Friday, February 13, 2009

A Woman Is a Woman (1961)

Jean-Luc Godard today conjures inaccessible difficulty, Marxian didactics and Nouevelle Vague enshrinement. Yet he was, at his most playful, a reverential mimic of his favorite Hollywood pictures, a cinematic romantic, a lover of the movies he had absorbed, cherished and in which he had seen greater, more philosophically rich textures than they had perhaps even intended. A Woman Is a Woman, or Une femme est une femme, is as sweet as Godard could become. Before relating the poisoned marriage of Contempt, Godard told a more glisteningly romantic story. His first color picture, A Woman Is a Woman is remarkably airy and ostensibly liberated; gone are the jump-cuts of Breathless as well as that picture's seeping sense of inevitable tragedy, which would resurface in Contempt and the riveting Le Petit Soldat but A Woman Is a Woman is an aching film on its own terms.

Starring Godard's muse, the irrepressible Anna Karina as Angela, a charming, lovely striptease artist who wants to have a baby and settle down. Captured in an ebullient light show that is in its mise-en-scene and construction a piece of commentary on the various emotional states of Karina's Angela, she is as teasing and tempting as she will be for her disagreeable boyfriend Émile Récamier (Jean-Claude Brialy), who does not wish to settle down and have a child with her. The striptease act is made into a comment on cinema itself, with the artist wooing the viewer with a promise. Godard delivers that promise by making his ode to Hollywood musicals succeed, wildly, not in spite of but almost rather because of its unconventional use of music. Viewing cinema as an ideally musical art form, through simple alterations in mise-en-scene Godard makes the arguments between Angela and Émile blossom into vociferous duets.

Godard's conception of the Zodiac club at which Angela works is hilariously tame and refined. The winking awareness of Hollywood distillation of the uncomfortable into more endearing contexts enlivens A Woman Is a Woman in its presentation. As Angela speaks directly into the camera, with an impossibly sweet, smartly sly demeanor, and an intoxicating smile, Godard's camera takes the viewpoint of the men in the audience, doubtless enamored with the young lady. Accentuating the effervescent mise-en-scene of Godard's is the stopping-and-starting scoring of music by Michel Legrand, which functions quite brilliantly as a uniform treatise on the place of music in cinema.

The third acting component is Jean-Paul Belmondo, curiously and humorously named Alfred Lubitsch. Belmondo represents a possible way out for Angela, but when they converse, and listen to a sad song about an unforgiving man surveying the ignominy of a woman, in a particularly long scene, she must confront that she still has deep feelings for Émile. This love triangle is mounted not as a contest, particularly as Émile incredulously subtracts himself from the proceedings, flustered as he is by Angela's uncontrollable willfulness and determination. Godard makes the pair of suitors pleasingly pathetic, but only in that the woman is so remarkably at ease manipulating them... even when she is doing so with such nonchalance that her desires seem shrouded.

As fine as the two men are, the acting star is Karina, while Godard is the star of the picture's ingenuity, vitality and commitment. Rarely has such an intentionally inconsequential souffle been so aesthetically wondrous and overflowing in its cinematic charity. Godard makes hallways and foyers into arenas of romantic battle, not unlike Douglas Sirk wringing melodramatic quintessence from everyday settings. Godard's assured dynamism makes each scene smoke and sizzle, layering a sumptuous patina of light by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, whose work here is awesomely, divinely inspired.

With a narrative functioning as mere coat hanger for the precocious playfulness on display, Godard makes his filmic excavation of Hollywood cinema densely configurated as a meta contextualization of romantic musicals. Echoing Vincente Minnelli in New Wave trappings, Godard whittles the process down, so that, as in his best work, the proper story is truly Godard's incisive critical (as he had been a critic with fellow New Wave founder Francois Truffaut) commentary on cinema itself. When Karina finally addresses the audience at the film's very end, Godard shoots her in such a way as to emphasize the spotlight-like, key-light-like artificiality of movie love filmmaking. Like the funny breaching of the fourth wall in Breathless, A Woman Is a Woman's nimble reworking of standard conventions is lubricated with flourishes that amazingly enhance the entire virginal color palette, visually complementing the illumination Godard lends to the characters' relationships with one another.

Endowed with a delightfully sardonic wit, Godard comments on the titular flirtation with sexism (a woman is a woman, after all, and Angela believes the only thing that can salvage her relationship with her boyfriend is a baby). Angela's glittery ambivalence, however fetching, also speaks to the picture's upending of stereotypes and tropes, all the while essaying them through involved observation. Deciding that her current relationship is hampered by the lack of a child, her approaching of Alfred to accommodate her wish is an effort to ignite jealousy in Émile. Émile is a difficult nut to crack, however, and her test of him eventually becomes his test of her. The gender dynamics and halfhearted suggestion of a triad-structured symbiosis are an avenue on which Godard travels, making comments that would turn more mythical and realistically embittered all at once in Contempt, again playful in his most deliriously fun film, again starring Karina, Bande à part, and the more aggressively sociopolitical cine essay, Masculin féminin.

A Woman Is a Woman, however, still stands out as a harmoniously derived pastiche that is as loving a film as Godard could create. Processing Hollywood's genius for finding the physical and numinous pulchritude in the implausible, Godard's picture is a work of sincere gratitude to a way of making movies that may sadly be extinct. Lars von Trier's more recent attempt with Dancer in the Dark, while intriguing, was never as successful in its complicated melange as Godard's more gracefully crafted 1961 concoction. Godard would turn to more, superficially or not, important subject matter, complete with humorless characters and controversial, politically charged narratives, and as he remained vibrant, so did they, too. Sometimes, however, the irresistably frothy mixtures are more satisfying than the larger, more laborious meals. There is nothing inherently wrong with exploring the insuperable dilemmas of life, but as A Woman Is a Woman demonstrates, sometimes those insuperable dilemmas are everyday matters, challenging artists to make them appetizing.


