KUNG-FU MASTER! (LE PETIT AMOUR) (Agnès Varda, 1988)
Film at Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th St. between Eighth Ave. & Broadway
Monday, January 6, 9:15
Series continues through January 8
Film at Lincoln Center’s “Varda: A Retrospective” continues January 6 with a real family affair, Agnès Varda’s curiously compelling 1988 drama Kung-Fu Master!, the French title of which is the more appropriate Le petit amour, or “The Little Love.” Written by Varda and English actress, model, and singer-songwriter Jane Birkin from Birkin’s idea, the film stars Birkin as Mary-Jane, a divorced forty-year-old woman living with her fourteen-year-old daughter, Lucy, portrayed with wide-eyed innocence by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Birkin’s real-life daughter with French superstar Serge Gainsbourg, and her younger child, Lou, played by Lou Doillon, Birkin’s daughter with French director Jacques Doillon. Mary-Jane falls in love practically at first sight with one of Lucy’s classmates, fourteen-year-old Julien, portrayed by Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son with French auteur Jacques Demy. Birkin’s parents, actress and playwright Judy Campbell and fine artist and actor David Birkin, play Mary-Jane’s mother and father, while Birkin’s brother, screenwriter Andrew Birkin, plays her brother. And Varda’s daughter, costume designer, actress, and producer Rosalie Varda, will be at the Walter Reade Theater on January 6 to introduce the screening. Varda often liked to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, but don’t let all that reality confuse you: Kung-Fu Master! is most certainly not a documentary, thank goodness.
Somewhat reminiscent of Bertrand Blier’s 1981 Beau-père, in which thirty-year-old Rémi (Patrick Dewaere) falls for his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter, Marion (Ariel Besse), Kung-Fu Master! treads in dangerous territory, exploring a taboo love, even as it does so with care and sensitivity and a tender performance by Birkin. Mary-Jane is well aware that she should not be considering a relationship with a young boy, but she has a yearning to explore the furthest boundaries of desire. However, her choice of Julien is beyond strange, as he is an ordinary teen, who plays Dungeons and Dragons and the arcade game Kung-Fu Master! and has banal conversations with his peers; he is not some hulking, mature figure who is smart and sophisticated for his age. “I know I won't be around when you start shaving,” Mary-Jane tells Julien. The film also refers repeatedly to the AIDS crisis, which the teenagers are only just learning about and dismiss as somebody else’s problem. Varda never brings the AIDS subplot full circle; perhaps it’s there primarily to emphasize the dangers sex can bring, but she leaves that thread hanging. You’re likely to feel dirty watching Kung-Fu Master!, but you also won’t be able to look away. (Birkin/Gainsbourg fans will also want to check out “Birkin Gainsbourg The Symphonic Starring Jane Birkin” at the Beacon Theatre on March 6, with special guests Iggy Pop and Charlotte Gainsbourg.)