In 1967, as young people from all over America were piling into Volkswagens and Greyhound buses bound for California, Agns Varda relocated from Paris to Los Angeles. Her husband, the director Jacques Demy, had just signed a deal with Columbia. As a mother pushing 40, she was a full generation older than the dropouts, runaways, and radicals amassing in San Franciscoand had already made a handful of classic films in France. But Vardas vivacious personality was well suited to her sunny, liberated new surroundings.
It was a shower of freedom, she recalled in a 2009 interview with the L.A. Times. Suddenly, everything was different. It was a peace and love time. They were trying to have sexual revolutions and colors were daring. They were eating different. I had to learn the language and we threw ourselves into the generation and we loved it so much.
Though Varda took meetings with Columbia Pictures, too, for a project titled Peace and Love, she gave up when the studio denied her full creative control. As Alison Smith points out in her book, Agns Varda, the disappointment was probably mitigated by the relative liberty that she had in her work. San Francisco was effervescent, flower-powered, idyllic, and Vardas contacts there read like a catalogue of the well-heeled counterculture.
Each of the three films she made during her three years in California is, in its own way, a product of that counterculture. In 1967, Varda traveled to the aquatic suburbia of Sausalito to make Uncle Yanco, a lighthearted documentary short about her relative Jean Varda, a beloved local painter. The next year, in Black Panthers, she documented the protests in Oakland following Huey P. Newtons arrest. Her sympathetic take on the movement contrasts white peoples irrational fear of the Panthers with activists calm explanations of their objectives. But her California masterpiece is 1969s Lions Love (…and Lies), a narrative feature that combines the joie de vivre of Uncle Yanco with the serious critique of Black Panthers.
Lions Love (…and Lies) certainly paints a seductive portrait of hippie culture: the characters are beautiful young people in a beautiful setting, seeking beautiful new ways to live. Varda was not too dazzled to miss the nostalgia lurking beneath their innocence, though, which she contrasts with the ugly forces driving Hollywood and American politics. Shot months before Altamont, the Manson murders, and the release of Easy Rider, Lions Love captures a counterculture and a studio system on the verge of crumbling.
There isnt much to the plot of Lions Love. Warhol superstar Viva, who Varda had met in 1968, and Hair writer-stars James Rado and Gerome Ragni all play exaggerated versions of themselves. Theyve rented a light-drenched house in the Hollywood Hills, in a vague attempt to become movie stars. Explaining the films title to Andre Cornand, in a conversation T. Jefferson Kline translated for his book Agns Varda: Interviews, Varda said, Actors are like lions. Indeed, they used to be called lions. But instead of doing anything as gauche as auditioning for roles, these three float naked in the pool, make phone calls in bed, watch TV, and go to parties.
Theyre trying to pioneer the three-way romance, though their arrangement seems born out of jadedness more than idealism. Love is a fucking bore, sex is a fucking bore, fucking is a fucking bore, the word fucking is a fucking bore, Viva drawls in an early scene. Were looking for something else, she explains to a visitor later. Im tired of all this emancipation crap. Committing to their unconventional relationship would allow them to move past the chaos of free love without becoming dull. The characters are no longer flower children. Theyre too old to be hippies, too young to be adults, Varda told Cornand. A sequence in which they inexplicably supervise a houseful of children underlines how unprepared they are for parenthood. At first, they enjoy the kids as playmates. But when they misbehave or need to be fed, the trio becomes frustrated. Viva quiets a toddler by pouring Dr. Pepper into his bottle.
Into this dreamy, delicate household comes a filmmaker named Shirley, played by the real underground filmmaker Shirley Clarke. Shes in LA to negotiate a contract for her first studio pictureIm supposed to be making a movie using movie stars as real people, she explains. The moment she arrives, Viva and her boyfriends dormant ambition awakens. They start performing for Shirley, impersonating old Hollywood divas and quoting Shakespeare. Meanwhile, three suits in a claustrophobic studio office are deciding the fate of Shirleys movie. I can see that theyre afraid of me because were not talking about the same thing, she tells her friend Carlos (the film historian Carlos Clarens) of her interactions with the studio. And shes right. The project falls through because theyre too nervous to give her final cut.
As this storyline suggests, Clarkes character is a stand-in for Vardathough one female filmmaker makes a conspicuously imperfect surrogate for the other. The films running meta-narrative, which dramatizes the making of Lions Love and finds Varda occasionally inserting herself in the action, includes a moment where Shirley refuses to act out a scene Agns has written for her. Devastated by her failure to secure a contract, Shirley is supposed to swallow a handful of sleeping pills. But she breaks the illusion. I certainly wouldnt kill myself over not being able to make any goddamn movie, she protests. An exasperated Agns throws on Shirleys tunic and acts out the scene herself, prompting Shirley to realize shes being unreasonable.
