Taboo Love and the Sensibility of Agnès Vardaby Vandana Kumar October 7 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 58 secs
Her cinema played with subversive and controversial subjects even as she kept up her engagement with the political environment of her times intact, writes Vandana Kumar
My first exposure to Agnès Varda, considered to be the ‘Godmother’ of the ‘French New Wave’, was through her Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7). Now, fresh after the raid of Kung-Fu Master! (1988), better remembered as ‘Le petit amour’ in France, on the cinematic senses, I am stunned by the difference in sheer subjects Agnès Varda has taken up. Not for nothing that people consider her to be one of the most versatile of the time.
‘Kung-Fu Master!’ tells a story of an impossible love – the most unlikely one between a 40-year old woman and a 14-year-old boy. It is a subversive text and yet deeply empathetic. You know from the first scene that this love story is doomed. Agnès Varda tells it earnestly. The subject wasn’t to tease or to titillate audiences. The narrative is a gentle exploration of both, the vulnerable and confused, - when you happen to be lonely and dealing with mid-life crisis.
Mary-Jane (Jane Birkin) has the first glimpse of the young boy Julien (Mathieu Demy) at a birthday celebration for her daughter Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg). A classmate of her daughter, he’s clearly consumed too much alcohol. He is nauseous and needs to use the bathroom. Maternally protective of the daughter’s friend at home, she watches over him as she also attends to the needs of Lou, her younger daughter (Lou Doillon).
Upset at the irresponsible teenagers at the house party, she is at the same time inexplicably drawn towards Julien and starts loitering near their school premises, hoping for a glimpse of him. Mary-Jane almost runs him down in a chance meeting and that leads to her dropping him off to an arcade where he teaches her about his passion for his favorite video game – Kung Fu Master!
Their interactions increase, irrespective of her daughter Lucy’s presence. Eventually, Julien crosses that boundary and Mary-Jane responds. They embark on this affair not thinking of families, outcomes and the anger of those who are in the know.
While Le petit amour has been talked of, it’s not really got the attention that some from Varda’s oeuvre like Cléo from 5 to 7 (considered to be ‘The Varda film’) or some of her other celebrated works like Vagabond (1985), her autobiographical exploration – The Beaches of Agnes (2008) and One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) etc., have got. Many other films feature on lists of her work that show both her vulnerability and her tackling of forbidden subjects. Le petit amour rarely featured in those lists. The film premiered in the competitive section at the Berlin Film Festival but remained inconspicuous. And yet what could be more taboo than this film – more so in today’s cinematic climate.
Critics and audiences, for the sheer romantic and sexual involvement of the character played by him with a high school student ‘Tracy’ essayed by Mariel Hemingway, perceive Woody Allen’s classic ‘Manhattan’ as highly problematic. The age gap and the lopsided power equations, not to forget the ethics of the whole thing, have been discussed on every platform conceivable. There was criticism of Le petit amour too, from audiences and feminists alike, but it got drowned out as the film itself got neglected by the media in sheer comparison to some of Varda’s more acclaimed films.
A subject like this would keep British distributors as far as possible from it, went the joke regarding the commercial prospects of the film. Prohibited subjects or not, iconic films or relatively less celebrated ones, what ran through all Varda’s feature films and documentaries was her own impression and stamp and in laying everything out in the open. It was her vulnerability, perhaps, being spoken of. Jane Birkin, playing the 40-year-old mother, was also the co-writer of the film. Mathieu Demy was Varda’s son. This automatically made the film more personal for her and in doing so she wanted to intimately involve her audiences, as in her documentaries. She often said for her audience, “Art should ring a bell in your own life. You should get involved. I don’t want people to say, ‘It’s great.’ I want people to say, ‘It is for me.’”
It was unlikely that Varda was making the film for shock value. She wanted to explore an aspect of human relationships that has rarely been taken up delicately on screen earlier. Wanting to see, if handled with sensitivity, would an audience of 1988 be open to it? Not that those films of taboo relationships weren’t made by accomplished directors earlier.
There is Lolita by Stanley Kubrick that is always made a reference point in similar discussions. One can also look back at Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971) – a tale of a vulnerable boy and his coming of age and soft relationship with his mother where the Oedipal gets pushed to its unspoken limits. Malle was certainly not making a titillating film on incest but again a deeply personal one where he too (Like Truffaut and his film, 400 Blows) said that the association with adolescence was personal - a truly uncomfortable and controversial premise, which is executed with absolute elegance.
Le petit amour is more about Varda exploring how such a situation would play out, if it were to happen around her for real. It could also be middle-aged desperation to turn back the clock for the 40-year-old character. It could be Mary-Jane’s need for reassurance that she is wanted and admired, given her own separation from her husband. The sight of Mary-Jane doing rounds of arcades, searching for the video game that Julien loves, seems almost comical at times. Julien’s adolescent self is playing out his ultimate fantasy through the game called A ‘Kung-Fu Master! - He is combating wizards and slaying goblins to save the ‘damsel in distress’, Sylvia.
Mary-Jane wants to be associated desperately with the game; an almost childlike desire to pick up his hobbies in the hope of being close to him. Both are unsure of how to date or respond in a situation that they land up in. There are no manuals or friends they could confide in. In one scene Julien says, “Do people still say My Love?” - making you wonder about his maturity in understanding the age difference.
The Oedipal undercurrent heavily runs through the film. Mary-Jane says “Do all women fall in love with a boy, or just those without sons?” - significant considering she has only two daughters.
