The final film of Agnès Varda’s first California foray, 1969’s Lions Love (…and Lies) is at once her most traditional and experimental film of this brief phase. While it is the only feature-length film she made in this period (and the only narrative feature), it is also stranger and slower than the two more precise films that preceded it. Strange and slow by Varda’s standards is still pretty dynamic, however, and that unmissable Varda playfulness is definitely present. But the film finds her attempting different tactics, and while all of them aren’t entirely successful, it makes for an interesting and deceptively cerebral viewing experience.

Lions Love is framed by a theatrical performance of famed Beat Generation poet/playwright Michael McClure’s “The Beard,” which portrays a fictional meeting between actress Jean Harlow and outlaw Billy the Kid. Varda takes this idea and runs with it, and her film follows a fictional version of Warhol favorite Viva (played by Viva herself) and her love affair with fictional versions of James Rado and Gerome Ragni, the creators of the musical Hair. They are joined by the filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who plays herself, but also Agnès Varda. Dressed and styled in Varda’s distinct fashion, Clarke is Varda’s onscreen proxy, something that becomes even more clear when Clarke breaks the fourth wall and complains about what she is being asked to do, only to be replaced by Varda herself for the remainder of the scene.

Scenes of Hollywood Boulevard flit across the screen and somehow the images are distinctly Varda even though they are also Hollywood. She films Viva, Jim and Jerry lying around a poorly decorated rental home (all of the hotels are full) and its pool in various stages of undress, and their (presumably) improvised dialogue is often meaningless, buzzing out like a chorus of cicadas as the trio strike poses. What is interesting is how forced much of the relaxation seems, as this was being filmed right as Bobby Kennedy and Andy Warhol were being shot, it seems to be Varda telling us that this once upon a time in Hollywood wasn’t truly as relaxed and hippiesish as it seemed to be from a distance. One can almost sense Varda falling a bit out of love with the California dream as she’s filming it. Her arrival in the Sunshine State was marked by the vibrant social commentary of her short “Black Panthers” and the joyous personal project Uncle Yanco, which showed California to be a place of progress and joy, of sunshine and forward thinking. Yet here, in Lions Love, it is a place where no one is truly real and nothing really matters.

When viewed today, Lions Love is delightfully campy, and it probably would have been in its own time as well. In some ways, it represents Varda attempt to emulate Warhol but with her own style firmly intact. As a result, it’s less in-your-face artsy than Warhol, but it is also colored and textured with more insight into human relationships. In all of Varda’s work, we see this push-and-pull between her voice as a stylist and her keen sense of humanity. Just when you think she’s pursuing something purely as a visual exercise, she’ll whirl around and close in on a haunting or joyful moment for one of her subjects. This push-and-pull drives Lions Love (…and Lies) and perhaps that unevenness is why it isn’t one of Agnès Varda’s best known films. Regardless, it is a fascinating addition to her body of work.

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