Movie Review: Le Petit Amour (Kung-Fu Master!)

Jane Birkin and Mathieu Demy in Le Petit Amour (Kung Fu Master!), Dir. Agnès Varda (1988)
I recently saw Le Petit Amour (Kung-Fu Master!) (1988), directed by Agnès Varda, on Mubi. I am familiar with her most famous work, Jacquot de Nantes, and her exquisite short documentary films.
The movie tells the story of Mary-Jane, a recently divorced older woman (Jane Birkin) who unwittingly falls in love with her daughter's (Charlotte Gainsbourg) younger teenage classmate, Julien (Mathieu Demy). In real life, Demy is Varda's son, and Gainsbourg is Birkin's daughter. Birkin conceived the story, and Varda wrote it (also it is quite the cinematic family-affair, considering the real-life relationships among Varda, Demy, and the Birkin clan).
The plot concerns a taboo subject of intergenerational love, but I thought the film was redeemed (and Roger Ebert agrees) by its ability to capture feelings without the use of overwrought words, or a display of gratuitous sex. While the story is fantasy-driven, it touches upon the feeling of passionate love and how it can come upon you when you least expect it.
     The film taps into the fears and anxieties of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which becomes a political subtext underlying the main characters' search for sexual expression. The movie is understated in its emotional playfulness. Julien watches Mary-Jane sing to her younger daughter Lou (Lou Doillon), and we see in the boy's hazel eyes a glimmer of desire. Mary-Jane acts on his desire and insinuates herself into Julien's life. Demy does not force the role of Julien, and Varda manages to treat the two's subsequent love affair with sensitivity, recognizing it is doomed from the start.
     I liked the expert insertion of Mary-Jane's inner dialogue, coupled with Julien acting out his feelings through his bold behavior. Each is caught in their own fantasy, and one sequence in particular on an island off the coast of England seems straight out of a Grimm's fairy tale (no intrusion from the outside world). Mary-Jane wonders "Do all women fall in love with a boy, or just those without sons?" and Julien plays out his adolescent fantasy through an arcade video game. A Kung-Fu master fights wizards and goblins to save the damsel in distress, Sylvia.
     At the end of the movie reality eventually crashes through, and Mary-Jane picks up the pieces. The movie ends with a jarring scene of Julien telling his schoolmates how he got laid by an older woman, puffing on a cigarette, putting on a thin veneer of machismo. He's grown tired of her, while his older lover is still awash in the memories of the affair. 
     The movie does not map well onto the current sexual politics. I saw someone on Mubi's message boards decry the movie for being traumatic and triggering. I'm not sure if we have become either blasé or intolerant of difficult subjects, but while the movie is touching and beautiful, today's pragmatic audience will not have much of a stomach for its forays into forbidden love.

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