Home Video Hovel: Jane B. par Agnes V./Kung-fu Master!, by David Bax
Agnès Varda’s diptych, Jane B. par Agnès V. and Kung-fu Master! (out now on Blu-ray from Cinelicious Pics), taken together, work as a fascinating, liquiform, multifaceted portrait of actress/singer/model/writer Jane Birkin. Both films are offbeat and entertaining in their own ways; one is ponderous and fun and the other is ponderous and weird. But what’s especially fascinating, and almost certainly by design, is that, even after watching both of them, Birkin remains an enigma. As she says in Jane B., “When you show it all, you reveal very little.”
Jane B. par Agnès V. is, I suppose, a documentary, in the sense that it is meant to document the real life individual named Jane Birkin. Yet somewhere between none and almost none of the film is unscripted. Even the interview portions come across like slightly heightened dramatizations of actual conversations. Between these bits, she dresses her subject up and places her in different genres of film as well as of people. For a time, she’ll be a member of Renaissance aristocracy, and then a flamenco dancer (which she hates) and then a part of an early Hollywood film comedy duo and many more, each of them giving Birkin an opportunity to explore a different part of herself while commenting on the way those in her lines of work are utilized as sentient props. Varda begins the film with close-up tracking shot of Birkin’s body that’s so tight and slow-moving, you begin to lose track of what part of her person you’re seeing. That’s kind of a metaphor for Birkin’s whole existence as a beautiful woman whose life is hidden in plain view.
Kung-fu Master!, on the other hand, is a more conventionally narrative film, even if its particular narrative is not conventional at all. Co-written by the two women based on a short story Birkin wrote, it concerns a 40-year-old housewife named Mary-Jane (Birkin) who falls in love with her fourteen-year-old daughter’s school chum. Making things even more uncomfortable, Mary-Jane’s daughter is played by Birkin’s actual daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the boy with whom she falls in love is played by Varda’s actual son, Mathieu Demy. The film seems at times to take place in an alternate dimension only slightly different from ours where Mary-Jane’s behavior, while not exactly condoned, is nowhere near as monstrous as it ought to be. Only Gainsbourg’s Lucy is truly repulsed by it, while Mary-Jane’s parents all but give their blessing. But then we’re drawn right back into our reality by the very frequent references to HIV/AIDS (the film was released in 1988). Perhaps it’s meant to be a reminder that sex does not come without potentially hazardous consequences, a lesson tailor-made for an adult woman entering into an affair with a child.
Jane B. par Agnès V. and Kung-fu Master! are movies that, for obvious reasons, deserve to be seen together. What’s more, though, Cinelicious made the right decision packaging them in the order they did. Without the context of Jane B., Kung-fu Master! could be hard to take. The one film is better than the other but after viewing them both, you’ll not only be conversant on the subject of Jane Birkin, you’ll have had a bizarre and delightful evening as well.
The warm and rich 2K transfer of the original negative is impressive.
Special features include multiple interviews with Varda, including one conducted by Miranda July and an essay by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis.