Updated: Aug 20
The legendary actress and singer had been living in Paris since 1969. Plus: five essential Birkin films to add to your collection.
We employ the word “icon” far too liberally these days, but it’s undeniable that Jane Birkin was the real deal, a bona fide icon of both cinema and style.
French media was the first to carry the news on Sunday morning that Birkin had died at the age of 76; the cause was not yet determined, but Birkin, who had lived in Paris since 1969, had suffered a mild stroke in 2021 and had largely not been seen in public since. Other reports noted she had been treated for cancer in recent years.
Fans of film, fashion and pop culture alike are conjuring favorite memories of Birkin as the news unfolds. A doe-eyed beauty who came to personify both the style of the swinging 1960s and an effortless French chic in the 1970s and beyond, Birkin indeed was admired as much for her personal aesthetic as her talent as an actress and singer. Appearances in 1966’s Blow-Up and 1969’s La Piscine continue to rank high among cinema devotees, while even guilty-pleasure films — notably her two movies based on Agatha Christie novels, 1978’s Death on the Nile and 1982’s Evil Under the Sun — are beloved partly due to Birkin’s performances. Her 13-year relationship with Serge Gainsbourg also catapulted her into the stratosphere of international fame.
The London-born Birkin was the daughter of British actress Judy Campbell and David Birkin, a Royal Navy lieutenant commander who later was revealed to be a spy for England during World War II. In interviews, Birkin noted that early in her acting career she lived in the shadow of her elegant mother, whose stage fame included a close friendship with Noel Coward, who referred to Campbell as a muse, while Cecil Beaton named her the most beautiful woman in England. Birkin explained how she felt in a 2020 conversation in Interview magazine: “My mother was a theater actress of great beauty, and when people said to me, ‘Are you Judy Campbell’s daughter,’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘Oh, well you don’t really look like her. You don’t have the same…’ and so I said, ‘The same class?’ and they said, ‘Yes, that’s probably it.’ So I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got no hope there.’”
But Birkin ultimately possessed an element that transcended traditional elegance, as her personal approach to style dovetailed perfectly as fashion’s Mod movement emerged in the 1960s. Even as she was establishing herself as an actress in theater and film, with early roles like the character called simply “Exquisite Thing” in the 1966 Warren Beatty-starrer Kaleidoscope, Birkin was also making news as a model and stylish woman about London, her lanky frame perfect for the ultra-modern clothes of Mary Quant and other British designers. Her worlds of fashion and film collided in 1966’s Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s story about a fashion photographer, played by David Hemmings, who without realizing may have captured images of a murder while he’s photographing a pair of lovers in a park. Vanessa Redgrave and model Verushka also star in this look at a hot London photographer at the height of his fame, while Birkin died her brunette hair to play “The Blonde,” a role that included a racy nude scene and quickly vaulted her to fame.
“I never thought that would shock,” Birkin said of the scene in a 2008 interview with The Daily Mail, noting that she took the part almost on a dare from composer John Barry, her husband from 1965 to 1968. “I was offered a role in Blow-Up, and he said I wouldn’t have the courage to go naked, so I thought: ‘Well, I’ll do it and that will thrill him.’”
By the time Birkin and Barry divorced, she was already making headlines for her next relationship, with French icon Serge Gainsbourg. The pair met on the set of 1969’s Slogan; Birkin said she was instantly smitten, and evidently the feeling was mutual. Gainsbourg had written a song for Brigitte Bardot, Je T’Aime…Mon Non Plus, though his plans to release a version with the French actress were quickly quashed.
“He not only wrote it for Brigitte Bardot, but he recorded it with her,” Birkin explained in a 2020 television interview with Christiane Amanpour. “And in the recording studio there were photos that got published, and Gunter Sachs, to whom she was married, made it so that she would ask Serge to stop it, for it not to come out. So he had it in a drawer. A year later he came across me, because we did a film together, Slogan. He was a gentleman, but he couldn’t quite resist showing me what he’d got in his drawer, making me listen to Je T’Aime…Mon Non Plus with Bardot, which was incredibly sexy. And so he said, ‘Do you want to sing it?’ and as I was madly in love with him, I said ‘Well, of course,’ because I didn’t want anybody else to be singing it with him.”
