Thursday, August 1, 2013
A WOMAN IS A WOMAN (1961)
Jean-Luc Godard and I have a love-hate relationship. Every time I think I am won over to his peculiar yet certainly innovative films of the French New Wave, something sticks in my craw and detracts from his overall achievement as one of the most important directors in contemporary cinema. My previous review of his Week End (1967) proved controversial, and to be honest, my opinion of the film has changed over time, as I reflected on its powerful moments and troubling themes and came to the realization that it was in fact a masterpiece. I have to now wonder if my opinion of A Woman is a Woman will change months from now. For now, I think it best to share my initial thoughts on the film and what stuck with me, and perhaps in the future can revisit it and make more informed and in-depth observations.
The stunning Anna Karina, Godard's wife at the time, stars as Angela, a nightclub performer who develops the urge for a baby with her boyfriend Emile (New Wave favorite Jean-Claude Brialy). When he refuses, she turns to his best friend Alfred (New Wave poster boy Jean-Paul Belmondo), who has been holding a torch for Angela. Typical with Godard, the story is slight and rather inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
The pre-credits sequence, made up of large words flashed on-screen, gives the impression that Godard is making his first musical, and the film does make interesting use of its score. Rather than have his characters perform in musical interludes, the director plays with music throughout his sparse narrative. Music drops on and off the soundtrack, disappearing when Angela sings but reappearing during lyrical breaks, and one lengthy scene features a Charles Aznavour single, bemoaning his lady "letting herself go", played in its entirety on a jukebox. For some time, the characters speak in rhythmically spaced dialogue exchanges, but this concept doesn't last for the duration of the film. That said, music is a key element of the film's structure, whether it be original compositions by Michel LeGrand or snippets of popular songs.
The three characters play to the camera, bow to the audience, wink after dropping film references, and in other ways drop the facade of acting in a film. The fourth wall simply does not exist in Godard's world, and most of the fun to be had with Woman is a Woman is in seeing the actors and their director simply have a ball making a movie together. We ultimately don't care who Angela ends up with, nor if she ever gets that baby she's been pining for, but Godard does allow a semi-conventional ending to wrap things up. There are magical moments like a stripper's newest trick, which allows her to walk through a closet in underwear and emerge in a random costume, the quarreling lovers flashing book covers and titles to call each other names, Angela's musical number, capturing Karina in ravishing gel colors, and Alfred watching Angela's awnings as code for whether she will return to him or not, lighting the cigarettes of passers by as he waits until his cigarette burns down to nothing. Godard's films seem to work best as a series of vignettes, or at the very least are filled with memorable scenes that threaten to, but don't quite, make a compelling whole.
Shot in blazing color and widescreen, but with the avant-garde improvisational structure of his earlier black-and-white works, Woman is a Woman feels like the cusp film between early Godard (Breathless, Vivre sa Vie) and middle-period Godard (Contempt, Pierrot le Fou). As a film bordering these two phases of his career, it is not as accessible as films from either period. There was a surprising number of walk-outs while viewing the film at MoMA, including a couple sitting next to me expecting a musical with some semblance of a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end. But the only commercial aspects of Woman is a Woman are the addition of color and widescreen to Godard's otherwise very singular and not always appreciable vision. Godard also demonstrates his consciousness of the New Wave by referring to both his own films (Belmondo says he doesn't want to miss Breathless on TV) and the films of his contemporaries (Charles Aznavour and Shoot the Piano Player are discussed, Jeanne Moreau appears in a bar and is asked how Jules and Jim is going). And naturally Godard refers to classic Hollywood throughout, most importantly giving Alfred the last name of Lubitsch, but also giving shout-outs to Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse, and Burt Lancaster.