Two 1988 Films by Agnès Varda: Jane B. by Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!

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 Birkin with Agnes Varda reflected in a mirror

Jane B. par Agnès V. (Jane B. by Agnès V., 1988)

Film posterWatching 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.

CREDITS 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)

Film posterThis 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.

CREDITS 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.

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35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008)

Film posterDenis regular Alex Descas and this year’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning director Mati Diop take the key roles in this film, which remains one of my favourites of the decade. Much of my love for it is not so much in what happens as in how it unfolds — just the one scene in a backstreets Parisian bar soundtracked to the Commodores’ “Nightshift”, which is for me the emotional core of the film, seems to lay bare all the dynamics going on amongst these characters: a father, Lionel (Alex Descas); his daughter Jo (Mati Diop); an older woman and neighbour, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who’s always been in love with the dad; and Grégoire Colin as Noé, who has a crush on Jo. They are all trapped a little bit, as neighbours in an apartment block, as people whose lives seem to be following a set path (in the case of Lionel, who drives trains, very literally so) and who don’t know what exactly they do want. There’s a sense of pain at getting older, but also a comfort in gestures like eating together, with the film opening and closing on images of rice cookers, the sort of symbolic centrepiece of shared family meals (and it’s no surprise, perhaps, to learn that an Ozu film was the inspiration for this one). I love the feeling of movement, the cautious emotional resonance, and the burnished look of the film. It’s a glorious ode to the richness of life and even a modern city symphony in its own way.

CREDITS Director Claire Denis; Writer Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; Cinematographer Agnès Godard; Starring Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Grégoire Colin, Nicole Dogue; Length 100 minutes; Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 26 May 2019 (and earlier at the Renoir, London, Sunday 26 July 2009).

Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017)

Film posterA warm, human story about an excellent father (Eriq Ebouaney) and his kids trying to make a new life in Paris after fleeing civil war in the Central African Republic. It moves slowly, showing the father’s life working in the markets (having been a French teacher back home), and that of his brother, who’s a former philosophy professor, still dressed up snappily in a suit and tweed jacket as, dispiritingly, we realise he’s heading towards a shop where he’s working on security. All of them have new connections, new relationships, they have jobs and places to live, and yet ultimately no security, and the film is absolutely focused on just how tenuous everyone’s hold on security is in this kind of place, especially as we move towards the end, surveying the bleakness that awaits, the systemic deracination that Western nations (and Europe specifically) have effected on those who are in this desperate situation.

CREDITS Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون; Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini; Starring Eriq Ebouaney, Sandrine Bonnaire; Length 100 minutes; Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 244: Elena et les hommes (Elena and Her Men, 1956)

There’s a lot of flustered rushing about in this film that feels familiar from Jean Renoir’s work (like The Rules of the Game most famously, of course). It’s all bright and colourful, and so very very French in its way. Ingrid Bergman as a Polish princess with her many suitors is a delight, too. I’m not sure it’s Renoir’s wittiest film, but everyone comes across as a bit of a fool, even (and especially) the grandest of military and political men, when compared to the effortless charm of Bergman’s Elena, and that feels like the point of the film really. And it’s a good point to make once again, of course.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Jean Serge and Renoir | Cinematographer Claude Renoir | Starring Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais, Mel Ferrer | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019)

Criterion Sunday 243: French Cancan (1955)

I think I like Renoir’s late-period French films over his earlier, more celebrated ones (I feel the same, incidentally, about both Bresson and Buñuel), not least because I think the way he uses the colour and the staging is so precise and memorable. Of course there’s an artifice, as there always is with Renoir’s films, especially in this run of 50s films set in the theatrical demi-monde starting with The Golden Coach. However, it’s the artifice of cinema at its grandest and this is a film that celebrates the spectacle of putting on a show and the dramas that takes place behind the scenes with the greatest of them — whether Lola Montès or Showgirls, burlesque and cabaret seem often to be particularly fruitful locations for films about social mores, shifting attitudes, and for the expression of pure cinema artistry itself.

Of course it helps that Renoir was being reunited with Jean Gabin and indeed with France itself for the first time after a long (and apparently not particularly welcome) exile in the United States, so there’s a self-conscious embrace of Frenchness, ironic perhaps given the film’s English title (in late-19th century Paris, it is explained, there was rather a penchant for the exoticism of foreign words, hence Gabin’s impresario Danglard reinventing a traditional French cabaret dance by using an English-language name). There’s also a rather frank subtext of sexual libertinism — a conversation early on with her friend about having to prepare adequately for her audition leads her to sleeping with her boyfriend. Indeed, lead dancer Nini’s affairs with three different men seems to highlight her class aspirations, as she moves from humble washerwoman (in love with a baker) to the world of arts, via a dalliance with minor royalty. When Danglard rejects Nini’s advances at the end, by protesting that he cannot be caged in love, it feels like the most French moment in this very French film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Renoir and André-Paul Antoine | Cinematographer Michel Kelber | Starring Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, Maria Félix | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019)