Je T’Aime…Mon Non Plus was quickly denounced as too risqué, banned from radio play in the United Kingdom, Spain, Brazil, Italy and Portugal, while it also was forbidden to be played prior to 11 p.m. in France — all of which also made the song an instant hit, selling three million copies by October 1969. Birkin and Gainsbourg, meanwhile, quickly become a celebrated couple, a gorgeous pair who embraced a jet-setting lifestyle that combined their shared passions of work and travel. Gainsbourg also directed a 1976 film version loosely based on the song, starring Birkin and featuring an erotic storyline that likewise endured challenges by censors in various countries, but which never caught on among fans the way the song continues to resonate.
While Birkin starred in primarily French films in recent years, she may be best known to mainstream American audiences via her roles in Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun, both starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot and both based on Christie’s novels of the same names, with screenplays by Anthony Shaffer. In each film, Birkin seems to send up her fashion-icon status, playing mousy characters who are decidedly unfashionable — though Evil Under the Sun upends that notion by the film’s end (no spoilers). Both movies feature costumes by Sir Anthony Powell, who passed away in April 2021; in a 2020 interview for ES, the Evening Standard’s weekly magazine, Birkin noted that “sweet Anthony Powell, the great costume designer,” was among the people she called when she wanted to have fun.
In recent years Birkin toured venues around the world, singing selections from both her own music and the songs written by Gainsbourg. Her final onscreen appearance is the 2020 music video for Les Jeux Interdits, a song from Oh! Pardon tu dormais (“Oh! Sorry, you were sleeping”), her 2021 album. She is survived by two daughters, both of whom followed their mother into dual actress/singer careeers —Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon, Birkin’s daughter from her relationship with French director Jacques Doillon — and six grandchildren. Birkin’s oldest daughter from her marriage to Barry, British fashion photographer Kate Barry, died in 2013 after falling from her balcony in Paris. Birkin explored the heartbreak of her daughter’s loss in Oh! Pardon tu dormais.
Of course, no conversation about Birkin is complete without a mention of the high-wattage handbag that bears her name. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, Birkin often was photographed with an open-top straw basket bag, discovered during a trip to Portugal, on her arm as her carryall, and like much of her style, it was quickly imitated by young girls around the world. But while on a flight from Paris to London in 1984, the bag’s contents spilled out while she was stowing it in the overhead compartment, causing the man seated next to her to ask why she didn’t own something more practical. That man was Jean-Louis Dumas, executive chairman of Hermès from 1978 to 2006. “I said, ‘Why don’t you make a bag that’s sort of four times the Kelly, that you can leave open, and sort of half the size of my suitcase, because girls like to have things on the end of their arm to put all their stuff in,’” Birkin recalled to Amanpour in 2020. “And he said, ‘Draw it for me.’”
The only piece of paper that was handy was the airsick bag in her seatback pocket, Birkin remembered, but she used it to sketch what she was thinking. Dumas took the drawing and months later presented Birkin with the result, crafted in supple black leather with gold hardware. When she attempted to pay for the bag, “He said, ‘No, it’s a gift,’” Birkin explained to Amanpour. “So I was knocked out. Then he said, ‘But we think it’s so great, we’d like to give it your name and to put it out as a handbag; we’ve only had my grandfather’s traveling bag and the Kelly, named after Grace Kelly.’ So I’m grateful, of course.” Stories circulated in recent years that Birkin wanted to eschew her association with the bag, largely due to her concerns over how some exotic skins were acquired for its construction, but a meeting with Hermès execs led to her assurances that their practices aligned with her own philosophy.
Unsurprising for anyone who knew Birkin, she owned only four versions of her eponymous handbag over the years, with three donated to auctions to raise funds for charities that included AIDS-related causes and the International Committee of the Red Cross. And occasionally she still could be seen carrying her beloved open-top straw basket bag, part of a wardrobe that continued to feel effortless. Ultimately, no one was more surprised than Birkin when she would be asked about her enduring status as a fashion icon, defining her sartorial choices as “nice, but boring.” Generations of women and girls would be quick to disagree.
Five Jane Birkin Films to Add to Your Collection
Feeling the need to revisit Jane Birkin's best work? Here's a look at five films you can add to your collection now:
The Criterion Collection
Starring David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Birkin
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Costumes by Jocelyn Rickards
List price: $19.99 on Blu-ray, at Amazon
In addition to a new, restored 4K digital transfer, Birkin fans will discover another reason to add this seductive thriller to their collection: Among the extras is an archival interview not only with the actress, but director Antonioni and star Hemmings as well. A 52-minute documentary on the making of the film is also included.
Starring Jack MacGowran and Jane Birkin
Directed by Joe Massot
Costumes by Jocelyn Rickards
List price: $15.28 on Blu-ray, at Amazon
Like Blow-Up, Birkin plays a model in Wonderwall, a storyline that would feel decidedly controversial today. Birkin's Penny moves into an apartment building, where she immediately attracts the attention of MacGowran's scientist, who becomes so obsessed that he drills holes in the walls so he can spy on her. The uncomfortable plot aside, there's one fantastically trippy reason to add Wonderwall to your collection, especially if you're a Beatles fan: George Harrison wrote and produced the soundtrack of the film, which was released by the Beatles' Apple films. A fab bonus detail: The full name of Birkin's character is Penny Lane.
The Criterion Collection
Starring Alain Delon, Romy Schneider and Jane Birkin
Directed by Jacques Deray
Costumes by André Courrèges
List price: $21.82 on Blu-ray, at Amazon
"Sizzling" is a terrific word to describe this erotic thriller set on the French Riviera. Once a couple in real life, Delon and Schneider had been broken up for a decade when they reunited to make La Piscine ("The Swimming Pool"), which makes the chemistry just one reason to add this film to your collection. The pair plays a couple on vacation, a scenario that becomes complicated when a friend arrives with his 18-year-old daughter, played by Birkin. Features include a new 4K restoration, archival interviews with all the primary cast members and a 2019 documentary, Fifty Years Later, that commemorates the film's five-decade anniversary and likewise includes interviews with Delon and Birkin.
KL Studio Classics
Starring Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow and Jane Birkin
Directed by John Guillermin
Costumes by Anthony Powell
List price: $18.96 on Blu-ray, at Amazon
Albert Finney may have kicked off a 1970s renaissance of films based on Agatha Christie novels when he starred as Hercule Poirot in 1974's Murder on the Orient Express, but Peter Ustinov brought a decided lightness and humor to the role when he picked up the mantle to star as the famed Belgian detective in 1978's Death on the Nile. These films were also notable for featuring all-star casts that often included icons of the classic era — in this case, Bette Davis, David Niven and Angela Lansbury. Anthony Powell won his second of three Oscars for Best Costume Design for his work on this film, while Birkin does terrific character work as a mousy maid. Features are spare on this release, but the campy performances and the visuals — Jack Cardiff served as director of photography — make this a worthy addition to any collection.
KL Studio Classics
Starring Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg and Jane Birkin
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Costumes by Anthony Powell
List price: $24.12 on Blu-ray, at Amazon
Speaking of camp, there's plenty of that detail on display in this 1982 follow-up to Death on the Nile. Evil Under the Sun tells the story of a murder at an island resort in the Adriatic Sea, and most notably, Birkin's presence is greatly expanded in this film. No spoilers, though; suffice it to say that she starts out as a mousy character, but that's not how the film ends. Smith also stars in this film alongside Roddy McDowall and James Mason, while Diana Rigg chews the scenery quite well as an actress who's made an enemy of almost everyone at the resort. Anthony Powell, meanwhile, produces costumes that walk a fine line between 1930s elegant and a touch outlandish (the looks designed for Smith's Daphne Castle leap to mind for the latter). Features on this release include a 2K restoration produced by StudioCanal in 2017, a new audio commentary with film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson, and a making-of documentary.