Both these films were made by Varda as collaborations with Jane Birkin. The idea for Kung-Fu Master! came from Birkin during the production of Jane B. and so Varda helped her realise the concept. Varda’s similarly playful (and similarly titled) final film Varda par Agnès (2019) is released in the UK this Friday 19 July.
Jane B. par Agnès V. (Jane B. by Agnès V., 1988)
Watching this film for the first time 30 years after it was made, I wonder if Todd Haynes had seen it before making his one about Bob Dylan (I’m Not There). There’s a similar sort of playfulness in the way that it takes a person’s life (Jane Birkin’s in this case) and reworks it, plays with what it means to be represented on film, to be a performer and inhabit roles, and how the (re)presentation changes the meaning of what we see. We see Birkin in a variety of costume dramas and staged tableaux of baroque paintings, or enacting genre scripts (a gangster heist drama, or a love story across generational boundaries with Varda’s son Mathieu, expanded into feature-length as Kung-Fu Master!), as well as talking to Varda in almost (and yet not quite) documentary-like behind-the-scenes setups. It’s fun and perplexing, dazzling and strange, in ways that get to the core of being a public figure, of acting and of filmmaking itself. Plus, it has a very self-awarely digressive style that pulls all this material together and even makes it seem natural.
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Nurith Aviv and Pierre-Laurent Chénieux; Starring Jane Birkin, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Agnès Varda; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 16 June 2018.
Kung-Fu Master! (1988)
This is an odd film, and one can see how it might have languished somewhat in Agnès Varda’s filmography, given its themes. Even so, Varda imparts an earnest inquisitiveness to the whole undertaking that almost redeems the slightly dicey subject matter. It was more of Birkin’s conceit than Varda’s, as middle-aged Birkin falls for her daughter’s 14-year-old school friend (played by Varda’s son Mathieu), and in which she is abetted by her own family. Indeed, much of Birkin’s extended clan appears here, in scenes set in both Paris and London, and so this is also in some way an exploration of family dynamics. The documentary elements extend to scenes, apparently unrelated to the drama as a whole, depicting the panic around AIDS in both countries, and these are almost more troubling than the central plotline (especially given Varda’s husband died only a few years later of complications from this disease), and hearing contemporary schoolyard homophobic taunts is somewhat brutal, even if they don’t go unchallenged. But that central story, with its uncomfortable age and power dynamics, is treated simply, with a strange tenderness, but it never feels comfortable (nor indeed should it), and makes the film as a whole, well… very odd.
Director Agnès Varda; Writers Jane Birkin and Varda; Cinematographer Pierre-Laurent Chénieux; Starring Jane Birkin, Mathieu Demy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lou Doillon; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 14 May 2019.