Agnès Varda has been overshadowed by other filmmakers of the French New Wave like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. This pair of films, rescued by the new label Cinelicious Pics, make a great argument for what a mistake that has been. Fans of beautifully-presented, groundbreaking movies — such as the US’s Criterion Collection or the UK’s Eureka! Masters of Cinema Series — will want to take a good look at this double-disc set.
Jane B. par Agnès V.
The first film, Jane B. par Agnès V. (1987), was Varda’s followup to her acclaimed Vagabond (1985). It’s a strange hybrid of documentary, short film, philosophy and feminist cultural criticism. I found it far more successful (and watchable) than any of Godard’s formalist experiments in the last several decades — and yet it was never released in the United States. Perhaps it was because it was ahead of its time. It still feels, in many ways, ahead of its time.
The project began when Varda struck up a friendship with the actress, model, singer and 60’s and 70’s icon Jane Birkin. (The famous Hermès Birkin bag was named for her.) The movie is ostensibly a documentary portrait of Birkin as she looks back on her life at the age of 40, but this biopic is constantly interrupted by a playful series of short films (scripted by Varda and Birkin) where Birkin assumes wildly different personas. Birkin, in being Varda’s ‘doll,’ demonstrates a wide range as an actress — and thereby throws into question whether all of the personas she has assumed over the course of her life (nude model, pop star, mother) are in some way equally artificial as constructs.
While some moments of the film are more successful than others, I was never bored. Varda and Birkin constantly generate startling visual images, all of which look breathtaking in this new top-notch restoration from the original 35mm negative. Both my wife and I really had a our hair blown back by this film, and are stunned it has languished in obscurity so long.
This film might have the most misleading title of any movie, and Varda admits as much in her bonus feature interview. “Kung-Fu Master!” is the name of a video game, with which a 14-year-old boy named Julien is obsessed. The movie is narrated by Mary Jane, played by Birkin, a 40-year-old woman who finds herself in love with Julien. If you like stories of unconventional romance like Harold and Maude or Jules and Jim then this is a film you might enjoy.
The film grew from a short story written by Birkin — and in fact we get a preview of the film in Jane B. par Agnes V.. Julien is played by Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son, and Birkin’s character’s daughters are played by her real-life daughters Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon. In typical French fashion, this is a thoughtful, poetic film. Mary Jane’s narration starts in the present tense, but later passes into a wistful past perspective. Varda and Birkin make use of all the furor over the AIDS virus that was happening at the time — as Varda says, it was the first generation of kids who grew up seeing love as something dangerous, even deadly. It makes the relationship between Mary Jane and Julien seem all the more innocent.
Technical note: A few of the subtitles had spacing and spelling issues on Jane B. and there were some questionable color shifts in the black & white Laurel and Hardy pastiche sequence. However, since Varda personally supervised the color for the restoration, I’m going to assume they are authorial. I found no technical issues whatsoever with Kung-Fu Master!.
Bonus features: Like a Criterion film, this disc set has some attractive packaging and bonus material. There is a booklet with an excellent essay and a transcript of a conversation between Varda and filmmaker Miranda July. On the Jane B. disc, there is a nice 30-minute interview with Varda herself from 2015 where she talks about the origins of the film, its reception and the restoration. On the Kung-Fu disc, there is an additional 25 minutes of Varda interview where she covers the same questions in regards to Kung-Fu.
Overall, this is an excellent double-feature set, worth a blind buy for fans of Varda, Birkin, French New Wave or experimental cinema. Kudos to Cinelicious for rescuing these films from obscurity and for treating them with the care they deserve.
Full disclosure: A pre-release copy was provided gratis to the reviewer.