LA cinephiles had the pleasures of seeing two Agnès Varda discoveries from the middle of her career, and of seeing the legendary French filmmaker speak, at an American Cinematheque retrospective this past weekend.
Cinelicious Pics has just acquired the double bill “Jane B. by Agnès V.” and “Kung-Fu Master,” both starring Euro icon Jane Birkin, for US theatrical, VOD and Home Video distribution. Supervised by Varda, the new restorations made their West Coast debut over the weekend, and looked gorgeous in digital 2K.
Less a biopic than a quasi-fiction, poetic-realist documentary, “Jane B. By Agnes V” looks at the actress’ many faces. Really, it’s Varda’s “Orlando,” a time-hopping stitching together of Birkin’s best and least-favorite roles, and the parts she dreams of playing (including Joan of Arc). The film features Birkin’s longtime collaborator and erstwhile lover Serge Gainsbourg, New Wave actor Jean-Pierre Léaud (a.k.a. Antoine Doinel), Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg (who went on to star in the films of Lars von Trier) and Varda’s son Mathieu Demy, whom she had with her filmmaker-husband Jacques Demy.
A young Mathieu Demy and 14-year-old Charlotte Gainsbourg also appear in Varda’s challenging romance “Kung Fu Master,” which stretches the “May-December” definition to its extremes. Aside from a video game that Demy’s early-teens Julien obsessively plays, the film has nothing to do with kung fu. Instead, the 40-year-old Birkin plays the single mother of two who falls in love with him. Their relationship is treated very matter-of-factly by Varda, who imbues it with a tenderness that is well-played, and earnestly acted, by Demy and Birkin.
At the Aero Theatre on Saturday, Varda said she wrote the film in “two minutes” after Birkin pitched the story to her during the making of “Jane B.” They took a break on that production and shot “Kung-Fu” quickly in the summer. Varda, who most famously directed “Cleo From 5 to 7” and “The Gleaners and I,” didn’t feel weird about directing her young son as the object of a much older woman’s affections. “From the minute we started to film, he was Julien.”
According to Varda, “Kung-Fu Master” hasn’t played much on French TV due to its controversial subject matter. The film also deals head-on with the rise of AIDS in the ’80s, interjecting its whimsical broken-fairytale romance with PSAs about sexual awareness and the disease’s ever-growing reach.
When asked if “Jane B.” (never released in the US) and “Kung-Fu” (released briefly in the 80s) belong together as a double bill, Varda said, “I don’t think so. They’re two separate films.” She may be right, but it’s a treat we get to see them at all, and newly resurrected from their original 35mm negatives.
Release dates forthcoming.
Ryan Lattanzio is the staff writer for TOH at Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter.