As I’m writing this review of a movie that’s nearly as old as I am, there are currently two prestigey Awards Season dramas from well-respected auteurs in theaters that dabble in age-gap “romances” between adults & teenagers. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, a 25-year-old-woman disastrously indulges a semi-romantic friendship with a 15-year-old boy. In Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, a 40-something conman actively grooms a small-town high schooler for potential employment in the pornography industry. Surprisingly, it’s the former film that’s taking a lot of online heat for its supposedly dangerous amorality, while the latter is enjoying a quiet, uneventful theatrical run. Maybe the difference is that Licorice Pizza‘s friendly quasi-romance is played with a nostalgic sentimentality, while Red Rocket more aggressively interrogates the moral shortcomings of its skeezy conman protagonist. Maybe it’s merely a symptom of Licorice Pizza reaching a wider audience, so more people are around to be offended by it. I’m going to make no attempts to pinpoint the discrepancy, as I’ve been constantly baffled by what movies have been singled out by the sharpened knives of Age Gap Discourse™ in recent years. Ever since Call Me By Your Name was treated like a Cuties-level provocation, I’ve struggled to figure out why we’ve completely lost our ability for nuanced discussion of morally ambiguous relationships, especially in discussion of fictional age-gap romances. One thing I do know, though, is that if it were released in this current hyperbolic environment, Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! would make these morally righteous kids’ heads explode.
Agnès Varda’s cinematic persona has been over-simplified into a kind of wholesome meme in recent years, but she made provocative, fiercely political art in her time. Even so, Kung-Fu Master! is one of the toughest watches I’ve seen from her, although it appears to have been made as a tossed-off afterthought mid-production on her documentary Jane B. Made as a collaboration with that documentary’s titular subject—actor & singer Jane Birkin—Kung-Fu Master! is a sentimental romance drama about a middle-aged woman who inexplicably falls in love with a teenage boy. The small cast includes Varda & Birkin’s own children, including Varda’s son Matthieu Demy as the snotty object of Birkin’s desire and Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg as his classmate & her romantic rival. It doesn’t sexualize the scrawny, boyish Demy in any way – outside maybe lingering on a few closed-mouth kisses with the adult Birkin. Still, it also doesn’t make any excuses for his adult fling’s transgressions. She is attracted to him specifically because he is underage, visibly fascinated by his juvenile ramblings about boyish nonsense like Dungeons & Dragons and the titular arcade game Kung-Fu Master!. Falling in love with him ruins her social life, isolating her from her own children & other adults. The movie doesn’t make any grand gestures to demonize her for her bizarre infatuation, though. It instead delicately interrogates the absurdism of an adult being so transfixed with a child she has nothing in common with. It’s a premise that would not survive a minute of modern Age Gap Discourse, at least not in the morally ambiguous way it’s handled here.
Personally, I think Kung-Fu Master! more than justifies exploring this specific moral transgression. It’s a movie that’s more about the why of its morally squicky events than it is about depicting the what; the most we ever see of Birkin & Demy consummating their onscreen fling are a few chaste little kisses and an implied sleeping bag sleepover. Meanwhile, the film is anchored to a grim contemporary context that’s presented with much harsher tonal severity. Kung-Fu Master! is not so much about its romance itself as it is about escaping from the grim circumstances of the AIDS epidemic by retreating into the innocence of schoolyard crushes. Divorced & painfully lonely, Birkin’s fantasy-prone protagonist longs for the flattery & safety of flirting with a teen boy instead of a sexually mature adult. She swoons for the smallest, scrawniest boy in her daughter’s class of brutes specifically because he is “curious & vulnerable”. Meanwhile, the video game arcades she trails him to are crowded by AIDS pamphlets & condom dispensers, constantly reminding her of the much more dangerous, complicated logistics of adult romance. It isn’t until the mismatched couple isolate themselves for an island vacation that they escape the havoc AIDS has wreaked on big-city living, and they enjoy a moment of interpersonal peace. It would be very easy to dismiss this film outright for the hands-off way it approaches the immoral romantic pairing at its core, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for being too squicked out by that predatory dynamic to appreciate its larger themes. I found it to be a tough but moving watch in more ways than I expected, though, especially the further it digs into the reasons for Birkin’s immoral predation.
Curiously, Kung-Fu Master! opens with a scene that’s perfectly tailored for today’s social media climate. The teenage Demy, dressed in a karate uniform, mimics the stilted video-game motions of his favorite arcade game by treating his city sidewalk as a sight-scrolling button-masher. It’s a visual gag that’s been repeated endlessly in TikToks & Vines, where teens will mimic the nonsensical body language of GTA maniacs or idle NPCs. I don’t know that modern social media discourse would have much breathing room for discussing anything that happens after that adorable intro, though, since Varda is entirely disinterested in damning her wayward protagonist for her crimes. I understand the inherent sensitivity of a film tackling statutory rape in its core narrative, but I still think there’s something lost when art is reductively discussed as real-life morality parables rather than a safe, fictional space to explore complicated ideas. Despite the obvious personal connection to Varda & Birkin’s own families (including the eventual loss of Varda’s husband & Demy’s father to AIDS complications), these are fictional characters whose onscreen behavior are not being endorsed by their real-life creators. However, the harsh circumstances of the world they occupy is very real, and their moral transgressions within it are a troubling psychological response to that circumstance. It’s deeply fucked up, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth grappling with.