Jane Birkin, the iconic British-born actress, singer and model who became a chart-topping artist in France with her collaborations with then-partner Serge Gainsbourg, has died at the age of 76.
Birkin’s death was announced Sunday by the French culture ministry, which said Birkin was found dead at her Paris home. No cause of death was provided. Birkin recently canceled concerts due to unspecified health reasons; in recent years, she also suffered a stroke and battled leukemia.
French president Emmanuel Macron tweeted Sunday, “Because she embodied freedom, because she sang the most beautiful words of our language, Jane Birkin was a French icon. A complete artist, her voice was as sweet as her engagements were fiery. She bequeaths us tunes and images that will never leave us.”
A staple of London’s Swinging London scene, Birkin had small roles in films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup and the George Harrison-soundtracked Wonderwall before landing the lead role in the French film Slogan alongside crooner Serge Gainsbourg.
After relocating to France, Birkin and Gainsbourg rerecorded his song “Je t’aime… moi non plus” — previously a duet between Gainsbourg and Brigette Bardot — in 1969, with the track becoming a Number One single in the U.K., the first foreign language song to reach the top spot in that country.
Birkin and the much-older Gainsbourg’s personal and professional relationship lasted a decade; together, they had a daughter, French singer and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. Birkin also served as the narrator of sorts and album cover model on Serge Gainsbourg’s classic 1971 LP Histoire de Melody Nelson. Birkin later starred in Gainsbourg’s 1976 film Je t’aime moi non plus, which was so sexually explicit that it was banned in the U.K.
Over a film career that spanned seven decades, Birkin appeared in films by legendary directors like Jean-Luc Godard (Keep Your Right Up!), Jacques Rivette (Le Belle Noiseuse), Agnes Varda (One Hundred and One Nights, Kung Fu Master, and Jane B. par Agnes V.), Alain Resnais (Same Old Song) and Roger Vadim (Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman).
American audiences experienced Birkin in a pair of Agatha Christie adaptations — 1978’s Death on the Nile and 1982’s Evil Under the Sun — as well as movies like James Ivory’s A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries. Birkin made her directorial debut in 2006 with her film Boxes; her last on-screen role was in the documentary Jane by Charlotte, which served as her daughter Charlotte’s directorial debut. Birkin was also the mother of French singer Lou Doillon through her decade-long relationship with the director Jacques Doillion.
Birkin also served as inspiration for one of fashion’s most desirable items: Hermes’ Birkin bag, which was created in the 1980s after a chance encounter on an airplane between the actress-singer and the fashion house’s Jean-Louis Dumas. On the flight, Birkin complained about the lack of quality leather handbags, and the now-revered bag was produced soon after. (Decades later, the bag and Birkin herself was famously name-checked on Migos’ “Jane.”)
Despite their tumultuous (and sometimes abusive) relationship, Birkin remained a steadfast supporter of Serge Gainsbourg’s music long after that French singer’s death; in 2020, she took part in Birkin Gainsbourg the Symphonic Starring Jane Birkin, an all-star staging of her collaborative work; both Charlotte Gainsbourg and Iggy Pop took part in the New York performance.