The English singer and actor Jane Birkin met Serge Gainsbourg in 1968 when she was 22, and left the French singer and songwriter more than half a lifetime ago in 1980 – yet at 71 her name is still rarely mentioned without being bracketed with his.
As an exhibition of photographs – called, inevitably, Jane & Serge – opens in Calais, she seemed philosophical about the oversight. Among scores of glamorous images of the couple, the largest photograph by far, blown up to the size of a barn door, is of his handsome if haggard features cradling not Birkin but their dog Nana.
“That’s what happens when you are with a great man,” she said. “He was a great man. I was just pretty.”
She was equally cheerfully accepting of the fact that much of her fame still rests on one scandalous song, the ecstatic moans of Je t’aime … moi non plus, recorded in the year she met him, and an international hit despite being banned in many countries.
“It was surprising to be banned by both the Vatican and the BBC,” she said. “And it was funny to have the BBC orchestra playing it because they wouldn’t play it on Top of the Pops.”
Birkin is halfway through a world tour of orchestral versions of Gainsbourg songs, and added: “If I am singing in Argentina in two weeks’ time, it is because of Je t’aime.”
The photographs were taken by Birkin’s brother, Andrew, a film scriptwriter and director, who had been photographing his sister since he first bought a cheap camera in his teens. Some in the exhibition are family snaps, while others – including the couple mugging for the camera on a red doubledecker bus – come from a magazine photo shoot. All had been carefully filed away for half a century, and some he had never seen printed before.
He met Gainsbourg almost as soon as his sister did, when he was working with Stanley Kubrick on the eventually aborted project for an epic film of Napoleon, and she wrote from the set of the film Slogan, begging him to come and keep her company and cheer her up from her daily encounters with “a horrible man”, who was mocking and teasing her. Gainsbourg was, and remains a giant in French cultural circles, but Birkin was already well known from film roles including a famous nude scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up.
Birkin said: “I fell in love with Serge, Andrew fell in love with Serge, Serge fell in love with Andrew, we were a trio.”
Her brother had no partner or children at the time, and regularly joined the couple and their children – her daughter Kate from her marriage to the composer John Barry, and Charlotte, born in 1971 – and dogs for holidays. Andrew Birkin took photographs continuously, documenting long lunches, smoky evenings, sleepy mornings, and less familiar views of the moody Gainsbourg roaring with laughter or playing rowdy games with the children. The gallery in Calais is a few miles up the coast from many of the happy seaside settings.
“I had never met anyone like him, I adored him,” Andrew Birkin said. “It was not sexual – or maybe that is not what a psychiatrist would say. We did kiss on the lips.” Their intense triangular friendship survived the breakup of his sister’s relationship. He last saw Gainsbourg a few months before his death in 1991, at his house in Paris with its black and chrome interior, where fans still lay floral and painted tributes on the pavement.
“He took me back to his bedroom with the big black bed in the big black room. He had a pile of film videos – not good films, terrible American cowboy things – he put one on, and he was fast asleep in two or three minutes. I left in the small hours and I never saw him again.”
“It’s a bit weird,” Jane Birkin said, looking around at walls lined with her own shining young face, and Gainsbourg’s crumpled features usually wreathed in cigarette smoke, “it’s a bit like being dead.”
She left because his melancholy and heavy drinking made him impossible to live with, she said, but thinks in many ways they were better friends and he wrote her better songs after she left.
“You could talk back to him for once,” she said. “You were not just his creation any more.”
• Jane & Serge, Calais Museum of Fine Arts, until 4 November