Kung-fu master! (1988)

KUNG FU MASTER (Petit Amour, Le)

(director/writer: Agnès Varda; screenwriter: from idea by Jane Birkin; cinematographer: Pierre-Laurent Chenieux; editor: Marie-Josée Audiard; cast: Jane Birkin (Mary-Jane), Mathieu Demy (Julien), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Lucy), Lou Doillon (Lou), Judy Campbell (La mere), Eva Simonet (The friend); Runtime: 80; Capital Cinema/La Sept; 1988-France)

“This is a suggestive film, touching a tabu subject, but it handles it delicately with an unflinching directness.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

French director Agnès Varda’s “Kung Fu Master” tells the intriguing story of an illicit romance between a 14-year-old and a middle-aged divorcee. It is adapted from an idea by English actress and singer Jane Birkin who plays the older woman, and it is sensitively directed by the real-life mother of the boy star.

The film takes us into territory film’s rarely traverse. It crosses the emotional boundaries of a forbidden love between an adult woman and a young boy. What starts out as a longing desire develops into a strong desire for love on the part of the older woman, as the slender Mary-Jane (Birkin) becomes attracted to the pathetic look the smallish Julien (Demy) has after she helps him vomit when he gets drunk. He is attending a birthday party for her daughter Lucy (Gainsbourg), who is his classmate. The relationship between older woman and boy picks up steam when he makes a bold sexual move on her and she feels flattered, as it stirs up something indescribable within her.

They meet again when Mary-Jane feels compelled to search Julien out in school and goes with her young daughter Lou to a nearby cafe. Julien is content to play a difficult video game he is obsessed with, Kung Fu Master. He is adept at moving around an animated karate master who must save a damsel in distress. The meditative approach he has to the game is the same one he applies to catching the older woman, as they both suffer from the same aches of loneliness. Julien is an outsider in his group because he wears braces and is small, while she can’t connect with anyone since her divorce. Timing, which is a key to all romances blooming, is just right here.

The film leaves the world of reality and plays more like fantasy, when Mary-Jane takes Julien along with her on a holiday to meet her parents in London. In her parents’ English garden Mary-Jane is spotted by Lucy kissing Julien, and the daughter gets revolted by what she sees. To the rescue comes Mary-Jane’s mother (Campbell), who suggests she take Julien and Lou to a deserted island to test the strength of this romance. On the island, we see them kiss and are not made aware if anything more intimate took place.

The boy’s parents and the school principal learn of this affair, and Mary-Jane is marked as a corrupt woman. Lucy goes to live with her dad and Julien is forced to change schools and never contact her again.

The film asks the question about what makes us love someone. When Lucy is asked what kind of boy attracts her, she has a list of things that include the boy has to be tall and not wear a leather jacket, he must be easygoing, not a gossip, and not be stupid. Mom’s ideal is hardly less childish, which is the point Varda is making — that the ideal mate sought is all about one’s irrational feelings.

This is a suggestive film, touching a tabu subject, but it handles it delicately with an unflinching directness. This affair is viewed with the same frankness Varda thinks we should view all things in life. For her, condoms are a fact of life and should be made available to all who need them. The current AIDS epidemic must be faced with humor and real knowledge, or else ignorance will cause more damage than good. Perhaps lovers have to look also at what is real and what is fantasy, and face themselves and what it is they desire and not worry about what society thinks. This film did not exploit a troubling situation, and it provided much fuel for thought.


REVIEWED ON 4/18/2001 GRADE: B-   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/