A family affair: Agnes Varda's "Kung-Fu Master!"

Kung-Fu Master! (1988) appears to have arisen out of filmmaker Agnes Varda and actress/model Jane Birkin’s desire to make a film with their children: in the film, Birkin and her teenage daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg play mother-and-daughter Mary Jane and Lucy, while Varda’s son Mathieu Demy plays Lucy’s friend Julien, with whom Mary Jane entertains a brief and curious love affair.  (The film’s deceptive title refers to the arcade game that preoccupies Julien’s attention.  He is, after all, only fourteen.)  If the premise of Kung-Fu Master!—divorcee has fling with boy young enough to be her son—seems all but guaranteed to raise eyebrows, Varda doesn’t play it for shock effect.  The film doesn’t feel entirely “realistic” (even as it’s grounded in a very real Paris of the late 1980s, consumed by a wave of panic about AIDS), which also helps prevent us from thinking about the relationship between Julien and Mary Jane in too-literal terms.  Kung-Fu Master! feels a little like a fable or a daydream about the fantasies that structure our romantic lives.  It’s governed by Varda’s gentle, imaginative spirit, which is to say that the film provokes more reflection than disgust.

But in any case my favorite part of Kung-Fu Master! wasn’t the relationship between Birkin and Demy but the one between Birkin and Gainsbourg, the latter of whom, at sixteen, looks positively luminous.  The film ends with a lovely scene in which they talk and laugh together as a way of repairing the bond that had been threatened by Mary Jane’s attraction to Julien.  Varda captures the intimacy between mother and daughter beautifully in this moment.  Last night on the subway I was struck to see this in real life—a college girl putting her head on her mother’s shoulder, her mother stroking her cheek.  But then again watching Gainsbourg and Birkin act together is something very close to seeing real life, too.       

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