Sunday, December 12, 2010

Une Femme est une femme (1961)

Whenever I begin watching a previously unseen Jean-Luc Godard movie, I always need a minute to adjust to Godard's unique style. In this, A Woman is a Woman is no exception. The movie begins jarringly, a quick flash of brightly colored title cards that fill the screen one word at a time, and from which we are supposed to deduce the nature of this particular movie, which is an homage to theatrical musical comedy. When character appears on screen, we're not really sure who's who, what they're doing, etc. The music stops and starts, as if to deliberately make us uncomfortable, but perhaps, seeing as how this is a Godardian take on musical comedy, it is just his version of the orchestra warming up.

Eventually, I begin to discern the plot. Anna Karina plays Angéla, an exotic dancer who works in a dingy, mostly empty burlesque house. But we can tell that this is not the main focus of Angéla's existence. To her, this is simply a job, albeit one in which she gets naked, but she detaches herself from that aspect of her occupation. Godard shows this to us as Angéla performs one of her bits. While she dances around, the music plays loudly. Yet when she sings, the music is silent, and the camera focuses on her and her face. By isolating her from her environs, we get a feel for Angéla's removed perspective and the gentle, playful tones that she sings in shows us how Angéla really isn't concerned about the seediness of her surroundings; she doesn't belong there, and she knows it and acts like it.

Angéla lives with Emile, a bookseller. She wants a baby, and tells him. He does not, and tells her. Thus begins an epic, epic argument in their apartment. It involves jokes, snappy dialogue that plays at the cadence of a film noir's detective monologue, excellent use of the camera, as when Godard films Angéla and Emile on either sides of a large window, so that they're clearly demarcated by the two halves of a window, a brilliant scene when they communicate their discontents and thoughts of the other by showing each other snippers of book titles to form words, but above all, we get the sense of true passion, true life conveyed: these people may speak and act as though they are actors in a play, but that is simply a translucent covering over the true intent and actual emotions behind their words. 

Recently, I read Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, by Richard Brody. The impression that I got was that Godard's films are really deep expressions of his personality. All his quirks come out, but so do his problems, his struggles, and his joys. When we watch A Woman is a Woman, we can learn much about Godard and his ways.

He has a quirky, mischievous humor. While they argue, in one scene, Angéla hold two eggs as she  turns to the stove. Emile is in the midst of growing frustrated as they argue about whether to have a baby. He tells her, "Drop it!" (as in the subject), but she interprets it literally, and drops the eggs to the floor, where they splatter. He also has quite somber views on the nature of relationships. Godard views a wall in between the man and woman that prevents perfect communication between the two. There will always be mis-communication and poor interpretations of what the other is saying or wants, leading inevitably to strife and tension (Brody suggests that Godard is telling a story of his and Karina's relationship at the time).

Most of all, though, Godard loves Anna Karina. At the time, they were newly married, and it shows. The camera loves Karina, and treats her well. There are numerous shots that show her radiant and beautiful, not in the way that the camera would show a starlet, like a Marilyn Monroe, but in a delicate way. I hesitate to use the word 'cute,' but that's how Godard displays her - a beautiful girl who doesn't consider herself as such, but who we, the viewer, know to be beautiful. The camera that plays over her face and shows her in perfect light but it is the way that she acts that confirms the genuine, not-put on nature of her beauty -  she acts as though she feels the camera's eye upon her, slightly self-conscious of it and slightly abashed at being on stage in front of us.

Eventually, Angéla gets fed up with Emile, and goes to sleep with his friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Emile finds out about this transgression, but he's slept with a prostitute, and Angéla knows this, and due to the 'cancelling out effect,' the two make up. I think Godard, despite dwelling on the frustrations, arguments, mis-communications, and infidelities of their relationship, wants to show that there is a redemptive part of relationships. He has an earnest belief that if there is love, all other transgressions can be forgiven. It's a corny message, in a way, but one that seems genuine. 

But Godard always has an irreverent twinkle in his eye, and it wouldn't be his style to end the movie in such a serious way, so ends it with a pun that comes in a conversation between Angéla and Emile, who have made up:
"Angéla, ou est infame!"
"No, no je sois pas infame." She turns to face the camera straight on, winking without actually winking, "Je suis un femme."  

(Forgive my awful French transcription. In English it would be, "Angela, you're vile." "No, I'm not vile. I'm a woman."  That's what we call a pun getting lost in translation.)

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