Setting out to show that muses never fade, Agnes Varda creates an eccentric portrait of Jane Birkin in Jane B. par Agnes V. Conceived as the actress-model approached 40 and released in France in 1988, it never opened in the States, debuting here now on the heels of a digital restoration that leaves it sparkling. Commercial prospects in art houses may not be quite as bright: Though Birkin remains known here as the mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg, onetime partner of Serge and inspiration for a famous luxury handbag, it is Varda who is the bigger draw — and while the filmmaker clearly is invested in her project, the doc will likely seem flighty and dated to viewers who discovered her via late triumphs like The Gleaners & I.
Clearly an admirer of Birkin’s physical beauty, the director enjoys dressing and posing her in re-creations of famous works by painters like Goya. But she’s as big a fan of Birkin the star, and trails the English-born French icon through Paris streets as she signs autographs and, at first, shies away from Varda’s camera. She hates to look directly into the thing initially, as the two women meet in a cafe to discuss their oddly conceived project. But when the filmmaker reminds the actress she has already agreed to all this, the latter responds with a cheerful “yes, boss!” and does any odd thing she is asked to do.
That includes performing in a half-dozen or so fake movie clips, everything from ‘80s crime dramas to silly slapstick in which she imitates Stan Laurel. (Later, she’ll play female icons Calamity Jane and Joan of Arc.) Looking at these thinly imagined scenes, viewers unfamiliar with Birkin’s life might have a hard time believing that she was ever paid to act, much less that she has now enjoyed a five-decade career.
Birkin is more compelling when speaking (perhaps unreliably) about her personality and her private life. We follow her home, watch her change out of street clothes and into a T-shirt and cardigan, and start cooking in her combination kitchen/living room. If the stories ever become too literal, “the grandmother of the French new wave” is there to “corrupt” them with flights of fancy, abrupt editing and outright surrealism: She films one scene among the Magritte murals in Belgium’s Knokke Casino, and elsewhere unleashes a swarm of flies on a reclining nude.
Production company: Cine-Tamaris Films
Director-screenwriter: Agnes Varda
Directors of photography: Nurith Aviv, Pierre-Laurent Chenieux
Editors: Agnes Varda, Marie-Jo Audiard
No rating, 98 minutes