There are few filmmakers in the history of the art that are comparable to one Agnes Varda. And even fewer actresses like Jane Birkin. Varda, a staple of the French New Wave who is still turning out groundbreaking pieces of cinema that blend genres, mediums and even fact and fiction, the director is one of film’s great experimenters, with such classics as Cleo From 5 to 7 forever changing film. Then there is Birkin, who was not only a superb actress (just look at Blow Up if you’re unsure of this fact), but a fashion queen, a singer and even the muse for one of music’s great enfants terrible, Serge Gainsbourg (with whom she would have a daughter, Charlotte). So sparks should undoubtedly fly when these two forces finally come together, right?
Jane B. Par Agnes V.Kung-Fu Master! prove that these two may have been put on this planet to find and work with one another.
Newly restored by Cinelicious Pics, both films recently ran to rave reviews in New York, and are now set to debut on the west coast this week, and are arguably the best films currently available in any theater. Both pictures star Birkin, but they not only verify Birkin’s status as an underrated film actress, but also prove Varda to be one of French cinema’s most versatile auteurs.
Jane B. Par Agnes V. finds Varda at her most playful. Described by Varda, in the film itself, as “an imaginary bio-pic,” Jane is a faux-documentary about actress and singer Birkin, coming out of the idea of Birkin being melancholy about turning 40. Attempting to dig into the psyche of Birkin, Varda’s film is a rather potent look at a woman on the brink of an emotional crisis, and also a delightfully playful bit of cinematic experimentation. With most of the sequences staged, the film’s greatest flight of fancy comes when they begin discussing ideas for a film, that ultimately becomes the brilliant gem of this pair Kung-Fu Master! Seen in snippets in Jane B., Kung Fu Master was shot along with that film, and tells the story of a 40 year old single mother who falls in love with a friend of her daughter, a 14 year old boy played by Mathieu Demy, Agnes Varda’s real life son.
Shot before Jane B., Kung-Fu Master! has scenes edited into the faux-documentary, making these two films both starkly different, and yet connected by the very DNA of each film. So it seems unfair to try and tear them apart, reviewing them critically as singular entities. While Kung-Fu is able to be seen on its own as an almost tone poem about love, loneliness and aging, it’s elevated to masterpiece status by its relation to the film from which it seems to have sprung.
Jane B. is a truly great achievement. A definitively Varda experiment in structure, tone, mood and craft, the film is an anarchic, expressionistic look at a women in the middle of a melancholic crisis. At one moment a costume drama featuring some of the most ornate and baroque set and costume design Varda would ever use in her pictures, and the next it becomes a black and white comedy in the silent tradition. It is in this blending of tones and aesthetics that the energy of the film is truly shown. Varda is a major player within the history of the French New Wave movement, and it’s this type of film that proves her spirit was just as vital and experimental as any of her contemporaries.
Then there’s the more emotionally resonant film of the pair, and the one that will likely become many a viewer’s new favorite Varda work, Kung-Fu Master!. Yes, it’s a more conventional, a more stayed and a more structured composition, but it’s also genuinely emotionally involving. As mentioned above, the film tells the story of a middle aged single mother who begins a quiet romance with a teenaged friend of her daughter. Beautifully shot with washed out blues and deep, warm browns playing as the pallette for this emotionally powerful narrative, Kung-Fu Master! is a shockingly intimate picture, with great performances. Birkin proves herself to be a genuinely superb dramatic actress, giving the character a level of nuance and humanity that makes the proceedings absolutely heart-shattering. As seen in Jane B., this picture has the tone of a melancholic day dream of a woman unsure about herself and the loneliness setting in, and it is that universal theme that makes this a truly powerful achievement. Less energetic than the films of her contemporaries, or at least Truffaut and Godard, this feels closer to the works of a filmmaker like Eric Rohmer. It’s a quiet film, a film about glances and conversations, and it’s a gorgeous piece of work.
Sadly, both of these pictures have been all but impossible to see here stateside, with Jane B. making it’s US theatrical debut with this restoration’s run in New York back in October. Cinelicious Pics has done a remarkable job restoring these films, with the ornate detail of the dream sequences in Jane B. and the quiet naturalism of Kung-Fu getting new life put into them. The latter will likely garner the most discussion, as it is a far more relatable feature, but these two, in conjunction with one another, is as perfect an entry point into the world of Agnes Varda as one could ever hope to encounter.