It's been 39 years since Jane Birkin fell in love with Serge Gainsbourg, 27 years since they split up and 16 years since Gainsbourg died, but you'd never guess. Paris has never let its most iconic couple separate - you can, Birkin says, still not get through a day in this city without hearing the immortal intimacies of Je t'Aime... Moi Non Plus from somewhere - and anyway Birkin herself, at 60, has chosen to be living proof that love can survive divorce and death. She still spends most nights with Gainsbourg, singing his songs on an endless cabaret tour, breathing life into words he wrote with her, his muse, in mind. Birkin's apartment, just off the Boulevard St Germain, decked in crimson silk, cast in permanent twilight, crammed with old photographs and a collection of stuffed animals, is made for this perpetual seance. She shares it with a corpulent bulldog, Dora, who lounges on a chaise.
The original ingenue, Birkin has never given up her wide eyes, though now they peer out from behind glasses. She talks in an unstoppable girlish rush, with a forced lightness, as if she fears, if she stops speaking, that everything will be revealed as messier and darker than she will allow. Things are routinely "jolly" and "fun." Her mother used to tell her to stop saying "you" and "one" when she meant "I," but it's a habit she can't break; she comes across, partly as a result, as both likeably self-effacing and self-obsessed.
Having been world famous as a lover - Je t'Aime was outlawed by the BBC and the Pope - Birkin has lived alone for 15 years, since she split up with her third husband, the film director, Jacques Doillon, who could not compete with her grief for Gainsbourg. She has arranged much of her current life, she suggests, as a strategy against being by herself. Her personal organizer is the size of a phone book. When we meet she's just back from Luxembourg where she was launching her autobiographical film, Boxes, and taking the opportunity to talk about Myanmar and her friend Aung San Suu Kyi.
Before Luxembourg, Birkin had been in Rio de Janeiro at a film festival where she had found some Buddhist monks to share her platform. And prior to that she met French President Sarkozy to persuade him, with partial success, to impose sanctions on the Burmese junta. For the first half hour of our interview, as she explains all this without pause, I'm wondering if we are going to get beyond the hypocrisy of Total Oil, and the merits of energy sanctions in Chad before she has to dash off to an appointment with Hermes, to talk about Birkin handbags.
One of the reasons that Parisians have loved Birkin is her passion for causes - she has always been a marcher. She arrived in Paris just after the Evenements of May 1968, but she has made sure she has hardly missed a protest since: anti-capital punishment ("we were pelted with vegetables on la Republique"), pro-abortion ("Serge was not convinced, though I knew of at least two girls he had made get rid of pregnancies"), anti-Le Pen, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq. The Myanmar march she helped to organize was a disappointment. "There were only a hundred of us," she says, wounded by the thought.
Birkin, the daughter of a war hero, has always had a mortal fear of not doing enough. "I try not to lie awake with that awful thought, 'I could have helped,'" she says. "For me, the worst words in the world are, 'Fuck, I could have been there.'" Her father David, a naval commander in special operations, won the Legion d'Honneur for his role in saving British airmen from the Normandy coast on Christmas Day 1943; on his return from war he became an artist and married Noel Coward's leading lady, Judy Campbell. Jane was the middle of three children, in thrall of her elder brother Andrew, who became a film director and part-time Peter Pan obsessive. When I ask her what she thinks of as home, she says that home is her childhood, "a land that I can never verify," though she has, in some respects, apparently never left it.