The Distance Between Them
Matt Connolly on Kung-Fu Master

“It was like a picnic, you know?” So Agnès Varda described the making of Kung-Fu Master, a film born out of her concurrent collaboration with actress Jane Birkin (1988’s Jane B. par Agnès V.) and whose cast includes both Varda and Birkin’s real-life children in key roles and Birkin’s actual mother and father playing her fictional parents. For any other director, it would be hard not to read such casting through the lens of provocation. This is a film, after all, that features Birkin as Mary-Jane, a 40-year-old woman who falls in love with a 15-year-old boy, played by Varda’s son Mathieu Demy. While it would be naive to assume that she hadn’t thought through the casting’s relationship to the taboo subject matter, Varda evinces little interest in crafting psychodrama. Fostering an on-set familiarity rooted in artistic partnership and familial intimacy is par for the course for a filmmaker who has never shied away from incorporating those closest to her into her cinematic universe. Here, she uses the built-in rapport between herself and her actors (not to mention between the actors themselves) to imbue the would-be scandalous nature of the narrative with a warmth that invites clear-eyed compassion. In this way, the comparison between Kung-Fu Master’s production and an afternoon idyll of good company and Oedipal—er, edible—delights proves apt. Her cine-picnic prizes leisurely grace notes and gentle observation above all.

Mary-Jane’s life seems one of comfortable bohemian ease, albeit touched by a wistful melancholy. A brief office-set scene vaguely gestures toward her work in graphic design, but we mostly see Mary-Jane in the Paris apartment she shares with her two daughters, teenager Lucy and young Lou (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon, Birkin’s real-life daughters). A cozy and artfully cluttered space captured in slow, affectionate pans by cinematographer Pierre-Laurent Chénieux, Mary-Jane’s apartment becomes the space where she first encounters Julien (Demy), a slightly diminutive classmate of Lucy’s. He drunkenly wanders upstairs during an afternoon yard party thrown by Lucy. Mary-Jane assists the intoxicated teenager in throwing up, and later catches him watching her as she comforts an ill Lou with a lullaby. Thus begins a strong and sudden infatuation between Mary-Jane and Julien. She finds parentally minded excuses to see him—bumping into him at his and Lucy’s school; bringing him homework when he’s out sick from class. He concocts increasingly bold attempts at physical intimacy. Mary-Jane rebuffs his advances after he secures them a hotel room, but cannot cut him out of her life.

What drives Mary-Jane’s captivation with Julien? Based on a story suggested by Birkin herself, Varda’s screenplay offers a multitude of answers, each inchoate and interconnected. Most obviously, Demy’s portrayal of Julien pairs a rascally charm with poignant vulnerability. His wide eyes feign jadedness but cannot hide an essential guilelessness, especially when entranced by the arcade game from which the film gets its title. Mary-Jane watches his face in enraptured silence as he vanquishes the army of henchman, bosses, and magical creatures standing between his karate-kicking avatar and Sylvia, the damsel-in-distress awaiting rescue. Varda toys with the perhaps too on-the-nose connection between the bound Sylvia and Mary-Jane’s own need to be rescued. In perhaps the film’s most overtly fanciful move, we first see Julien dressed in karate whites and haltingly making his way down the streets of Paris, battling adversaries that stand in his way. Kung-Fu Master makes it clear, though, that Mary-Jane’s feelings for Julien have as much to do with her own ambivalences about motherhood, intimacy, and the ever-growing distance between her present and youthful selves. While a warm and devoted parent to her two daughters, Mary-Jane talks wistfully with a friend about the curiosity and vulnerability of adolescent boys. This infatuation-tinged maternal streak, in turn, connects to Mary-Jane’s own skittishness regarding romance—an anxiety tied to her own adolescence, and one that she fears she’s inadvertently passing onto Lucy. In Julien, then, Mary-Jane sees both a return to a simpler brand of courtship and a chance to pursue the flirtations she wouldn’t dare in her younger years. (Tellingly, the only romance that Mary-Jane discusses with Lucy was her relationship with a man fifteen-to-twenty years her senior, with whom she spent hours talking and who never touched her.) These intertwined threads become vocalized via Mary-Jane’s occasional voiceover, which Varda uses to offer telling insights into her mind without over-simplifying her reasoning or emotions.

Varda considers Mary-Jane and Julien’s affections through one additional lens: the HIV/AIDS epidemic. No one amongst the characters in Kung-Fu Master has contracted HIV, yet a low-level hum of anxiety surrounding the virus can be felt throughout the film. Julien and his friends crack jokes about what one refers to as “Ass-Injected Death Sentence,” turning condoms into water balloons and dismissing one schoolmate who objects as a “fag.” Of course, by the late 1980s, AIDS seemed to no longer be limited to “fags,” as seen in a brief shot of Mary-Jane passing a poster featuring a man and woman kissing through surgical masks and emblazoned with the headline, “Heterosexuals and AIDS.” This unease follows the characters when they travel to London to visit Mary-Jane’s parents. A lengthy sequence centers on the family’s furrow-browed commentary as they watch a television program on the epidemic. This is followed by yet another scene in which street activists hand Mary-Jane and company pamphlets on the virus. “AIDS is all they talk about here,” Lucy observes as she takes the handout. Varda’s insistence upon weaving the spread of HIV/AIDS into Kung-Fu Master’s narrative speaks to her ever present aspiration to engage the world around her. (Varda herself would soon tragically see the ravages of the disease up close: her husband, famed French film director Jacques Demy, would pass away from AIDS-related complications in 1990.) Then again, perhaps it’s not that shocking to find the ubiquity of discussion surrounding HIV/AIDS within a narrative that considers why a middle-aged woman would be drawn to a sexually inexperienced adolescent. Mary-Jane’s attraction cannot be reduced to AIDS panic, but Varda is far too socially conscious a director to not consider the ways in which seemingly idiosyncratic desires become shaped by larger questions of health, safety, and the strictures surrounding sexuality.

