Jane B. for Agnes V. (1988)

When Jane Met Agnès: Two Films by Agnès Varda

Two personal and sympathetic explorations of sex, art, and acting: now with restored colour!

In 1987, Agnès Varda and Jane Birkin decided to make a film together, and before long they’d interrupted one film to make another. Released at the same time in France, Jane B. par Agnès V and Kung-Fu Master! had no real exposure in the US until this year, when Cinelicious released them with lush, digitally restored color (supervised by Varda) and put them together in a Blu-ray package.

Varda is one of the most personal and restlessly creative filmmakers to emerge from the French New Wave, while Birkin is known primarily as an English actress-singer-model, and for three high-profile romances. (Actress Charlotte Gainsbourg is Birkin’s daughter by French pop icon Serge Gainsbourg.) The two films Varda made with Birkin are personal family affairs for both, since we see several of Birkin’s relatives (children, brother, parents) as well as Varda’s son.

Jane B. par Agnès V. is an “imaginary biography” of Birkin. As Varda explains in a bonus interview, it mostly takes the form of a documentary with interviews and film clips, except that all the diverse and colorful clips were invented for this film — except for the clips from Kung-Fu Master!, which they shot during a summer vacation while in the middle of the “documentary”. Varda says she encouraged Birkin to make this movie as a kind of 40th birthday present, preserving what Varda declares is a woman’s peak.

The result is a mischievous work of collaborative free-association drenched in culture, with recreations of famous paintings from Goya to Magritte (and an odd Archimboldo homage, made using Bedouins in the desert) that almost accidentally interrogate depictions of sex and class therein. The clips imagine Birkin in a variety of traditional, yet unlikely, female roles: from a melodramatically oppressed Dickensian mother, to a Spanish flamenco dancer, through to Joan of Arc.

It’s a “light” film: witty and intelligent, and marked by graceful camera movements and beautiful vivid colors. While Varda’s interviewer speculates that this film didn’t get a US distribution in 1987 because it was “ahead of its time”, the most reasonable explanation is more mundane: Birkin wasn’t well-known in America at that time, nor even Serge Gainsbourg, who does a cameo along with Jean-Pierre Leaud.

Kung-fu master! (1988)

Kung-Fu Master! originated in Birkin’s notion of playing a mother who falls in love with an adolescent boy. The boy, almost 15, hangs around smoking and cutting up with school chums and playing the titular video game. He’s played by Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son by Jacques Demy. Since Birkin’s short hair and loose clothes give her a boyish look, it’s as though she’s really the older brother, as though bonding with her own cross-gendered adolescence. This makes the film more emotionally and thematically complicated than the potentially incendiary plot of pedophilia, especially since it seems the romance isn’t consummated physically.

The closely observed dramatic approach of this film is more traditional, since the topic alone is uncomfortable enough to command attention. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Birkin’s older daughter, understandably miffed and moody and private about her own burgeoning sexuality, and Varda includes many observations on the new topic of AIDS as it enters popular culture, with its awareness of, and warnings about, sexual transgression. This calmly fearless movie about fear and desire is totally in command of its unsensational tone and style. Its brief US release in 1989 wasn’t greeted very warmly, as evidenced by Caryn James’ New York Times review in which she doesn’t credit the film for the insights she derives from it.

The extras on the two-disc Blu-ray are trailers and interviews with Varda. A booklet offers a sympathetic analysis and Miranda July’s interview with Varda.

RATING 6 / 10