DESPITE being a huge movie star in France, one of the most beloved yé-yé girls of '60s-era French pop, the namesake for the Birkin Bag, and the inspiration for every girl you know who has bangs, British actress Jane Birkin is often described first as a muse, and positioned largely in regard to the men she's been linked to over the years. To an extent, this isn't terribly surprising—Birkin's a famous woman who has three famous daughters (photographer Kate Barry, actress/singer Lou Doillon, actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg) fathered by three famous men. But she's also had a storied, complicated life that I realized I knew nothing about until I saw it told not by longtime musical collaborator Serge Gainsbourg, but by another woman, French director Agnès Varda.
Until now, Jane B. par Agnès V. has never been released in the US—this week, the 1988 film screens in Portland as part of the NW Film Center's series "(Re)Discoveries: New Restorations, New Prints." It's a digitally restored documentary Varda made on the occasion of Birkin's 40th birthday (Varda herself supervised the restoration) and a loving, respectful portrait of one artist made by another. In conversation, Birkin speaks candidly about everything from her taxidermy collection to gender identity, with short scenes directed by Varda—a riff on Laurel and Hardy, an appearance as Joan of Arc, Birkin as a muse raging that the artist she inspired has died (a prescient moment, given that Serge Gainsbourg died three years after Jane B. was released).
Birkin speaks in fluent French with a slight British accent (where did you think Charlotte got it?) about the "mini-scandal" of appearing naked, briefly, in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up. She dumps the contents of her purse and Varda's lens catches a glimpse of the telltale pink and green tube of Maybelline mascara amid strewn papers. Varda ties a pink bow around Birkin's house. Birkin tromps around her garden in loose-fitting men's clothing, and discusses a short story she's writing—a short story that Varda would go on to make into her next movie, Kung-Fu Master, co-written by Birkin. Screening in Portland alongside Jane B., Kung-Fu Master is the less essential of the two films, but it's nonetheless a lovely portrait of a lonely woman whose arrested development leads her into a predatory relationship with a 15-year-old boy. It also boasts one of Charlotte Gainsbourg's first appearances on film. It would not have been made without Agnès Varda's love letter to her friend.
In fact, Varda seems to be the perfect candidate to make a film that examines Birkin as a person and not simply a celebrity. On any list of French New Wave directors, Varda's name is the only one that doesn't belong to a man (or straight-up isn't included). Despite her films' conceptual and formal connections to the French New Wave, Varda has always brought something to the table that the boys' club of Godard and Truffaut does not. Her films are aggressively nonlinear, most don't have anything resembling plot, and she's just as comfortable shooting a documentary as narrative, or questioning such a dichotomy altogether. But perhaps most of all, Varda's films are overtly feminist without being didactic, a concern Birkin seems to share.
If you do a Google search for "Jane Birkin," the first image that comes up will likely be one of Birkin when she was very young, with perfect bangs, looking tentatively at the camera. This is the Jane Birkin who caused a scandal when, at 22, she recorded her heavy breathing on Serge Gainsbourg's "Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus," the song that she's probably best known for in the US even now. But the Jane Birkin in Jane B. par Agnès V. is older, forthright, charismatic, and not a little eccentric, fiercely affectionate toward her children and seemingly willing to take any risk asked of her for Varda's film. Many directors have trained their lenses on Jane Birkin, but perhaps because its gaze is distinctly female, and its director a friend, Jane B. never seems like the result of a muse inspiring an artist. It's something much more fascinating: a collaboration.