Kung-Fu Master charts a return to innocence in both emotional and geographic terms. Mary-Jane brings Lucy, Lou, and Julien (who made Lucy promise to take him on the trip) for a visit to her parents in London for the Easter holiday. Hiding eggs around the garden of her childhood home, she considers the cyclical nature of the game and ties it back to her present emotions: “My mother hid eggs. Now I hide eggs. Does everything repeat? Gestures, feelings? Do all women, once in their lives, fall for a teenager? Did my mother? Or only those without a son?” Past and present further blur when Julien appears in the garden. The two share their first truly mutual kiss in the emptied fountain that Lucy earlier told Julien the family swims in during the summers. When Lucy discovers them mid-embrace, Mary-Jane does not deny her desires, nor does she recoil when Lucy admonishes her for kissing Julien in a space so tied to her childhood. “In this garden,” Mary-Jane insists, “at your age, I flirted with boys Julien’s age.” She receives unexpected support on this matter from her own mother. After Lucy storms away, we hear Mary-Jane’s mother comforting Mary-Jane in voiceover, insisting that she didn’t do anything wrong and calling her “good” and “brave.” The voiceover suggests fantasy, but it actually appears to be a kind of sonic flash-forward. Once Mary-Jane’s parents’ house becomes tainted with Lucy’s discovery, her mother insists that Mary-Jane take Julien to the property the family owns on a remote island so that their relationship can play out further. “Love is the biggest mystery of life,” her mother insists: a sanctioning of intergenerational romance that suggests that Mary-Jane’s thoughts on her own mother’s past affairs might not be so fanciful after all.

Mary-Jane and Julien (accompanied by Lou) do travel to the remote island for an idyllic seaside hiatus that nevertheless becomes darkened by occasional clouds of doubt and fear. The three while away the days collecting eggs and gazing at the ocean, constituting a freeform family unit in which Mary-Jane and Julien seem to simultaneously occupy the roles of lovers and mother/son. Their physical intimacy is sweet and gentle, full of tender embraces. The closer they become, though, the more Mary-Jane seems aware of the relationship’s futility. She comments explicitly on their age difference and tearfully insists that they will grow apart. A recurring image of the shoreline as seen through their bedroom window marks their respite from the world, the water lapping the beach a reminder of their finite time together. The island’s physical distance from that world cannot erase larger anxieties so much as displace them temporarily. Perhaps the most poignant image is when Julien finds the crumpled AIDS pamphlet in his back pocket: he rolls it up, places it in a bottle, seals it with wax, and throws it out into the water.

The world does indeed come crashing in—and crashing down—once Mary-Jane and Julien return from the island. Parents, teachers, and authorities are informed. Lucy’s father takes custody from Mary-Jane. Julien changes schools and most likely will never see Mary-Jane again. Varda communicates this through a rapid-fire voiceover accompanied by a series of accusing close-ups of Julien’s grandmother, principal, and mother staring directly into the camera. Our last impressions of Julien remain resolutely ambivalent. We see him attempting to convince an arcade employee to contact Mary-Jane to convey that he had finally succeeded in rescuing Sylvia in “Kung-fu Master.” (The employee rings the number Julien leaves him, but hangs up in frustration when Lou answers the phone.) Amongst his fellow teenagers, however, he reduces their relationship to a series of crude boasts and put-downs: “She was just a housewife with big feet and no tits…She was nuts about me, so I played along.” Taken together, we can see the regret beneath the pubescent bluster while still cringing at the casualness of his betrayal.

And what of Mary-Jane? Kung-Fu Master is, in many respects, another love letter from Varda to Birkin, showcasing the actress’s quicksilver shifts of feeling, her beguiling blend of wry self-consciousness and at-times startling emotional fervor. This warmth carries over to the film’s view of Mary-Jane and helps to explain the tone of knowing compassion that greets even the most questionable of Mary-Jane’s choices. Her reputation sullied and at least one child taken from her home, what does she learn from her case of adolescent amour fou? Daringly, not much. She obsesses over the details of she and Julien’s relationship and hopes in vain for a response to a general-delivery letter she sent him. Yet this refusal to apologize or forget her love for Julien comes across not as delusion, but rather as a quiet defiance in the name of unexplainable desire. She honors the integrity of her devotion; and, while it doesn’t get her Julien back, it offers an unspoken hand to Lucy as she takes her first tentative steps toward love. When we last see Mary-Jane, she’s delighting over her daughter’s fondness for Boris Vian’s Froth on the Daydream, a novel that Mary-Jane always associated with “passion.” Lucy adds that she also liked Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. Mary-Jane demurs in her response, but Lucy knows her perhaps better than Mary-Jane expects. Lucy looks at her mother and smiles. “Gambling is passion too,” she says.