Film

Birkin Tag

Melissa Anderson on Agnès Varda’s Jane B. par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!

Agnès Varda, Jane B. par Agnès V., 1987, 35 mm, color, sound, 97 minutes. Agnès Varda and Jane Birkin.

ONE OF CINEMA’S GREATEST CROSS-POLLINATORS, Agnès Varda has been destabilizing the borders of fact and fiction ever since her first feature, La Pointe Courte, a key precursor to the Nouvelle Vague, premiered sixty years ago. Recently restored by Cinelicious Pics, the little-seen Varda films Jane B. par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!, companion pieces that were shot in 1987 and released the following year, playfully dismantle ostensible polarities: middle-age and adolescence, celebrity and anonymity, reality and reverie.

The B. in the first title stands for Birkin, the gap-toothed Swinging London paragon whose whispery, endearingly Brit-accented French gained worldwide renown in “Je t’aime…moi non plus,” her lubricious duet from 1969 with Serge Gainsbourg—with whom she made not just this and other records and films but, in their most magnificent collaborative act, a daughter, Charlotte, born in 1971. Varda, who knew Birkin casually, had the idea to make an oblique chronicle—“an imaginary biopic,” as the auteur calls it—of the actress and singer after she confessed to the filmmaker, eighteen years her senior, her fears about her imminent fortieth birthday. “A film shows twenty-four portraits per second,” Varda, tweaking Godard’s maxim about cinema, says at one point to her subject in Jane B. par Agnès V., a precept demonstrated by the multiple fantasias that Birkin enacts throughout the movie. Often cloying, these whimsical set pieces—which include Birkin in a noirish art-heist plot and in a riff on Laurel and Hardy—are thankfully followed by more straightforward episodes that feature the performer recapitulating her past. During her reminiscences, Birkin is candid, occasionally self-deprecating, and unfailingly charming, never more so than when she delivers this self-assessment with a mischievous smile: “No exceptional talents but I’m here.”

Kung-Fu Master! grew out of an idea that Birkin had for a short story, one that she sketches out in Jane B. par Agnès V., about a woman, “whose life is devoid of love,” falling for a barely teenage boy. Varda quickly wrote a script based on this concept; the resulting film fascinates not for its tale of scandalous intergenerational infatuation—aspects of which are, admittedly, quite poignant—but for being a stealth documentary about the young actors cast, who just happen to be Varda’s and Birkin’s own offspring. Charlotte Gainsbourg and her real-life younger half-sister Lou Doillon play, respectively, Lucy and Lou, the daughters of Birkin’s Mary-Jane, a lonely single mother who is seduced by Julien (Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son with Jacques Demy), Lucy’s fourteen-year-old classmate.

Kung-Fu Master!—the title refers to the name of Julien’s favorite arcade game—was not the first family film venture for either Charlotte or Mathieu. In 1986, the former acted opposite her father in Charlotte for Ever, a movie about an inappropriately attached dad and daughter that Serge also wrote and directed. (Two years earlier, a twelve-year-old Charlotte, wearing only a blue oxford and panties, lounged on a mattress with her shirtless père for his video of their duet “Lemon Incest.”) At the age of eight, Mathieu starred in his mother’s Los Angeles–set Documenteur (1981), a wrenching fictionalized account of Varda’s temporary separation from Jacques Demy. In Kung-Fu Master!, these young veterans of intensely personal projects—dramas that required them to reflect and refract not just their parents’ reality but their own—are all the more touching for the delight they seem to take, especially in their scenes together, at having the chance to play regular kids—even if ones advancing a highly unorthodox story. Unburdened by less overt autobiography, these enchanting adolescent actors, each the sole child of a legendary union, paradoxically appear most themselves.

Jane B. par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master! are now playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York.

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