2016 Film Essays

Vague Visages on Agnès Varda’s 88th: ‘Jane B. par Agnès V.’


Agnès Varda’s influence on La Nouvelle Vague, and indeed on the medium of cinema itself, has long ago secured her legacy in the annals of film, allowing the aging director to bask in the playfulness of her assumed persona, and to ascend to a status akin to a mythical elder. Having celebrated the 60th anniversary of her debut feature earlier this year, and her 88th birthday earlier this week, Varda’s accomplished career has produced some of the most singular and breathtakingly beautiful moments in film history.

Steadfastly unconventional, Varda’s biographical documentary Jane B. par Agnès V. spectacularly defies the logic of both genres while, rather magnificently, digging deeper than traditions and tropes could ever achieve. Released in France on March 2, 1988, Varda’s fantasy-laden bio only recently bowed in the US (after a digital restoration, the film made its arthouse rounds in October 2015), with the aging process merely adding additional layers of complexity with respect to Jane Birkin’s waning modern cultural relevance and a painfully (joyously) 1980’s European aesthetic. Made in conjunction with a sister picture, Le petit amour (written by Birkin), that was allegedly conceived during shooting, Jane B. par Agnès V. is unconcerned with the petty details and trivialities of memoir, and focuses instead on the essence of a life.


Interlacing autobiographical interviews with fictional and fantastic narratives, Varda connects with the actress in the way that suits her best — as a director. Beyond giving her subject the freedom to ramble and become comfortable, Varda takes Birkin’s candid thoughts and gives them a surreal authenticity. As Birkin is forced to confront her hopes, dreams and worries, the audience gleans a sense of the woman from these fictionalized reactions. Varda can take a tongue-in-cheek statement as simple as “I’m afraid that a man from the bank will come and live in 1/3 of my house” into a period drama in which a turn-of-the-century seamstress is foreclosed upon by bank repossessors. With Jane B. par Agnès V., two sides of the subject are on constant display: the human one that wants to be loved and tends to ramble when nervous, and the iconoclast that lives in a world of fantasy, without consequence or causation.

Art plays a major role in Varda’s film, both in terms of telling Birkin’s story and as a means of shot construction. Posing her subject amongst living “paintings” à la Goya and Titian, Varda has given her audience a literal “portrait” of Birkin, subverting a common idiom as well as the actress’ place within said paintings. Reclining as the titular Venus in Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”, Birkin radiates with an undeniable sexual power, but as the chambermaid in the background, she is reduced to a philosophical peasant railing against rigid class dynamics. She must play a dual role as both a fetishized object of interest and a quiet woman relegated to meager and unsubstantial work. Birkin’s desire for love and adoration have been succinctly balanced with her fascination of solitude and anonymity; she is able to inhabit, if for only a moment, the impossible space that separates fame from obscurity. So too do many of the other fictional lines of narrative revolve, in one way or another, around art, whether it be a scenario in which an art dealer double crosses her artist/lover, or simply a collage of René Magritte’s surrealist works covering the walls of a casino. Varda thrives in these foggy grey areas between real and unreal, filling them with bits of poetic truth that sink in long after the film is over.


An uncompromising visionary, Agnès Varda seems unable to acknowledge precedent or standard practice when becoming involved with creative works. Jane B. par Agnès V. details the life of a person while fully realizing that to do so, completely, is an impossibility. Sketching a personality in fragmented segments, Varda lays a very basic framework and fills in only the blanks that she finds personally valuable or noteworthy. Her biographical documentary serves as an impressionist painting of a woman in the spotlight; sloughing off long-winded minutiae and fine detail, the film uncovers a serene elegance amidst its brief encounter with one of the 5.5 billion (in 1988) people living on the planet. Creating vision and worlds that speak to her and her alone, Varda’s legacy is one of beautiful existentialism — a perfect blend of fine art and lofty philosophical metaphor.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.