Mary-Jane (Jane Birken) is the divorced mother of two daughters, Lucy and Loulou (Birken’s real life daughters Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon). When teenage Lucy throws a party with her friends, her mom notices 14-year old Julien (Mathieu Demy (director Agnes Varda’s son) and becomes intrigued with the boy. She pursues the man/child, much to the disgust of Lucy, in “Kung-fu Master!”
Agnes Varda is a Francophone auteur through and through, as is evident with this restored 1988 print of the collaboration between Brit transplant Jane Birken and Varda. Because of this distinct Frenchness, I have a problem, morally, with “Kung-fu Master!” and its March/September romance. Reverse the roles and have a middle-aged man pursuing, with sexual intent, a 14-year old girl and there would be an uproar from our new millennium sensibilities. An attractive middle aged woman drawn to a 14-year old boy may be a 14-year old boy’s fantasy, but it, to me, is as vile as the abovementioned reversal.
But, I am a film critic and I do try to look at a film’s qualities other than the story which I object to. With “Kung-fu Master!” the director and her star have an obvious bond. (See the companion piece, “Jane B. for Agnes V.”) More interesting, Varda’s son plays Mary-Jane’s boyish interest d’amour and Birken’s real life daughters play her fictional ones. A real family affair all around is in the making.
Agnes Varda, though not one of my favorite filmmakers, does have an eye for composition and framing, particularly with Birken as her subject, more handsome than beautiful, but tres femme nonetheless. The story, from love’s early bloom to the full flow of the affair is terminated with what is a too abrupt ending, as if minds were changed at the last minute and the original ending was scrapped. I give it a B-.
Divorced mother of two Mary-Jane (Jane Birkin) finds herself inordinately drawn to the fifteen year-old boy, Julien (Varda's son Mathieu Demy), who's gotten sick from drinking at her daughter Lucy's (Birkin's daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg) birthday party. The illicit attraction flows both ways when Julien exults in showing off his arcade skills playing "Kung-Fu Master!"
Writer/director Agnès Varda realizes the story Jane Birkin related as they shot "Jane B. for Agnès V." The 'family project' which features both their children as well as Birkin's screenwriter brother Andrew, actress mother Judy Campbell and dad David Birkin, is nothing like the prior film, stands on its own, yet flows from it naturally.
This oh-so-French story (think Louis Malle's "Murmer of the Heart") imagined by an ex-pat Brit is so natural in its unfolding that one doesn't begin to question the subject matter until well into the tale. Birkin's love for this young boy, who seems so alone, is tender, maternal. He watches from the doorway as she sings her youngest, Lou (Birkin's daughter Lou Doillon), to sleep, and we see a yearning for love in its purest form. When Julien arrives on a Sunday with flowers and croissants, though, we get a nagging premonition - has he planned his arrival when he knew his classmate Lucy would not be home?
And indeed, it is Lucy who objects to her mother's new-found obsession, accusing her flatly of statuatory rape. And yet Varda never tips her hat as to how far the physical side of the relationship has gone. When Julien requests that Mary-Jane meet him 'at his cousin's,' she's shocked to discover the address is for a hotel. Is Julien a young Benjamin Braddock in reverse? Mary-Jane won't allow him to go that far. The only strange note comes during an Easter celebration at Mary-Jane's parents house, where her mother encourages her to go off with the young boy, stating that 'love is the biggest mystery in life.' An idyllic soujourn on a 'desert island' with little Lou in tow finds the two expressing fear that they will be pulled apart.
The romantic idealism cannot last forever and Mary-Jane returns to harsh truths. She hopes Julien will remember a story she has told him about lovers who write via general post. He tries to send her news of his "Kung-Fu" victory, where he's saved the damsel in distress. And then, like Jean-Pierre Leaud in "The 400 Blows," he presents a toughened exterior to the world.
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