Extras: Very Good
Label: Cinelicious Pics
Released: March 8, 2016
Genre: Documentary / Drama + Drama
Synopsis: Angnes Varda’s 1988 diptych is comprised of a ‘fantasy’ documentary and a drama centered around the ill-fated romance between a 40 year old woman and the teenage friend of her daughter.
Special Features: Disc 1 – Film Jane B. par Agnes Varda / 2015 Interview with director Varda (21:40) / Theatrical Trailer + Disc 2 – Film Kung-fu master! / 2015 Interview with director Varda (25:53) / Theatrical Trailer + 16-page colour booklet with liner notes by author Sandy Flittermam-Lewis and Agnes Varda interview with Miranda July.
After the critical and financial success from Vagabond (1985), Agnes Varda’s next project was the genuine diptych Jane B. for Agnes V., a sort-of documentary on actress / singer Jane Birkin, and the drama Kung-fu master! which was shot in the middle of the doc’s production.
Birkin and Varda met via a social gathering with their kids, and as the director recalls in one of two lengthy interviews on Cinelicious’ excellent Blu-ray set, the actress had expressed worry about career as her 40th birthday was approaching. The two concocted a scripted portrait that has slight documentary elements woven between fantasy sequences in which Birkin plays out assorted characters, spanning a painted beauty, an artist’s agent caught in a nourish money grab, Joan of Arc, Stan Laurel paired with Oliver Hardy (played quite brilliantly by Laura Betty), and more.
Birkin’s ex-husband Serge Gainsbourg appears briefly in the film during a music rehearsal / concert montage, and within the fantasy vignettes there’s Jean-Pierre Leaud (The 400 Blows, Two English Girls, Irma Vep) and gravel-voiced Philippe Leotard (Kamouraska, La balance); Varda’s son Mathieu Demy, Birkin’s parents and brother / screenwriter Andrew Birkin (Omen III: The Final Conflict, King David, The Name of the Rose), and her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg also appear in KFM
If potential distributors were baffled by Jane B., passing on any North American distribution until the film’s recent restoration, time has shown what may have been written off as weird, surreal, or bizarre by critics is really a playful take on the documentary format, with director and subject discussing at the top of the film what is likely to follow, and sudden creative conundrums that put Jane B. on pause for am moment of discussion and reflection.
Varda occasionally appears onscreen (and plays a gambler in a casino sequence), and her cameraman is also evident in more than a few shots, including a glass maze where Birkin, playing another fantasy character, walks through transparent corridors as the trapped camera operator is unable to follow.
Varda also stages moments where the suspension of disbelief is torn away – in another fantasy sequence set in Tunisia, the wind blows over the domed set – or places the audience at crew-level, as in a meticulous tracking shot where Birkin reflects to the camera (and us), and there’s no effort to hide creaking dolly tracks, light flags, and reflector panels through which she passes and steps around.
Birkin does make genuine observations on aspects of her life and career in Jane B. – these moments show the actress being genial, humble, a little shy, yet very much at peace with her life as an apparently single mother of two daughters – whereas the fantasy sequences sometimes comment on sexuality, family, and female cinema archetypes, but the small fantasy roles also show Birkin’s versatility in comedy, drama, and suspense; her performance as Joan of Arc burning at the stake is horrific and superb. (Small factoid: although Jane Birkin never managed to realize her dream of starring in a Joan of Arc biopic, brother Andrew co-scripted Luc Besson’s 1999 retelling, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.)
That gift for tackling drama and lightness come through in KFM, which was retitled as the more appropriate Le petit amour, and was developed into a separate feature film when one of Birkin’s proposed fantasy ideas was nixed by Vardo due to pacing and structural issues within the doc.
The mutual affection that emerges between 40 year old mother Mary-Jane, and 14 year old Julien (Varda’s son Mathieu Demy) from her daughter’s class was developed into a story that remains oddly light in spite of its dark elements. What could’ve been a sordid tale is a delicate drama that still makes it clear the pair’s romance is wrong and doomed, but also plays against what Varda cites as the classic hypocrisy in which a similar relationship between an older man and a young girl would be slightly impervious to disdain and outright rejection.
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When there’s a union of sorts, it also signals the end of the woman’s mounting fantasy, and rather than close the film with a series of scenes in which both parties are humiliated, their separation and Mary-Jane’s social expulsion from marriage, friends, and career are described in bullet points, with the finale consisting of a classically bittersweet scene in which a final effort to communicate is foiled, but necessary in order for pair to move on with their separate lives.
Birkin never loses audience sympathy because Mary-Jane is struggling with a longing for the verve that existed in her adolescent past; and Demy is surprisingly strong as an awkward ‘twerp’ who also feels conflicted, as the teen wants to boast to his friends of a conquest, but has true feelings for her.
Caught in the mounting awkwardness is daughters Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who believes Julien likes her, and Lou (Birkin’s daughter Lou Doillon), too young to understand, yet taken along to an isolated shack with Mary-Jane and Julien out of necessity, and to bolster the image of a mother taking a family vacation should a sudden visitor appear.
END OF SPOILERS
The odd original title stems from Julian’s obsession with the video game Kung-Fu Master, and his attempts to ‘score’ ultimate points by freeing the game’s heroine from a battalion of thugs.
Varda explains she wanted to present the impossible romance with a certain lightness to tempter potential audience disbelief and reverse sexism towards the older woman-young man romance, and like Jane B., the film is exceptionally well-paced and structured.
Varda may be an integral member of the French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s, but there’s a no-nonsense approach to keeping the structure of fantasy sequences in Jane B. and the drama within KFM lean, and a constant awareness of when to advance; there are allowances for self-reflection, awkwardness, and longing in both films, but respective scenes are chapters in stories that keep chugging forward. Marie Josee Audiard’s editing is sharp if not a little subliminal, and compliments Pierre-Laurent Chenieux’s stunning cinematography.
Varda supervised the 2K transfers of both films, and Cinelicious’ Blu-rays are absolutely gorgeous, boasting rich colours, beautiful subdued film grain, and Chenieux’s lovely composition. Varda’s visual style is a perfect marriage between documentary realism and clean camera movements and composition, and nearly 30 since their release in France, the two films maintain modernistic elements. Also a big plus is Joanna Bruzdowicz’s score for KFM, and the lovely string piece that recurs throughout Jane B.
The two roughly 20 minute interviews that accompany each film show then-87 year old Varda in a content, stoic state, recalling each film’s making, shooting at Birkin’s actual house and using her family members, Varda’s own son Mathieu prior to emerging as an actor in his own right, the integration of AIDS commentary in KFM, the two films designed to be released concurrently rather than as double-bills, and her present life creating art and filming projects on video.
A booklet adds further interview material to the set, and although Birkin’s views on the films aren’t included – Varda states the actress rarely watches her own films – the movies do show the care invested into the scripts and roles, and Birkin’s persona which is intensely likeable.
With the actress still busily appearing in film and TV productions since 1965, perhaps it’s time for the type of classic (or perhaps similarly genre-bending) career portrait of the British-born Birkin who more or less formally debuted in Blow-Up (1966); held her own in La piscine, the first version of The Swimming Pool (1969); became a singer-collaborator-muse in France after co-starring with and falling in love with Serge Gainsbourg in Slogan (1969); and appeared in a variety of genres before her Agnes Varda diptych.
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review