Arabesque: Jane Birkin with four instrumentalists, Tel Aviv University, December 4, 2003
"Is that Jane Birkin?" exclaimed all those who saw the ads for her upcoming visit to Israel. "Is that how you would expect a woman who has been on the stage for 40 years to look?" To check out this miracle from up close, and perhaps because of Birkin's maverick past, large crowds descended on Tel Aviv University's new auditorium earlier this month.
Birkin was already a celebrity in 1966, after appearing in Michelangelo Antonioni's prizewinning movie "Blow Up." When she moved from England to France at the age of 20, the French chanson singer Serge Gainsbourg immediately fell in love with her. Together they recorded an album called "Histoire de Melody Nelson" (on the cover of which Birkin holds up a stuffed monkey to cover her naked breasts) and the hit song featuring sensuous sighs, "Je t'aime - moi non plus" ("I love you - Me neither") that even those who never heard of Birkin will remember.
But when Birkin got up on the stage in Tel Aviv two weeks ago, it was clear right away that she also has a presence. Actually, it was hard to see any change in her since she was 20. It was virtually all there: the pretty face, the gap between her front teeth, the full laugh, the slim figure, belying the passage of time. And of course, the same small voice that Birkin stretches with all her might, not always reaching the high notes and the low notes, but making up for it by running and jumping and prancing all over the stage, barefoot and makeup-free.
At 57, Jane Birkin still manages to play the role she has played all her life: the sweet girl, dazzled by the spotlight, joyful and teary by turn, thanking the audience over and over for doing the incredible - coming to hear her.
How different Birkin is from another diva, Marlene Dietrich, who appeared at the age of 70 in a pearl- studded gown encasing her body like a shroud, perfectly made up to cover the signs of decay. Birkin has always played the rebellious daughter of the bourgeoisie. Since that famous duet with Gainsbourg, which was banned from the radio, she has rocked the boat many a time. The other songs Gainsbourg wrote for her (like those he sang himself) experiment with both language and music. One example is "Baby Alone in Babylone," about a girl in America - the new Babylon, set to the third movement of Brahm's Symphony No. 3.
Birkin pokes fun not only at the bourgeoisie, like Jacques Brel, but also at herself. She laughs at the limitations of her voice, for example, and in "Di Doo Dah," mocks the smallness of her bust - all this decked out in a skin-tight red evening gown with a plunging neckline. She doesn't pretend to be a French chanson singer. She performs the songs of this genre, especially those written by Gainsbourg, in her native English accent.
But with her clever instincts, Birkin knows how to turn her disadvantages into advantages. Even today, when this flower girl of the `60s lives in the lap of luxury in Paris, women her age embrace her like a daughter and teenagers admire her boyish figure. Her voice is small, both in recordings and live performances, but she looms large on the stage. She lavishly caresses the audience with words of love ("Adieu sweet faces from Tel Aviv"), and the audience cannot help but respond.
A great miracle happened in Tel Aviv. People set their suspicions aside and allowed themselves to feel moved in the presence of strangers. Because there is great comfort in Jane Birkin's persona, a sense that what was, is still there - the laughter, the tears, the sincerity - even if it is bought with a ticket.
After the concert, Birkin sat on the edge of the stage, talking to members of the audience who approached her, autographing CDs. The French director was already urging the crowd of admirers to hurry up; close up, in ordinary light, some signs of age were visible. And yet there was still something accessible about Birkin, allowing careworn Israelis to reach out and touch world class. Perhaps because she has never made much of herself, the fans love her all the more.
If Jane Birkin had come to Tel Aviv just to sing her old songs, that would have been enough. But here she was, surprising us with her new show, "Arabesque," a marvelous synthesis of French chanson and Arabic music now on world tour. We have heard the songs before, but the new arrangements and musical accompaniment - darbouka, oud, piano and violin - give them a new and intriguing sound.
With the help of her instrumentalists, and above all, violinist and musical arranger Djamel Benyelles, this combo of east and west, old and new, even becomes natural and harmonious. Birkin trills as much as her voice allows her to, sings a duet with the Arab violin, and dedicates her love song "Couleur Caf" ("Coffee Color") to her musicians.
In this way, she creates what she calls the "interesting melange" that colors the whole evening. She flits back and forth between English and French with bi- national ease, and peppers the performance with words in Arabic and Hebrew, as if there were no walls between them. The English girl who chose to live in France and marry a Jew is now flirting with musicians of Arab descent, celebrating the absence of racial purity and infuriating the nationalists with her captivating smile.
The audience that came to see her in Tel Aviv included people of all ages and political stripes, from leftists and French Jewish immigrants to Palestinian teenagers. Among the stops on her tour, Birkin mentioned Palestine - she performed in Bethlehem, Ramallah and Gaza last week - and no one in the auditorium made a peep.
And so, without saying a word about the "Arab problem" in Europe and France of the 21st century, and without preaching to the Israelis who came to hear her, Jane Birkin pulled it off: a show exuding optimism and brotherhood, if only for an hour.
Benny Mer is the author of the Hebrew novel "Most Nights."