Criterion Sunday 218: Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Connoisseurs of the heist film may be able to speak lyrically about the various differences between them all, but at some stage all these (often French) mid-century heist flicks blend together in my mind. There’s a long, silent sequence of them pulling it off, which harks back to Rififi (if I’m not mistaken), which had a similar wordless heist procedural section. This one also has Alain Delon in a trenchcoat — somewhat as he is in Melville’s other films — but it’s a taut, well-told story with plenty of suspense. Quite why everything is happening is a little vague, but the performances and the snappy filmmaking pull it through, and keep it entertaining.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville | Cinematographer Henri Decaë | Starring Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, Yves Montand, André Bourvil | Length 140 minutes || Seen at Castro, San Francisco, Monday 5 May 2003 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 June 2018)

Criterion Sunday 193: Quai des Orfèvres (1947)

A whodunit movie, I suppose, but one in which that all seems a little beside the point by the end (it’s a really short scene of ‘it was me all along!’ ‘Oh, okay then’ or something like that; and I won’t remember the plot contrivances by this time next week). This is a film about the detective (Louis Jouvet) — the title refers to the address of the Paris city police, somewhat in the manner of Scotland Yard in the UK — and the film tracks him as he follows leads and hunches in investigating the murder of a wealthy creep. In the course of this, the detective stalks around the theatre and its milieu, interviewing people, teasing out relationships and the underlying currents that connect people and push them apart. It’s a film of great style, and lived-in weary performances, which seems something of a trait of the Clouzot films I’ve seen. Everyone talks a whole lot, but it’s the kind of solidly unflashy film resonant in lived-in period detail that seems to characterise an older, black-and-white, era of filmmaking. As such, it would probably make a lot more sense if I were watching it in a cinema.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot | Writers Clouzot and Jean Ferry (based on the book Légitime défense by Stanislas-Andre Steeman) | Cinematographer Armand Thirard | Starring Louis Jouvet, Suzy Delair, Bernard Blier | Length 106 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 January 2018

Criterion Sunday 188: L’Amour en fuite (Love on the Run, 1979)

There are elements here to the last Antoine Doinel film that feel a little cobbled together, not least the extensive use of flashback clips to the previous films. However, what is actually shot for this film — primarily scenes involving Antoine divorcing his wife Christine, and reconnecting with the lovely Marie-France Pisier as Colette (looking younger somehow than in the 1962 clips from Antoine et Colette) — all looks great, with some gloriously-lit frontally framed cinematography, and Truffaut has brought some new collaborators (including Pisier) on board as co-screenwriters. That aside, it does also try perhaps a little hard to wrap things up with Doinel’s new love interest, Sabine. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, in any case.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut, Marie-France Pisier, Jean Aurel and Suzanne Schiffman | Cinematographer Néstor Almendros | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Marie-France Pisier, Dorothée | Length 94 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017

Criterion Sunday 187: Domicile conjugal (Bed and Board, 1970)

A couple of years after Stolen Kisses, Léaud’s Doinel character is (somewhat) settled down, married to Christine and expecting a child, but he retains the comic insouciance and desperate inability to hold down a job that marks the character in the previous film (the earlier ones were more about his adolescence). There’s a sadness to his character now, as his age advances and he still dallies around in affairs (including with a Japanese women, which at least has the saving grace that I don’t have to lean too heavily on the ‘it was a film of its era’ excuse that’s so often required for such subject matters), and Truffaut livens it up with little visual gags like having Tati’s Monsieur Hulot character get on a metro train at one point. Léaud certainly is starting to become the character that he’s so recognisable as from much of his 70s and 80s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut, Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon | Cinematographer Nestor Almendros | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Hiroko Berghauer | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017

Criterion Sunday 186: Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968)

In some ways, this film may be my favourite of the Antoine Doinel series Truffaut and Léaud made over 20 years between 1959 and 1979 (though in others, it’s still his debut, The 400 Blows). It returns to the character as a young 20-something beginning his first adult relationship with Christine (with Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical tendencies apparently extending to the actor who played Christine, Claude Jade). That said, like the subsequent films in the series, it remains broadly comic, with Doinel’s character being easily distracted by women — most notably Delphine Seyrig as Fabienne, a shopkeeper’s wife — and unable to hold down a job — he meets Fabienne through a client at a private detective agency where he works, who wants to know why everyone hates him. It’s the film that probably most excoriates Doinel’s romantic tendency and fecklessness, and there’s a beautifully-judged extended scene in front of a mirror where he just says the central characters’ names repeatedly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut, Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon | Cinematographer Denys Clerval | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Delphine Seyrig, Michael Lonsdale | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017