Novele Vogue

Une femme est une femme –

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Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece revisits the big screen

MIRROR IMAGE: man and woman – here Belmondo and Karina – in Godard’s films are never quite in synch.

“I’m not sure whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy,” says Jean-Claude Brialy toward the end of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 film Une femme est une femme. Then he looks at the camera. “But in any case, it’s a masterpiece.” Godard, who’s spent the entire film playing with the audience, now plays with the critics, providing his own advertising-ready two-sentence tongue-in-cheek review. Or is he serious?

In fact, for the past 42 years,Une femme est une femme has kept audiences and critics — and its male director — guessing. It took the Special Jury Prize at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival (a year when Michelangelo Antonioni’s La nottewon the Golden Bear), from a panel that included Nicholas Ray and Satyajit Ray, and Anna Karina, just 20 when she made the film, was named Best Actress. Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice that it “employs all the resources of the cinema to express the exquisite agony of heterosexual love”; James Monaco later hailed it as “one of the few absolutely necessary films in Godard’s canon”; David Thomson, writing in these pages, described it as “an MGM musical made by Kaspar Hauser.” Yet Godard himself subsequently dismissed it as “a dumb film, without energy,” and Leonard Maltin has it pegged as “mostly a self-indulgent trifle.” When Rialto Pictures’ restored print showed at the Film Forum in New York this past May, Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker, “That a movie directed by Jean-Luc Godard should well up in a stream of pleasure will mystify those who have followed the output of his later years.” Roger Ebert, on the other hand, called the film “slight and sometimes wearisome.”

Every Godard film is grounded in opposites (what would later become dialectic), so the critical spectrum and even the director’s doubts are part of the process. Every Godard film is self-indulgent, and most Godard films have wearisome moments. But no Godard film has ever been dumb, or slight, or a trifle — they’re all stuffed with images, with ideas, with questions for your consideration. Une femme est une femme mediates between celluloid and certainty, French and American, comedy and tragedy, past and present, talking and communicating, boy and girl. It’s the Dom Pérignon of Godard’s œuvre, and it’s getting a week at the Brattle, in a new 35mm print, starting next Friday.

From the opening “Lights! Camera! Action” voiceover, Godard reminds us that film is not life and life is not a film. In turn, BRIALY and KARINA and BELMONDO command the screen, huge letters, last names only, as if they were as famous as Astaire, Charisse, and Kelly. We’re in the Strasbourg–St. Denis quarter of Paris, and fashionably dressed Anna Karina (the Danish model/actress whom Godard married in March 1960), twirling a red umbrella and grabbing a quick café blanc before dashing off to her next appointment, could be Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Karina’s appointment, however, is her strip-tease job at the seedy Zodiac club. And though Michel Legrand’s score keeps trying to tip the film toward the orgasmic satisfactions of An American in Paris or a Doris Day movie, Une femme remains stuck in what Anthony Lane calls “musical foreplay.”

The plot, as in all Godard films, is primitive yet primal. Angéla (Karina) lives with Émile Récamier (Brialy) in a shabby flat that looks more like Ralph Kramden’s than Holly Golightly’s: the oven is the size of a microwave, Angéla has to hit a pipe with a hammer to get the shower going, and the phone is in the apartment of their next-door neighbor (who depends on the kindness of gentlemen callers). Émile runs a tiny newsstand/bookshop in a street off one of the Grands Boulevards; he’s also an amateur bicycle racer. Although the neighbor calls Angéla “Madame Récamier,” they’re not married. Angéla wants to have a baby; Émile is more concerned about being on form for the big race on Sunday. Angéla is tempted to have recourse to their friend Alfred Lubitsch (Belmondo), who thinks he’s in love with her. Émile and Angéla quarrel, Angéla goes to see Alfred, Émile visits a prostitute, and there’s some hanky-panky (maybe) before they kiss and make up.

It’s light, but it’s also layered, and Godard drops ample hints to the viewer who’s willing to be enlightened as well as entertained. “Lubitsch” is, of course, Ernst Lubitsch; Une femme can be seen as an homage to his 1933 Design for Living. “Alfred” alludes to Alfred de Musset, from whose 1834 play On ne badine pas avec l’amour(“One Doesn’t Trifle with Love”) Angéla will give a dramatic recitation. Juliette Récamier was a noted 19th-century socialite and saloniste famously painted by Jacques-Louis David and François-Pascal-Simon Gérard; “Émile” could be Rousseau or Zola. And there more film references. Called up to the Récamiers’ flat to referee their dispute, Alfred wants to get back to his café because Á bout de souffle is about to show on TV. Alfred runs into Jeanne Moreau and asks how Jules et Jim (then being filmed) is going; she answers, “Moderato,” referring to her previous film, Peter Brook’s Moderato cantabile, in which she starred with Belmondo. Jump to Angéla, who finds her friend Suzanne (Marie Dubois) reading David Goodis’s Tirez sur le pianiste and asks whether she saw the François Truffaut film, in which Charles Aznavour was “super” (and in which Dubois played Aznavour’s girlfriend). When Angéla asks which boy can do the best trick, Émile imitates a hen and produces an egg, like Emil Jannings in Der blaue Engel.

