Day 22: JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. (Agnès Varda, France, 1988)
“When you show it all you reveal very little.” So pronounces Jane Birkin as she sits perched on the steps of the Palais de Chaillot, the Eiffel Tower just behind her, the contents of an iconic Birkin bag strewn around her. And much like the jumble of paper, photos, and other ephemera strewn about Birkin’s feet, Varda’s image creates a striking moment of converging symbols—involving stardom, identity, nationality, race, social status, cultural currency, and material privilege—that she mingles together, briefly allowing us to savor their evocative juxtaposition in a single frame. For definite meaning, as is usually the case with Varda, proves elusive, left open for expansive consideration and interpretation. Birkin herself is a fascinating phenomenon—a model whose distinctive image epitomized her generation before transforming herself in a singer, actress, muse, mother, and political activist—and Varda is clearly intrigued by all of these various personas and public perceptions; in that way “Jane B” unexpectedly resonates with Cléo de 5 à 7, continuing and expanding the earlier film’s interest in the performance of identity and the slippery divisions between public and private selves. In many ways “Jane B” is an even more conceptually intricate than the now-classic Nouvelle vague film, with the title’s “par [by] Agnès V” foregrounding not only the filmmaker’s literal presence within the film, but with the acknowledgement that Varda herself is generating yet another “Jane Birkin” (or two or more) to Jane Birkin’s already-expansive collection of selves. But it becomes clear Varda is less interested in locating a “true” or “real” Birkin and is instead eager to enter into a more ambiguous—and potentially fraught—space of active collaboration. “I’m filming your self-portrait” Varda intones near the beginning of the film, “but you won’t be alone.” “I might appear in the mirror in the background” she continues, and then in a beautifully coordinated pan she does exactly that and materializes in the mirror behind Birkin, immediately complicating the stable-seeming concept of “self-portrait” (to say nothing of authorship, subjecthood, the gaze, etc).
Getting so wrapped up in the theoretical intricacies of the film only accounts for one aspect of it, however, and perhaps does a disservice to other, even more immediate pleasures. This is absolutely one of Varda’s most visually gorgeous films—something showcased by its recent restoration—both in regards to her elaborate tableaux vivant as well as location work and the fictional/fantasy sequences. The film also serves as a lovely showcase for Birkin herself, who Varda clearly admires as a unique presence—she’s required to do a lot of acting, and like her singing it can’t exactly be called “good” in a technical sense, yet it possesses a certain je ne sais quoi that makes her just electrifying to watch and listen to. Varda recognizes that Birkin is at her very best whenever she presents simply as herself, talking about her family or her past or her ideas or even her insecurities of undertaking a project such as this. In a way she’s ideally suited for Varda’s cinematic sensibility which is inclined toward the tangential and whimsical and unexpected. I’ve yet to see the women’s other collaboration Kung Fu Master, also long unavailable and recently restored, but I’m more eager than ever to watch it now (it’s also on Fandor!).
[Watch Jane B. par Agnès V. on Fandor here.]