The inner thoughts and dialogues and debating what to do, by a suddenly shy 40-year-old, is in contrast to the straightforward and daring behavior of Julien. They take their tentative steps forward to eventually land up in a dream being played out. They leave their respective families behind and build a love cocoon somewhere on the coast of England. This unreal defiance has real consequences. Till it lasts it’s a heaven and one only Agnès Varda has the spunk to show.
Perhaps what saved the film from the ire of some audiences was the ambiguity regarding the sex between the two characters in the film and that the scenes don’t show sexual intercourse. Mary-Jane and Julien try to find ways for greater intimacy. On one occasion when Mary-Jane overhears her daughter Lucy mention that Julien missed school she finds a pretext to visit his home to give him his homework. On that occasion she allows him to fondle her breasts. The ‘hotel scene’ too, does not go all the way. Julien invites Mary-Jane there and kisses her. She barely resists. However later she slaps him when he smokes in the elevator. Here again there seems to be a mix of a maternal element.
Julien gets himself invited to a family holiday in London where events unfold in a manner that Mary-Jane lands up going with him (accompanied by ‘Lou’, her youngest daughter) to a family owned house in a remote island. Here the two promise to be in love eternally and share special moments. In these scenes too, sex was not shown explicitly. We don’t know to what extent anything happened. On screen we just see them embrace and cuddle up tenderly.
You are left with the feeling that it is a mix of something inherently maternal and a fascination for the innocence that such an age brings with it, even when Julien is being demanding or brattish. It is an unfortunate consequence that years later, while searching for the original film I was directed to some pornographic sites that use the film’s title for video clips that show intergenerational and disturbing sex.
Unlike a lot of Varda’s famous films and documentaries which show her speaking in her film or appearing in them herself - Jane B. par Agnès V (1988), The Beaches of Agnès (2008) etc., this film follows a straight forward linear narrative of the relationship between the two characters. Whatever the theme of Varda’s films and whatever the style of narrative, there is always a strong social and political subtext running through the film. If Cléo from 5 to 7 had the futility of war running through the story of a woman learning to love and accept herself after learning that she could be terminally ill, this one has the backdrop of AIDS that runs substantially through the story. Julien brags about being the only one who knows what to do with a condom. This becomes even more significant when there is the message of the dangers of AIDS featuring prominently as posters on the walls. On one occasion a boy tells him that he will get AIDS and mocks at Julien. Another scene shows Mary-Jane’s younger daughter watching a television show that keeps throwing in AIDS ads. This film, too, shows us Varda’s involvement with the environment of the times.
‘Le petit amour’ had its share of criticism from feminists. A critic called it “Foolish and self-indulgent beyond despair”. Another criticism by some feminists said it bordered on pedophilia. However, even in this comparatively neglected work from her oeuvre, the overwhelming view from feminists was that it was an assertion of women’s dreams and fantasies - one that she was as entitled to, as a man to his muse and fantasies. Adriana Cavarero in her analysis of the feminist ethics also questions the nasty criticism by referring to the delicate ‘maternal eroticism’. In Jane B. par Agnès V, which was a Varda and Berkin collaboration, there is discussion of this piece of work.
Jane B itself was considered a seminal work in the way it explores the relationships between the artist and muse, beauty and male gaze. In Le petit amour, given Varda’s sensitivity, it was not just love and lust but all the wounds that such a fantasy enacted upon opens. Varda’s daring to make the film so personal by involving her own son and co–author in the lead roles, also silenced the critics.
Yet for all the fantasies that Varda lets the characters play out, the film is stark reality when she ends up showing what time can do to the relationship. Time and its passage are important for Varda. In ‘Cléo from 5 to 7’ the protagonist thinks of how beauty fades with time and illness. Her time for being a gorgeous diva could be cruelly cut short. In Le petit amour too, reality is time. The relationship comes to an end with time. That there is nothing going for both the characters in the direction they are headed is very obvious. She tells him in a moment of intimacy that “People drift apart, that’s how it is”.
Even Mary-Jane and Julien knew in their hearts that this is but a passing phase for them. As would with any 14 year old, the fascination and interest for Julien, seems to wander and wane. Despite the promise to love eternally, the paradise is lost when on returning home from the island the relationship gets severed. For all the tenderness the relationship held, it ends with Julien brashly boasting of a sexual encounter with a bored housewife. Most of the ‘younger man and much older woman affairs’ end up this way, and here it was a mere 14-year-old in question.
That Varda takes a subject where two such characters act on impulse shows us how she did not want to leave such an exploration to just a dream for the mother or coming of age fantasy for Julien. At the same time, this very personal film leaves us wondering about both the possibility of exploring such a relationship and its repercussions in a world and society like ours. The relationship at a deeper level happened because of the vacuums that got created at different points of their lives - the angst and defiance of a teenager and a malaise of a society. A society that is quick to judge from the outside and not understand the loneliness driving people to open forbidden corners of their heart.
Varda leaves the camera’s closing in on their exchanges as wide open to interpretation. One man’s ‘obscene’ becomes another man’s ‘artistic’. The filmmaker wanted it to remain ambiguous. It is okay to feel mixed emotions, the director had said. It is also perfectly understandable to feel uncomfortable and yet like what plays out. Even the majority of those making the strongest criticism, do agree at some point that art must do things to you, even if it is to profoundly disturb you.