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  • Ravi Swami

"Lions Love...& Lies", Dir: Agnes Varda, 1969

I'd heard Agnes Varda's name mentioned frequently on 70's film review TV shows and associated her with the kind of independent films that I would never have gone out of my way to watch, until much later after discovering the films of Jacques Demy - her husband - in the early 00's.

Since then I've made a point of seeking out her very distinctive films and it was clear that she never worked entirely in Demy's shadow as a frequent collaborator and had developed a very personal voice and approach to the extent that she is often cited as a major early influence on the French New Wave movement with films like "Cleo from 5 to 7" and "Les Creatures", along with documentaries.

In the late 60's following on from the international success of Demy's innovative trio of musicals, "Lola, "Les Parapluis de Cherbourg" and "Les Demoiselles De Rochefort", Demy and Varda, along with their young daughter Rosalie, packed their bags for Hollywood to take advantage of offers to direct films much like other members of the New Wave movement, such as Francois Truffaut - with the notable exception of Jean-Luc Godard.

Hollywood isn't very forgiving of foreign directors when the studio-financed films they make perform poorly at the box-office and Demy wasn't alone in returning to his native France after making just one film, "Model Shop", but both he and Varda wasted no time in immersing themselves in the counter-culture L.A of the late 1960's, hanging out with the likes of Jim Morrison of "The Doors" and Timothy Leary, besides meeting and speculatively casting a young and then-unknown actor by the name of Harrison Ford.

Demy's and Varda's long-time musical collaborator, Michel Legrand, faired somewhat better and went on to score a number of successful Hollywood films well into the 1980's and beyond.

By all accounts their life in L.A was idyllic - an endless round of pool parties and studio meetings, a big car at their disposal etc that fulfilled many of the French New Wave film makers dreams of American life and Hollywood that had been nurtured on a pre and post-war diet of films and pulp novels.

Typically, Varda could be expected to cast a more analytical and perhaps sceptical eye on the lifestyles of Hollywood and the America of the 1960's since it's highly unlikely that she would have been offered a major film to direct by one of the big studios despite the fact that her output far exceeded Demy's and with a great deal of critical success, as a woman.

The result of this is "Lions Love...and Lies" or simply "Lions Love", released in 1969 (the same year as "Model Shop"), shot in colour and 35mm and featuring "Viva", an actress playing herself and notable for working with Andy Warhol and two actors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, as men with whom she has a menage a trois in a grungy L.A house (with pool) while playing host to a woman independent filmmaker (another Warhol collaborator) from New York on a mission to persuade a Hollywood studio to back her film.

I have to admit that although I'm a big fan of Varda's work, this film taxed my patience, possibly because of Viva's spaced-out performance and the high jinks that the trio get up to while hardly ever leaving their house, which usually involved sex or watching TV whilst eating TV Dinners.

The woman filmmaker (Shirley Clarke) becomes frustrated by the studios' insistence on having final cut once they have agreed to back her innovative film and the deal falls through and in desperation she takes an overdose of "red pills" that the trio have left lying around their messy living room.

Varda used actors who would not normally be cast in Hollywood films and there really is a strong "Withnail & I" comedic vibe as the trio take calls from casting directors that lead nowhere, and the woman filmmaker is playing herself.

Varda employs the device of breaking the third wall frequently throughout the film, such as a shot facing a mirror where she and the film crew are deliberately clearly visible or where you hear her giving directions off-screen, and occasional narrative asides as if she was consciously combining all the cinematic traits of various New Wave directors into one film.

When the woman filmmaker gives up in exasperation over a scene where she has to take the pills by saying she is not an actress, Varda talks to her off-screen before playing the role herself and downing a handful of the red pills (I'm assuming...or hoping..they were sweets) in order to take the shot.

The film depicts the trio of out of actors as grown-up children, perhaps a commentary on the idea that Hollywood is a playground for adults, and as if to underline this there is a scene where they decide to take in children of friends or from the neighbourhood as an experiment in child-rearing, in the hope that they can get a taste of "adult" life and responsibilities, and they fail spectacularly on all counts, finally giving up and feeding the hyperactive kids "Dr Peppers" and the red pills to make them sleep.

In one scene the trio are frolicking in bed and I'm pretty certain that one of the men had a raging hard-on under a blanket that covered them and there is a fair amount of non-full frontal nudity in the film - Viva herself had starred in some outrageous Warhol films, one of which had been banned for unsimulated sex scenes and her co-stars were used to performing naked due to roles in "Hair" and independent films that were not outright pornography but that definitely expressed a 60's ethos.

Varda uses a peripheral character called "Carlos" who is an aficionado on old Hollywood to make a point about the "dream machine" artifice of Hollywood's invented worlds and the grimier realities of actor's lives and at one point Peter Bogdanovich makes what appears to be an entirely accidental, unscripted appearance in a Hollywood bookstore selling movie memorabilia.

The French New Wave was very much admired by the up-and-coming directors of Hollywood in the late 60's and 70's such as Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola and of course, Bogdanovich, their low-budget, economic films a template for film-making during a lean period where the big Hollywood studio system was crumbling, but the lionizing of the directors of the New Wave was short-lived by comparison to the reciprocal admiration of Hollywood by European directors.

Eddie Constantine ("Alphaville"), a Franco-American actor who made several appearances in French and other European cinema, has a brief cameo in the film as a former lover of Viva who is turned away when she says she is happy with her menage a trois.

It's entirely possible that the film is a representation of Varda's own journey in trying to make a film in Hollywood and the disappointment that followed, since it's tinged with cynicism, though tempered with a quirky eye for seeing comedy and it was only afterwards that I saw the parallels to "Withnail & I" - without that it's a rather grim trawl through the fringes of a Los Angeles populated by would-be actors and independent directors waiting for their big break.

The unplanned impromptu nature of the film's structure becomes clear when the murder of Bobby Kennedy plays out live on the TV and Varda allows her actors space to react to the events as they unfold, in an unscripted way.

The film concludes with the three main performers talking directly to camera about who they are outside of their roles and ends with Viva, who complains that all she is ever required to do is take off her clothes in films and that she would like a minute to simply breathe and say nothing, which Varda allows her to do as she counts off what is eventually 3 minutes of screen time as the film runs through to the end of the roll - a parting shot that implies that actors are not the roles that they inhabit on screen in contrast to the manufactured personas of the Hollywood star system.

"Lions Love...& Lies", Dir: Agnes Varda, 1969

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