LIONS LOVE (Agnès Varda, 1969)

There is an exquisite moment of postmodernist self-reflexivity in Agnès Varda’s free-flowing tragicomedy Lions Love. It involves Shirley Clarke, who is playing Shirley Clarke, which is to say, herself, the New York filmmaker of The Connection (1962) and Portrait of Jason (1967), who has come to Hollywood, the town of Desi[l]lusions (what a word-play!), to make a film. During her visit she is staying with the Andy Warhol actress/diva Viva, who is attempting to commercialize her résumé, and her two bungalow-mates, two male actors, all of whom share one bed for the camera that is being womanned by Varda, who is documenting the goings-on (much as the documentarian does in The Connection, although here we have actors, or would-be actors, in lieu of junkies), or pretending to, perhaps, according to a script. At a certain point, when things haven’t panned out, Shirley, the character, is supposed to overdose on sleeping pills. Contrary to what Shirley, the real person, had agreed to, now she doesn’t want to do it! Shirley insists she cares only about her daughter, Wendy, and not about whether she ever makes another film. Finally she relents, enacting her ultimately unsuccessful suicide attempt. During their sparring, Varda slips in front of the camera, and even into bed to perform the scene that Shirley is refusing to perform. But do we know what’s what? Is Shirley’s rebellion really her rebellion or part of Varda’s plan? At the end, when Viva laments not having been given a script for her part in this film, is the lament real or part of the script? Before she completes her American portrait, Varda suggests that U.S. Americans, nurtured on Hollywood movies and culture (not to mention the artificiality that a plastic pineapple represents), are wedded to wars because they cannot distinguish between reality and illusion.
     Devastating: in this color film, the black-and-white television coverage of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination and immediate aftermath. (The TV set has been put into mourning, with a black cloth draping its top and sides.) Viva and her apartment-mates are glued to the screen, but the reality that unfolds there seems unreal—a national nightmare, which Coretta Scott King’s televised reaction, so shortly after her own loss, painfully deepens.
     Dazzling, with one passage expressing Varda’s great love of children, this film celebrates humanity—and warmly embraces the influences of Godard, Rivette, and Vera Chytilovà’s Daisies (1967).

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