French New Wave Legend Agnès Varda Talks Collaborating With Jane Birkin: BUST Interview

by Erika W. Smith

Agnès Varda and Jane Birkin in Jane B. par Agnès V.

“The mystery of distribution is incredible,” 87-year-old French director and film legend Agnès Varda says on the phone from her hotel room in Chicago. She’s speaking of her two films created in close collaboration with Jane Birkin, Jane B. par Agnes V. and Kung-Fu Master. The films, now restored, are being shown in the United States at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinema for one week only, October 16-22.

“I don’t know why I made two films in 1987, and Kung-Fu Master came out in the States, briefly under the title Le Petit Amour, and Jane B. never came to the States,” Varda says. “Very strange.”

Varda and Birkin in Jane B. par Agnes V.

It is strange, considering that the films show Jane Birkin, a teenage Charlotte Gainsbourg and Serge Gainsbourg (only in Jane B.) in an unbelievably intimate light. As the title suggests, Jane B. par Agnes V. is all about Jane Birkin – Varda has described it as “an imaginary biopic.” Kung-Fu Master stars Birkin as a 40-year-old woman who falls in love with a 14-year-old boy, played by Varda’s son Mathieu Demy. The film was inspired by an idea of Birkin’s, and she has a writing credit. That plotline may have been why Kung-Fu Master didn’t appear widely in the US: “I remember there was some scandal and interest to the film because it was lurid and maybe shocking,” Varda says. “Do you think so?”

It’s clear that the one-week run isn’t enough for Varda. Several times throughout our interview, she tells me to convey a message to BUST readers: “The two films are showing for only one week at the Lincoln Plaza, a wonderful theater. For only one week, and you have to tell the people to run! Write in your online magazine, run, go and run, this is it!” 

Birkin and Mathieu Demy in Kung-Fu Master.

She’s right: the event is a must-see, particularly for fans of Jane Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg or French New Wave cinema. Hopefully, it will also help raise Varda’s profile in the US to the level it deserves. Varda’s life has been unbelievably badass: she was one of the most important members of the New Wave film movement and one of the only female film directors working in the 1950s; in the ‘70s, she became one of the first women to run her own production company; she worked with icons like Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina and Serge Gainsbourg; she was one of five people to attend Jim Morrison’s funeral. Perhaps most impressively, now, nearing 90, she’s still hard at work – currently, she’s co-directing a documentary with the supercool photographer and street artist JR, whose real identity is unknown (think a French Banksy).

Varda in 1954.

When I ask about what it was like to revisit Jane B. and Kung-Fu Master after so long, Varda exclaims, “The memories! We had a great time.” She adds, “Jane Birkin is a wonderful person. Very easy, very inventive, and at the same time shy. Jane was playing with her two daughters and I was directing my own son. We had a good time.” The two remain close: “We see each other all the time,” Varda assures me.

Encouragingly, Varda is optimistic about the current state of female directors. “We have now at least 50 women directors working all the time, and some of them make a lot of money for the companies. And there are many others, like me, who make films that people speak about and love but they don’t make so much money,” she says.

Varda in China, 1957

“There are a lot more women directors now, and in the States, you have many daring women – I love Miranda July. There are many women, but I don’t know them all because I don’t think of them as a women filmmaker group. We just make films, women and men.” 

Appropriately, as our allotted interview time nears its end, Varda segues neatly into promotion of her own work. “The films are showing only one week, so to the people reading your online magazine, you have one thing to say: ‘Run, run, and see the films before they’re gone!’”

Photos via Cinelicious Pics, AnOther Magazine, Time Out Shanghai 

More from BUST

Jane Birkin Is Over The Birkin Bag – For A Good Reason

Jane Birkin Has Her Hair Cut With Kitchen Scissors

Toronto International Film Festival Proves We Need More Films Directed By Women

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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