These allusions enable Godard to show us the life — literary and cinematic — we’d like to have while reminding us that we don’t and can’t, that art is defined by its being different from life. That’s why his cinematic ethos is so disjunctive: only in Hollywood does life make sense. And he keeps reminding us because as long as we remember, we’ll be participants in his films and not mere spectators. The best reminder in Une femme is Karina, who validates her Berlinale Best Actress honor by not trying to act, by letting Angéla be Karina and not vice versa. When Émile promises that they’ll have a child when they get married, Angéla thinks he means right away (he doesn’t), and she proposes to write at once to København for her (that is, Anna’s Danish) birth certificate. Godard spoofs her “accented” French (only the French would cavil) and also the Franco-American “divide” (red-white-and-blue is everywhere, but whose flag is it?) when she’s talking to Alfred on the phone: he says, “What? I said, ‘Okay.’ Don’t you understand French?” Angéla-as-Karina even inspires the film’s celebrated conclusion. Émile says, “Angéla, tu es infâme”; she, deliberately (?) misunderstanding and attributing to him a grammatical mistake that no three-year-old would make, replies, “Non, je ne suis pas un femme. Je suis une femme.” Big wink at the camera. Fin.

Une femme is Godard’s big wink at us, but it’s a serious wink. Some of his visual (Angéla at the Zodiac in bath towel stepping behind a pillar and emerging fully dressed) and linguistic (the labored bedtime sequences where Émile and Angéla “talk” to each other via book titles) disjunctions are japes, but some are not. Arguing with Angéla on the phone, Émile says, “You can go fry an egg,” oblivious of his “hen” turn earlier and unmindful of “egg” as a baby metaphor. Angéla proceeds to do just that, but when Alfred’s telephone call catches her in flagrante, she flips the egg way up, runs out into the hall to tell him she’ll be right back, then runs back into the flat and catches the egg on the way down. Anthony Lane describes the egg as sticking to the ceiling, and it’s true that Godard, against the usual practice, had a ceiling built as part of the flat’s set, but Lane is being literal where Godard is both playful and earnest. We don’t know what the egg is doing while Angéla is out in the hall — in this regard, Godard is the Henry James rather than the James Joyce (Susan Sontag’s description, corroborated by Raymond Durgnat’s reference to Jean-Luc’s “permanent state of ocular masturbation”) of filmmakers. And we’d do well to remember that when we see Émile going upstairs with the prostitute and Angéla in bed with Alfred, because we don’t actually see either couple doing anything.

The disjunction between what we say and what we mean, what we see and what we know, is always at the heart of Godard, but in Une femme it takes poignant form in the disjunction between men and woman. Godard had considered as a subtitle “On est comme on est”; you could expand the actual title into “Une femme est une femme n’est pas un homme.” The Récamier flat sports on its walls magazine covers from Sport & Vie, but what takes place there is more like “sport vs. vie,” or bicycle vs. baby, with Émile riding his bike around the apartment (men go in circles, women in a straight line?) whenever life gets too real. Émile yells at Angéla for not having the Real-Barcelona match playing on the radio when he gets home; then when she turns it off, he’s too absorbed in his newspaper to notice. When at the café Angéla asks Alfred to play a song on the jukebox, he proposes “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” but she wants Aznavour, “Tu t’laisses aller” (“You’re Letting Yourself Go” but also “Let Yourself Go”), which echoes the sentiments of her dramatic recitation from Musset, Perdican’s speech at the end of act two, “I have often suffered, and sometimes I have been betrayed, but I have loved.” Alfred plays the boulevardier, grabbing a huge bottle of Dubonnet from the bartender and pouring Angéla drink after drink, but he can’t pay the bill, and Aznavour (never mind Musset) seems way beyond him. Woman are from life, men are from film.

What’s most poignant about Une femme est une femme is its cinematic aftermath, Karina being killed off in Vivre sa vie and (by proxy) Le mépris and turned into a noir icon in Alphaville andPierrot le fou and Made in U.S.A. It’s as if Godard were unable to lethis femme be a femme. Nothing in his subsequent work has this kind of fizz, and he’ll never look more vibrant than he does in Rialto’s restored 35mm print with new subtitles (on the whole an improvement, though Angéla’s song gets a poo-faced translation, and in the age of Beckham we all know that the football team is “Real” and not “Madrid”). To paraphrase the kind of Franco-American filmUne femme est une femme is all about: this is the night that Godard invented Champagne. Just pop the cork.

Issue Date: August 29 – September 4, 2003

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