Sam Juliano said...

Godard's A WOMAN IS A WOMAN is purposely intended (as you assert exhaustively throughout this great review) to be a light-hearted movie, much like a cinematic pop song. As you say later in your review the narrative is mainly a coat-hanger for the "precocious playfulness on display", and that's an excellent observation.
As always you examine the film's components deftly, and the opening paragraphs analyze the three characters, played by Anna Karina, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Claude Brialy. You do an outstanding job describing them, particularly "Godard's muse" Ms.Karina,who I agree with you is the film's centerpiece, even (as you rightly say later on) that the film's "vitality, ingenuity and commitment" are Godard's.

The key segment of this review is:

"Rarely has such an intentionally inconsequential souffle been so aesthetically wondrous and overflowing in its cinematic charity. Godard makes hallways and foyers into arenas of romantic battle, not unlike Douglas Sirk wringing melodramatic quintessence from everyday settings. Godard's assured dynamism makes each scene smoke and sizzle, layering a sumptuous patina of light by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, whose work here is awesomely, divinely inspired."

And earlier you mention the great composer Michel Legrand, who makes a most effective, if unorthodox contribution here. You discussion later in the review of "sardonic wit" and "sexism" is fascinating, and I agree that this is hardly the heavyweight film to compare to a CONTEMPT or even in a lesser sense, MASCULINE, FEMININE.

Where I disagree with you though is that this film is not as effective, successful or as great as Von Trier's DANCER IN THE DARK, which takes on much more, and fuses philosophical elements with deeply moving songs. It's a deeper experience.

But I can nonetheless respect anyone (yourself included) that would find this or any other Godard film to be at least the equal of Von Trier. As always, it comes down to taste, value judgement and perceptive.

This is a master-class review of a much-discussed an danalyzed Godard film, that is one submits to, camn take you to a different dimension. I think you brought this out magnificently.

FilmDr said...

Excellent review, but I can see why A Woman is a Woman did not do well in the box office. The brief blasts of music and the long silences do comment on the musical form, but they are also annoying to anyone who wants to get caught up in the mood of the scene. How can one analyze and get lost in a frothy musical at the same time? I find the film uneven, but it does have a quirky visual wit that reminds me of Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player. At one point, Karina throws a fried egg in the air, goes to answer the phone, and then returns to catch the egg in the frying pan. I was also surprised and pleased to see Godard make playful promotional references to Piano Player and Jules et Jim, since, later on, Godard and Truffaut did not get along.

You also wrote of Breathless having a "seeping sense of inevitable tragedy," but that film is so self-referential, I never got much of a sense that anyone is really punished for anything, even though Michel does have the police after him throughout. Breathless strikes me as sweeter than A Woman is a Woman, in part because the latter carries hints of Godard's estranged relationship with Karina.

Alexander Coleman said...

Sam and FilmDr., thank you both very much for the wonderful responses to the review. And thank you both for the very kind words.
Much appreciated.

Sam, as far as Dancer in the Dark goes, it seems I am the problem, as I understand that the film is largely well-regarded, but as with much of Von Trier's work, I am left quite cold by the spectacle, though I respect the ambition.

I agree with you about Karina (as my review indicates, ha) and Godard's playfulness is something to behold. Thank you again, Sam, for the wonderful comment, where you have quoted me at length, ha!

FilmDr., that is a fascinating thought... When I say that Breathless has with it a sense of impending tragedy, I hope I'm not accidentally describing it as a tragedy, because--I agree--it truly isn't... The content of that film is not even the point... I like your argument about the long pauses of silence breaking up the music in A Woman Is a Woman, and how that disorients and alienates. I will say, in the film's defense, that I find myself enraptured by it (and Band of Outsiders) in a way that surpasses the exercise of form that Godard is undertaking. A Woman Is a Woman is only 84 minutes, but I'll confess that by the ending, I actually am happy to see it end, as in its denouement it does show signs of becoming stressed--such a lightweight film, running on such spare but sweet and charming ingredients--it's a wonder Godard was, again, able to sustain it for as long as he did.

And like you I like that he gives his (at the time) friend Truffaut some plugs, so to speak. Haha. I always get a kick out of that.

And Shoot the Piano Player is one of my favorite films of all time. Glad to see you're also a fan, FilmDr. Thank you again for the terrific comment!

Anonymous said...

Awesome review. I really love this movie.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Great and breezy review of one of Godard's more underrated flicks. I wish he made more light movies like this one but anyway I like this alot.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

frank said...

Always loved this movie. Godard has a lot of fun with this and I love the way you describe the film's best features. Great piece. I appreciate and admire the work you put into this website.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Frank. It's good hearing from you.

Harold said...

Going through your archives I'm impressed in your features, Alexander. I love how you chose a German, French and American film for your Valentine's Day special tribute. You showed how love is universal without hammering us over the head with it. Loved reading these reviews. I think everyone who visits Coleman's Corner should seek out his superb archive full of exquisite pieces.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you very much for that, Harold. I'm happy to see you perusing the CCC archive, and enjoying what you find. Thanks again for the kind words.

Maven said...

French theory interests me and Godard is always an intriguing director. But I do have some problems with this movie. Finally you cant argue with the beautiful Danish chick Godard was sweet on.

Anonymous said...

on a diff note.. does anyone who sings and the name of that song is playing when she is doing the bed?

hello there joe, what do you ♪


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