It’s hard to remain compassionate about Birkin. Her diaries, and even the recent commentary she adds alongside them, are frequently garbled, self-pitying and lacking self-awareness. The damaged child became a damaged, infuriatingly solipsistic adult. To be fair, she warns us in the preface, “I myself have remained very childish. It seems to me tiringly so,” and I wouldn’t disagree. “I am not easy to live with, violent and insecure about my beauty that I only believe in the eyes of others.” Her admission that “the only thing that wakes me up is the ‘regard’ of others” seems the sole reason for publishing these diaries.
Her writing style is as breathless and erratic as her personality, peppered with exclamation marks and bizarre metaphors. After a flight to Tokyo, she describes herself as “a crumpled hanky over a melon”. Her most compelling anecdotes follow bouts of drinking — the time she planted a lemon pie in Gainsbourg’s face in a Paris nightclub and then threw herself into the Seine, or the night their sommelier forced him to sing at gunpoint. Amid the madness, Birkin comes across as a frail soul, a childlike mother with few close friends. On the set of Death on the Nile in 1977 she is fascinated with Maggie Smith, writing: “I wish she needed me, even to help her to her room.”
Although she is painfully honest about her emotional life, Birkin's writing style is rather flat and you long for more colour and pizzazz — a sense of what London was like in the Swinging Sixties, juicy details about clothes and food and parties and all those film sets.
The relationship maunderings I could have done mostly without, the acres of print where Jane is ‘sentimental and hysterical and weeping’. What I did much enjoy were her critical observations, when she looks beyond her pampered world of nannies, maids and supper at Maxim’s to Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida in some biblical romp: ‘She looked wonderful when she was being stoned. She was wearing light blue against a yellow gold stone’; The Alamo: ‘Too bloodthirsty and too much tomato ketchup’; Death in Venice: ‘Too much panting and lusting’.
Anyone hoping for an insight into Birkin’s career will be particularly disappointed. One minute she’s a schoolgirl trying on mascara in the ladies’ lav at Peter Jones, and the next minute she’s at a party given by Roman Polanski where she meets the composer John Barry. He wants to marry her, gets her pregnant and then refuses to sleep with her again. So she goes off to Paris, meets her Svengali and becomes a film actor and recording artist. Gainsbourg tells her she is “porky” with nonexistent breasts. She in turn writes a letter informing him that he has the eyes of an “electrocuted toad”.
On and on they go, drinking themselves into unpleasantness, dreaming up new ways of hurting each other. She throws herself into the Seine in front of him, while he, on the point of dying from a heart attack, tips off the newspaper France-Soir to make sure they send a photographer. Reading these diaries is like being trapped at a particularly demented piece of performance art, where the actors are clearly having much more fun than the audience.
This relentless introspection comes at the expense of a more detailed survey of Birkin’s early career. The star, now 73, ties her sometimes sporadic diary entries together with paragraphs of memoir, and in her introduction concedes that she “hardly mention[s] the films, the plays — not even the songs.” There are no contemporary references to her controversial role in Antonioni’s Blow-Up; the yet more scandalous Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus is namedropped only tangentially.
Readers who have come for glittering anecdotes may therefore be a little disappointed, but a handful of deftly drawn celebrity encounters give a teasing glimpse of Birkin’s sharp sense of humour. Filming an adaptation of Death on the Nile in Egypt, she meets the already award-laden Maggie Smith, who jokes that she is only taking on such a cheesy role “for the cash”. Ever self-deprecating, Birkin retorts that she is doing it “for the prestige”. She is, it seems, always her own worst critic.