L’Instant spared no expense, she adds. A famous shot of Gainsbourg and their dog Nana had been blown up to wall size for added effect, and specific rooms had been sensually enhanced to underscore the visual experience, including one wafting the aroma of fresh-cut grass.
“They actually made an original scent, a perfume — they tried to get you in the mood to smell…us, I suppose, and it was very sweet, very touching,” says the pop-culture icon, also renowned for the Hermes Birkin Bag created in her honor. She was in the news again last week, when the French media observed the 30th anniversary of Gainsbourg’s death on March 2, 1991.
Birkin parented chic daughters with three of her paramours — actress/folk-rockers Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon (with Gainsbourg and later film-director beau Jacques Doillon, respectively), and — with first spouse John Barry, late photographer Kate Barry, who shot the cover of Carla Bruni’s debut disc in an illustrious career that tragically ended with her fatal fall from a fourth-story window in 2013.
Birkin expanded “Oh! Pardon” songs (the English-sung “Ghosts” and “Catch Me if You Can”), touching on the still sensitive topic of whether it was suicide-or accident.
“It will always be a mystery. She had just broken up with her boyfriend, but I have friends who went out to dinner with her that night, and they said she was extremely happy,” Birkin says.
Although Birkin, an Officer of the British Empire, appeared in Michelangelo Antonioni’s definitive 1966 film “Blowup,” and has acted with Joan Collins, Sir John Gielgud, and even Christopher Lee, she continues to reinvent herself.
In 2016, she played a baker who falls in love with a train conductor in the Oscar-nominated Swiss short “La femme et le TGV.” And lately, fans have been likening her prescient “Oh! Pardon” to the Netflix movie “Malcolm and Marie,” featuring a brutal but believable one-night argument, which she has yet to see.
“They’re always good coincidences that happen to me,” Birkin says. “I mean, thank goodness John Barry went off to Los Angeles (in 1968) and left me, because I never would have done anything. But because he left, I went off to Paris for an audition, not speaking any French, desperate to do some work as I had my little daughter (Kate) to look after. And then I met Serge, so one thing always leads to another…