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This is in a format I wish we would get more of, the cinematic portrait. Marker and Godard would work out examples in a few years time, several of Herzog's work are portraits. The added benefit with these is that, while we're still looking for life, they don't have to step through the structured formalities of drama to get to the person, the format permits an improvised reach, one of a few formats that do.
But someone still has to pose for them and a filmmaker has to take it down with his brush, apply colors. This is uneven in both respects. One reason why lies in a fundamental mismatch I perceive here. It's actress Jane Birkin posing for Varda; Birkin is outgoing, sad or lonely in the mannered way of someone accustomed to the presence of a camera, used to grooming a self. Varda on the other hand is drawn to the enigmas of ragged women, introverts or haunted in some way, or at any rate does her best work in the whirl of what is not fully controlled. She manages to find no interesting entry here.
Not having found that entry, we get various enactments on a stage instead, Birkin as Tarzan's Jane or Joan of Arc, in a picnic with her French idol, coteries of costumed people enacting tableaux, poses for the camera and blathering vignettes. At so few points do we pierce through cute play-acting to get the elusive stuff that life is made of, at something not rehearsed because a camera will film it, ending up with the equivalent of a surreal magazine spread on a known face. So when it sorts itself out, it's less than the sum of its colors, merely a face.
A miss. Still, Varda manages to come up with flashes of inspiration in all this, she's always adept with pouring images, stirring flows of them. Above all the whole segment of Birkin rehearsing with Serge Gainsbourg - Birkin's ex-lover - is a small gem of intricately edited resonance, the only instance where Varda can hint at something on the other side of images.
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