Jane B. par Agnès V. July 1, 2017
1 Hr., 33 Mins.
n the last day of my sophomore year of college, I recall one of my journalism professors warning us prospective writers that there will be times during our careers where we will be met with assignments we'd rather discard than attack head on. For her, a nightmare assignment came in the form of a profile — she was tasked with interviewing a model/actress/television personality for a major publication. It wasn’t ideal not because she didn’t like the trials and tribulations that can often come along when profiling a stranger.
It was that she didn’t respect the person who would act as her subject. The figure, while successful, was someone who did not know how to do much more than self-promote, than live a luxurious life while managing to do little by way of making an everlasting impact on the world. The woman had, and continues to have, profound influence in the world of entertainment. But my professor could not stomach having to hear this person talk about how great they were and have to agree with it for an entire piece. The interview ended up being scrapped.
As a writer infatuated with film, television, and the people who populate the individual mediums, I’ve always seen the doing of a celebrity profile as a sort of milestone, something I’d at one point like to undertake and conquer. It wouldn’t matter who my subject would be. The thrill of the assignment would be the very act of disintegrating the wall resting between myself and the untouchability of someone who routinely has to refine the commodity that is them.
But my professor’s comments have stuck with me because they reminded me just what a bizarre thing fame is, and how celebrities, no matter their being on the A-list or not, really don’t do much vocationally besides go on artistic excursions and sell themselves as items to advertise those said excursions afterward. It’s vapid, often dangerous — such commercially supported self-absorption can be damaging once irrelevance hits and the public moves onto the next flavor of the month.
Such is why I find the subject of Agnès Varda’s pseudo-documentary Jane B. par Agnès V., Jane Birkin, so intriguing. Watching her in the film, you get the sense that she doesn’t like having anything and everything be about her unlike the subject of my professor’s thrown away piece.
Birkin loves working, experiencing. She appreciates the perks that come with fame — the never having to worry about money, the adoration that comes from fans — but she hates the expectation that she must live as a sort of “other,” dressing glamorously and pampering herself publicly.
Birkin is, of course, a legend. She rose to fame in her teenage years as a defining figure of Swinging London, was lover and muse to iconoclastic French musician Serge Gainsbourg during his most artistically inspired period, and became the namesake of the status symbol that is the Birkin bag. A more conventional documentary would suit her well — a pivotal reason I find her so compelling is because she’s an icon without too heady a dose of talent. In a way, she’s famous for being famous.
But with Jane B. par Agnès V., Varda is not looking to celebrate the life and career of her subject. She is, rather, intent on deconstructing the nature of celebrity and acting and inconclusively deciding what a trivial thing the worshipping of stars can be when every aspect of it is prodded and manipulated. Like Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1975), it is a tornado of candid footage and staged sequences, the lines between the real and the scripted blurred.
With Welles’ film, it is unclear exactly what the admixture signifies. The movie is about fraud and deceit, cackling madly as it tricks us time and time again into thinking that we actually know what’s going on in front of us. But it is, nevertheless, scattered. We aren’t so sure what Welles is trying to prove.
But Varda’s choices seem more intentional. With the candid interviews with Birkin, in which she talks about her upbringing and the many experiences she’s had in her lifetime, we establish her as a sort of everywoman who just so happens to be one of the most photographed people in the world.
In effect, the scripted scenes, wherein Birkin acts in one-offs that could take part in a variety of different movies, establish what a strange thing stardom is. Birkin isn’t all that much different than anyone you’d meet on the street. But she’s able to achieve a sort of godliness simply because a filmmaker may choose her to act as their muse. She can transform herself in any way an artist wants her to, and Varda’s various explorations of genre and costuming (Birkin is often at the center of recreations of classic paintings) disassemble the self-importance of acting and moviemaking. Maybe we shouldn’t be worshipping Birkin at all — she merely fulfills an occupation that brings her notoriety.
As it inevitably comes with art films, Jane B. par Agnès V. sometimes feels masturbatory, the fictional vignettes intermingling with the real frequently appearing as opportunities for Varda to show that she’s such a skilled filmmaker that she’s above any genre. And they can be distracting — the moments in which Birkin is being Birkin rather than who Varda wants her to be are the ones we enjoy the most. We don't get them nearly enough. But the movie, in lieu of its getting in the way of itself, is still an interesting dissection of stardom, and Birkin is a provocative subject. B+