Vardas insistence on exposing the artifice of filmmaking permeates her work; in Uncle Yanco, for instance, she takes pains to clarify that the scene where she and Jean meet is a reenactment. But the meta-narrative of Agns Varda making a film about a director whos making a film about Hollywood is only one of many filters that color Lions Love. The story also takes place during the first week of June, 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy and Andy Warhol were shot. Before RFKs assassination, Viva, Jerry, and Jim watch TV news coverage of his campaign. I like him because hes good-looking in a sea of ugliness, Viva says. In her view, politicians are just more successful actors. The media coverage of his death, which Varda reproduces in long shots of the TV screen and stacks of newspaper headlines, confirms it.
Finally, toward the end of a relatively plotless film stuffed with ideas and questions, Varda brings to the fore Hollywoods nostalgia for its own heyday. Carlos gives a history lesson over shots of the photos and posters that hang in Larry Edmunds Hollywood bookshop, a repository of memorabilia. Hollywoods a state of mind: nostalgia, he says.
Its an idea that lingers in the background of practically every scene. Lions Love opens when the trio walks in late to a performance of Michael McClures influential play The Beard, an imagined conversation between Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid. They come home quoting McClure, but the supposedly forward-thinking characters obsession with old Hollywood clearly predates The Beard; they drape feather boas over every surface of their home and watch Lost Horizon, Frank Capras 1937 adaptation of the novel that coined the term Shangri-La. In the films final moments, Viva looks into the camera and explains why she agreed to star in it:
I thought I would be given a script to read with lines to memorize, and I thought it would be so easy. I always wanted to do a really romantic, tragic, soap opera-type love story movie with memorized lines such as, Oh, darling, I didnt know you had cancer. What are we going to do now?
She says shes sick of being shown naked or raped, and of delivering monologues like this one. So she decides to simply sit and breathe for a full minute, ending the film with a moment of pure cinema thats clearly meant to echo Andy Warhols screen testsmoving portraits that simultaneously reproduce and deconstruct Hollywood glamour.
Warhol was certainly on Vardas mind while she was making Lions Love. In his book Greenhorns: Foreign Filmmakers Interpret America, Norman Kagan quotes her as saying that the only movies I saw in Hollywood I liked were Andys movies. Speaking to Kelly Conway, for her book Agns Varda, the director noted that there was a big shift in my work, when I discovered the California counterculture; she began making features that were very different from my films shot in France. Along with taking cues from the hippies, Vardas California films drew stylistic inspiration from the free-form aesthetics of American underground cinema. Though Lions Love is almost two hours long, its script was only 28 pages and began with a note advising that the film would be more improvised than written.
Critics picked up on the Warhol influence, but couldnt appreciate the tightly woven web of ideas underlying the loose plot of a film Varda often described as a collage. Director Agns Varda presents her fascination with the banal myth and mania that is Southern California, wrote a Variety critic who seemed to prefer Warhols less complicated movies. The result is a pleasant, sometimes humorous blend of style and technique that ultimately is unsuccessful. In a mixed but condescending Times review, Vincent Canby called Lions Love very funny, not much different from a television situation comedy and despaired at the serious turn it takes after Shirley swallows the pills. There is so much that is so pleasant in Lions Love that I wish Miss Varda hadn’t tried to give it a larger significance, whichId like to add at the risk of sounding chauvinistic seems paradoxically very naive and very French intellectual, Canby wrote. (In the same review, he offered the additional chauvinistic opinion that Vardas French films Cleo from 5 to 7 and Le Bonheur aspired to a seriousness never successfully communicated.)
Even today, some critics mistake Vardas playfulness for naivety or optimism. In an otherwise convincing 2016 Studies in French Cinema article titled Explaining Lions Love, J. Brandon Colvin wrote, Her perspective on stardom/celebrity is almost utopian in its positivity, especially when compared to Warhols cynicism. Her dive into Hollywood nostalgia, and the scenes where bean counters decide the fate of Shirleys film, contradict that interpretation. As The New Yorkers Richard Brody recently noted, It was an industry in a state of deliquescence, and Varda saw rightly that, if Hollywood were to become solid again, it would do so in open acknowledgment of and confrontation with its own past. This, of course, would be the film-school neoclassicism of the New Hollywood. Vardas implication is that stardom as conceived and clung to by studios is outdatedits as much of a trap for Viva, Jim, and Jerry as marriage, and they dont quite realize its already ensnared them.
Rather than resisting this system, like Shirley and (in real life) Varda, these young New York hippies are so desperate to be absorbed by it that their professional jealousy even bleeds into their political views. Instead of openly chasing fame, they exhaust themselves by maintaining a transgressive lifestyle in a film industryand a societythat still hasnt learned to value the avant-garde. Their fatigue presages the decadence and hysteria that took hold in the final months of the 60s. Lions Love is a funny, sun-bleached film that follows the charming antics of three young people who are (or are at least trying to be) in love. Its also a movie about three aspiring celebrities whose ambition brings them to Hollywood, where they become isolated by their reluctance to court success and then watch their icons get shot. In that light, it looks less like an uncritical celebration of the counterculture Varda fell in love with than a wistful requiem for it, from an artist who really did sacrifice fame for freedom.