Jane & Serge, Museum of Fine Arts, Calais. France

A new exhibition of photographs of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, taken by her brother Andrew Birkin has just opened in Calais. Rupert Parker went to see it and met both Birkins

Jane Birkin is infamous for the song she recorded with Serge Gainsbourg, Je t’aime…moi non plus. It was banned in several countries and despite the BBC refusing to play it in Britain, it topped the charts in 1969 and stayed there for nine weeks. She’d had her first big break previously in Blow Up, Antonioni’s 1967 depiction of swinging London

She first met Gainsbourg when she was playing opposite him in the movie Slogan in Paris. They soon became an item and stayed together until 1981. Jane’s brother, Andrew Birkin, became a regular visitor to their home in France and became good friends with Gainsbourg. He’d been working with Stanley Kubrick, scouting locations and always had a camera round his neck. Over 12 years, he photographed their life together, but the pictures stayed in his private collection until art publisher, Taschen, brought out Jane & Serge, a Family Album in 2013.

The new exhibition is based on a selection of prints from that book, blowing many of them up to fit the entire wall and adding brief presentations of the cultural context. They span 1964 to 1979 and also include postcards, home movies, film clips and even some of the cameras. It’s organised into six sections named after songs written by Gainsbourg, and although he had something of a wild reputation, the pictures show him engulfed in domesticity.

Andrew Birkin shows me round, telling me that he stayed good friends with Gainsbourg until his early death from a heart attack in 1991. He always looked him up when he was in Paris but by the end his drinking had got the better of him. Still, his brusque exterior concealed a melancholy, probably stemming from his Jewish childhood in WW2 occupied France.

Jane Birkin at 71 still retains something of her cut glass English Rose accent and has none of the airs and graces you might expect of a movie star. She appears without makeup in jeans and a simple black top. The only hint of stardom is her two year old bulldog who spends most of the time snoring loudly. “Looking at the photographs is a bit weird”, she says. “It makes me feel dead”. She’s far from that and currently is in the middle of a world concert tour singing orchestral versions of Gainsbourg’s songs.

After they split up Serge continued writing songs for her and she made the album “Baby Alone in Babylone” which she considers to be her best record. These days he’s still influencing French songwriters. “He never repeated himself, never became a parody” she muses. “He rediscovered the French language”. Perhaps that’s what holds British listeners back, as the songs are impossible to translate. His most famous song transcended language. “Je t’aime created a fuss all over the world” she says, “I was delighted.”

What’s special about this exhibition is that the photographs are far more than ordinary snapshots, but carefully crafted images. Indeed the difference between the shots that Birkin was commissioned to shoot and the candid domestic shots is marginal. He’s gone on to have a long career as a film director and scriptwriter and this is his documentary of a love affair that produced some great music. It made me go home and pull out my old Gainsbourg records, although I must confess that Je t’aime is still my favourite.

The exhibition runs until 4 November 2018 and is open from 1.00pm to 6.00pm, except Mondays and public holidays.

Museum of Fine Arts
25 rue Richelieu – 62100 Calais