I have been a fan of Agnès Varda ever since I was a freshman in high school and watched a worn out library VHS tape of Cleo from 5 to 7, it was whimsical yet strangely confined. A side of the French New Wave that I had yet to experience. From there I consumed other narrative titles like Vagabond and Le Bonheur before moving on to her documentary work, starting with The Gleaners and I. Through all of this I found that Varda had a voice that was alternately at won and at war with the men she was working alongside, yet I never felt alienated by it. Rather, I was drawn to it. During this odd teenage Varda binge, I had heard about her work with Jane Birkin yet could not find a way to see the films in the US. Now, more than a decade later, I have found a way.
This Blu-ray set from Cinelicious starts with Jane B. par Agnès V. and – despite being products of the same year – this is where the story really begins. An odd yet playful film with Birkin playing herself and taking the viewer through a sort-of story of her life, chronicling her romance with Serge Gainsbourg, the controversy surrounding her work and raising her daughter Charlotte. At times it can be hard to discern what is fact from fiction here, with a series of interviews between Varda and Birkin being possibly staged and/or carefully edited, yet Birkin does come off as candid and sincere. The real treat here are the strange, decidedly more cinematic scenarios that Varda has Birkin engage in, culminating in a Joan of Arc sequence featuring Birkin in a suit of armor and riding a horse. These scenarios are also where the genesis for our next film appears.
Kung Fu Master! is an elongated version of one of the scenarios scene in Jane B. par Agnès V., in which Birkin romances a young boy (played by Varda’s son) during the AIDs crisis. It’s a rather sweet coming-of-age story and the sensational aspects are handled delicately and never bordering on Lolita territory. What’s most striking about this film now is how well it documents 80s arcade culture – despite it being a very Parisian look at it – having much more to say on the topic than genre films like The Last Starfighter or Tron did earlier in the decade. It also manages to work in the hysteria surrounding AIDs without ever letting it take over the narrative. Most of what we see/hear is a result of background discussion, news reports or signage, yet Varda allows the risk(s) of sexuality – especially anything that could be considered aberrant – to be present without being a burden on the characters or the narrative at large. It’s a simple film that features two great performances and an abundance of arcade footage. Both films in the package are wonderful, but this will likely be the more accessible, especially to those who aren’t coming in as fans of Varda and Birkin already.
Cinelicious has brought both films to Blu-ray via new 2K restorations supervised by Varda, with each title getting its own disc. The restoration work here is really remarkable with both films looking clean of damage, with solid colors and a healthy level of film grain intact. I had never seen either film prior to this release, but I can’t imagine either looking much better than they do here. Audio is DTS HD mono for both and they get the job done really well. Jane B. par Agnès V. is the more music heavy of the two and, as a result, gets the speakers working more but both offer clear, balanced experiences. Fans of Varda should be very pleased with the presentation here.
For supplements we start with a nice booklet featuring an essay by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis and an interview with Varda by Miranda July. I always love getting printed materials with discs and this is 16 pages of quality material. On the discs themselves, each disc gets one interview with Varda, mostly discussing the particular title. For Jane B. par Agnès V., the interview runs 22 minutes and she primarily discusses the relationship with Birkin and how the film came to be, with a lot of talk on the themes of the film and how personal it was to do. On the Kung Fu Master! disc, the interview runs 26 minutes and the conversation is a bit more broad with topics like AIDs, video games, sex education, the release of the film and more regarding Birkin.
Cinelicious has brought two under-seen Varda/Birkin colaborations to Blu-ray in beautiful new restorations and with some quality supplements. These are a no-brainer for Varda and/or Birkin fans but even the uninitiated should find plenty to enjoy here. The films are fun, brisk and unique. Varda has always been a filmmaker that does what she wants and how she wants to do it and these films could only be the result of such singular a vision. Highly Recommended.