For years, Jane Birkin's mother would ask her and her siblings the same thing again and again: I wonder if you love me. Birkin says she always hated that question. "Only now, three years after my mother died, do I understand that this is the most essential question there is: Do you love me?" she said this week in an interview in Jerusalem.
Birkin relates how, when her mother was dying in the hospital, she spent many nights with her sister at their mother's bedside. The three of them would watch DVDs of films that her mother especially liked. "On her last night I slept in her bed with her. Before that I had never seen anyone die, and when I saw her eyes flickering like that I was very scared. My sister and I panicked; we didn't know what to do. And right at that moment my brother arrived, and all of a sudden my mother opened her eyes, and I thought, 'She's heard him, she heard her son coming.'
"The three of us stood there and we shouted to my mother, 'We love you, you've been a great mother, we love you,' and then she died. And I thought to myself that this really is the eternal question. You can write books, you can make films, you can have quite a successful artistic career, but the eternal questions will always remain, whether the people around you love you and whether you've done the right things. I think that these are the questions that all mothers have, all daughters, and they are my questions."
The actress, singer and director came for a visit to Israel last week as a guest of the Jerusalem Film Festival. As on her previous visit three years ago, she also went to the territories of the Palestinian Authority. On that visit she performed in Tel Aviv, Gaza, Ramallah and Bethlehem with songs written by her onetime husband, the late French poet Serge Gainsbourg. This time she came to present her new film, "Boxes," which she wrote and directed and in which she also plays the main role, at the Jerusalem festival and in Ramallah.
Though she gave fictitious names to the characters in her film, they are all based on Birkin and her close family. Anna, the heroine, has moved into a new home. Against the backdrop of boxes waiting to be unpacked, she conducts a reckoning of conscience and examines her relationships with her parents, her daughters, the men in her life and of course herself.
Birkin has not tried to blur the fact that the film is to a large extent autobiographical. Not only does she herself play the part of Anna, but her daughter Lou Doillon plays one of her daughters in the film. And Anna, like Birkin, has three daughters from three different men.
Birkin arrives half an hour late for the interview. She apologizes for the delay, sits down and erupts in a flow of stories about what has happened to her during the course of her long day In Ramallah. Slim and good-looking at 60, Birkin was in her youth considered one of the leading sex symbols of Europe. Despite the long trips, the cruel Mediterranean summer and the busy day she has had, she is bursting with vitality and energy. She speaks rapidly, accompanying her words with swift gestures of her hands, and moves associatively from one subject to the next. From time to time, French words slip into her British English.
Birkin displays the pictures she drew in her sketchbook a few hours earlier in Ramallah. One shows dozens of children sitting on the floor and gazing at an unseen point. "It is so wonderful to see so many children, from the age of zero to 15 or 16, staring at a puppet show and laughing and having a good time," she says.
She wrote the screenplay for "Boxes" 12 years ago, after she bought a house in Brittany, the house where the film was ultimately shot. "I had just come back from Sarajevo after I had fallen in love with a man there," relates Birkin, "and I thought that I could start a new life. But the only person who said to me, 'Go for it' enthusiastically was my mother. My three daughters asked me, 'Isn't it a little too fast? Don't you need to think about it a little more?'" She adds that Lou, the youngest of the three, who was at that time an adolescent girl of 14, became depressed. "I thought it was terrible that my children weren't letting me do what I want, that they weren't giving me the right to live that life."
In the film, Birkin rummages through her past and her relationships with the people dear to her in order to confirm or refute her fears that she was not a good enough mother and not a good enough daughter. She squirms with feelings of guilt, scolds the people around her for their part in the mistakes that were made and takes comfort in moments of closeness and love that she shares with them.
The sentence that broke me
She acknowledges that she wrote the screenplay at a time when she was tortured by past mistakes. "At that time, it looked to me unfair that my daughter Lou was angry at me because I had fallen in love with someone, because her father had fallen in love with someone else and they even had a baby and that was all right. But then I started to think about my other two daughters as well, whether for example it had been the right decision not to live with the father of my first daughter, Kate? Maybe despite everything I should have stayed with him and followed him to America? Maybe I should have done that for her sake?
"But at the time I didn't want to chase after him. I decided that I would raise my child by myself, that I would make money and that I would be fine. And I started to think that maybe with my second daughter, Charlotte, I had also made a lot of mistakes. I thought that maybe I should have made more of an effort to open doors with her, to ask more questions, because she was a very private person, and in this case, too, I didn't know whether I'd done the right thing."
Jane Mallory Birkin was born in 1946 in London, to an actress mother and a father who was an officer in the British navy. She became famous at 19, when director Michelangelo Antonioni cast her in his film "Blowup," in which she played a young model. That same year she married her first husband, English composer John Barry, a marriage that led to the birth of Kate. In 1968 Birkin left London, moved to Paris (where she lives to this day) and married Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she had a stormy and publicized relationship. A year after they married, the two recorded the song "Je t'aime - moi non plus," which combined an erotic text with moans and sighs, and for that reason was banned for broadcast on a number of radio stations in Europe. This prohibition of course helped publicize the song, which quickly became a hit. Three years after they were married, their daughter, actress Charlotte Gainsbourg ("The Science of Sleep," "The Golden Door"), was born.
Birkin's image as a rebel was further reinforced when she appeared in 1973 as Brigitte Bardot's lover in the film "If Don Juan Were a Woman," directed by Roger Vadim. After that she appeared in films by Jacques Rivette and the British team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory; developed her singing career and put out a number of albums; and also devoted time to various humanitarian activities. In 1982 she gave birth to her third daughter, Lou, with French director Jacques Doillon.
As in her new film, in the interview Birkin speaks freely about her complex relationships with her daughters and her parents. She has no hesitation speaking about the difficult period she went through when daughter Lou was an adolescent. ("She smoked hash, she didn't want to go to school, she roamed the streets a lot and in the end she said to me the sentence that broke me: 'I haven't had the parents I wanted.'") With all frankness, Birkin also reveals the difficulties she experienced in her relationship with her mother.
Birkin is a Briton who has been living in France for 40 years now. Throughout the interview she does say "we British" several times, but when she is asked whether she feels more British than French, she says no. She says that she loves the intermediate situation that she is in. "I love being a foreigner in the country I live in. This gives me a lot of freedom," she says.
This freedom enabled her to thumb her nose at conventions that did not appeal to her in Paris and ignore rules she did not like. "France is a country where I have never obeyed a single rule. When I had just come there to live, I wore very short skirts, I went around with my basket and I remember that one time I went to Restaurant Maxim with Serge and they wanted to throw me out of there because I was wearing a very short skirt and I didn't agree to give up my basket. I'd gotten used to doing whatever I wanted in that city."
Today too, she still does whatever she wants in the city. "I often cross the street barefoot, in a nightgown and a raincoat. I also walk around the city barefoot with my grandchildren, because it's fun, and children love this, and it sometimes happens that at one o'clock at night I push them in a shopping cart through the streets and we look in the shop windows together.
"I love the freedom to take whatever suits me from each of those cultures," she says. "It's a bit like Serge, who loved to say of himself that he was a wandering Jew and didn't want to belong to any country. I love to travel to different countries, I love to see the world through my sketchbook, as an adult, an eccentric woman, half French and half British. That's how I like it."
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