Jane B. par Agnès V. (Agnès Varda, 1987) is a fascinating portrait of Jane Birkin that, all throughout, gives a very digressive, free-flowing impression. In several scenes, director and actress discuss, precisely, this meandering nature of the film. Varda, who never seems too worried about it, reassures Birkin: “It’s like doing a puzzle. You place the pieces here and there, and a picture appears but with a hole in the middle. It always happens at dinner parties. Suddenly it goes quiet and someone says: ‘Sing us a song!'”
Then, an incredible sleight of hand. As if whistling, Birkin calls for ex-partner and collaborator, Serge Gainsbourg. Her cue (“A song? Gainsbourg …”), uttered as if she was inviting him to a décadance, introduces a fantastic musical passage built upon Birkin’s performance of “Le moi et le je”.
Singing a Gainsbourg song isn’t easy. He likes his syllables unnaturally stressed or flattened, lengthened or sharpened; he enjoys writing with unequal, undulating metric; he’s fond of enjambements that break—across different verses—single sentences and, sometimes, even single words (which means, for instance, that Birkin has to force a pause in the middle of dangereux—singing dange as the end of a melodic line and –reux as the start of a new one). Many of his lyrics frolic in wordplay; they delight in polysemic and homophonic terms—disseminating multiple meanings and messing with similar sounds (though, let’s admit it, French lends itself specially well to this operation, since it isn’t precisely short on words that sound all the same to me).
Nonetheless, with Gainsbourg, there’s all this friction and frenzy of lyrics in drag and disguise; breaths as pulsation, weight and caress; sensuous singing, saying—susurrating even—of sounds, and sighs, and syllables (which is what makes many of his songs sound like sex—even those that are not about sex). While “Le moi et le je” is not one of those dreamy hymns—to the zest for lemon incest or to Annie sucking sucettes a l’anis—that made Gainsbourg both famous and infamous around the world for displaying in the open a perverse sex imagination, the song is nonetheless a bit perverse. In that while, in ordinary French, moi and je are simply “me” and “I”, in Lacanian French, le moi and le je are (not so simply) “the ego” and “the I”. I sure could expand on that because le je and le moi is an ongoing affair in a neverending hall of mirrors; but I won’t. For Varda says she’s more interested “in daydreaming than in psychology”, and I trust her.
Indeed, Varda dreams here the most beautiful coming to life of a song; not its natural birth, but an artificial coming to life—like only cinema can create. Including different performances by Birkin (in the recording studio, in the dressing room, in a rehearsal with the band, during a concert), this section is a perfect example in miniature of the intense collage-work that informs Jane B. par Agnès. B, and of the director’s unique sensibility for montage (the film is co-edited by Marie-Jo Audiard who would work with her in later projects).
Instead of creating the illusion of a fictional chronology, Varda fragments each performance and re-arranges the bits and pieces, out of order, across twenty different shots. What is respected, instead, is the song’s development—and Varda includes all the lyrics, leaving out only the recurring stanzas and the instrumental bridge. The editing bursts with the lyricism of repetition and fragmentation—the poetry of starts and stops typical of a rehearsal— and, at the same time, exudes a feeling of progression, of movement toward something.
Gainsbourg playing Gainsbourg provides Varda with some of the funniest moments of the film. As if manically moulding Birkin’s delicate thread of voice (in an earlier scene, we’ve seen her as an Ariadne in the labyrinth haunted by a camera), Gainsbourg is a mad Pygmalion—and his histrionics are entirely for our enjoyment since, due to the odd positioning of the couple, Birkin herself can’t see him. In a shared two-shot, Varda captures the exhilarating spectacle of Birkin, fully concentrated, trying to give shape with her voice to a musical universe whose secret order seems to be directly encoded in Gainsbourg’s twinching body, in his gesticulations and grimaces, in his wild spasms and vibrations.
I won’t rave over every clip and cut of this scene, but I’d like to mention some of the diverse effects performed by the editing: sometimes, smoothing the passage between shots (by matching glances or turns of the head); other times, performing a sharp transition (usually using Gainsbourg’s emphatic indications as a cue); others, functioning as a visual punctuation (cued by a camera flash, or a flashing shot of the audience) to emphasise the musical break. Part of the dynamism comes from the different textures of the footage, and from its many changes in shot scale and composition—here, it’s worth noting how Varda, at one point, surprises us by switching the medium shot of the couple for a wider one (for some graceful, sparkling action).
Faced with “Le moi et le je”, it’s impossible not to remember the performance of “Sans toi” in Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)—an early example of Varda’s interest in experimenting with the intense emotion that cinema can bring to music (and vice versa). The scene in question is an informal rehearsal between Corinne Marchand and Michel Legrand, taking place in a luminous room drenched in white. The camera tracks around the piano and starts approaching her; at one point, Varda changes from synchronised to post-synchronised sound—adding a whole orchestral arrangement to the theme and deepening the scene’s poignancy; meanwhile, the camera keeps isolating Marchand until she’s framed in a close-up against a pitch black background. (See a brilliant discussion of this scene, here).
A similar musical tinkering, but amplified and multiplied, is what makes the segment in Jane B par Agnès V. so great: the song switches between different musical accompaniments; the band appears and disappears; in the studio, sometimes we hear the pre-recorded instrumental track, other times not; and Birkin’s vocal texture is different in each setting. If, in Cléo from 5 to 7, Varda was clearly pursuing an emotional build-up, a dramatic crescendo, here the adventurous editing goes hand in hand with the song at hand—giving rise to unpredictable bursts of emotion, and to an abiding sense of wonder and surprise (and making the song anew even for those who already knew it).
This section is a beautiful homage to the long collaboration between Birkin and Gainsbourg, to their game cruel et tendre à la fois, to their complicity and affection. But it is also, like the entire film, an immense homage to Birkin: to her wildness and her courage, to her willingness to be both marionette and bullfighter.
Another reason why I find this passage so moving: its placement in the film. It comes as an aid (to provide a hinge, to keep it all going) and it drives us to a revelation (two revelations, in fact). In the next scene, Birkin confesses that she had done two things for the first time that year: singing live for an audience and showing someone a story she had written—that “someone” was Varda herself, and the story would become the basis for another collaboration between director and actress, Kung-fu master! (1987).
Jane B. par Agnès V. is, amongst other things, a film about being a woman and turning forty. Birkin turned 40 during the shooting of the film. (I turned 40 last year, so there’s that.) In the final scene, Birkin’s turn of decade is dramatised in an affecting monologue to the camera that she delivers dressed in costume; afterwards, the members of the crew, one by one, give her greetings, kisses and flowers—and I’ve felt, for the first time, thanks to this film (and perhaps also to my age), the significance and the emotion of that image/expression: being covered in flowers.
It ain’t easy turning 40; memories and dreams start blending into each other, time catches up with you and squeezes (“That end in zero hurts a bit”, says Birkin disarmingly). It ain’t easy turning 40, embodying and navigating past and present fantasies—those that are yours, those of others—and wishing to be yourself and wishing to remain open. It ain’t easy idolising others, being so grateful and, at the same time, being so aware of your unremarkable talents. Yet, at the same time, wanting to be loved.
© Cristina Álvarez López, March 2021