Through his choice of words, Judge Dan Mancini continuously reminds you that this is a review of a film.
Lights, camera, action!
Jean-Luc Godard tries his hand at a musical…sort of.
Facts of the Case
Angela (Anna Karina, Band of Outsiders) is a stripper at a Parisian gentlemen's club who suddenly decides she wants a baby. When her boyfriend Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy, Claire's Knee) refuses to oblige, the couple agrees that Angela can try to get pregnant by mutual friend Alfred Lubitsch (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Breathless). Petty jealousies and comic antics ensue.
Godard described A Woman Is a Woman (Une Femme est Une Femme)—his third film—as a "neorealist musical." That may sound like an oxymoron, a prime example of the filmmaker's arch wit, but it's actually a fairly accurate assessment. The film is neither neorealist nor a musical in the purest sense, but uses the conventions of each to deconstruct the conventions of the other. Godard's primary focus is music's almost dictatorial sway over an audience's emotional response to a film, but he examines this phenomenon in such a way as to reveal the artifice of cinema in general, including its more mimetic schools like neorealism.
A Woman Is a Woman is precociously self-aware, but it's all in the service of the surgery the director is performing on the art of moviemaking. Music cues start abruptly and are as quickly aborted before the singing begins. Audio sometimes cuts erratically from direct sound (a novelty for a Nouvelle Vague filmmaker) to a studio dub and back again, with requisite shifts in ambient space to remind us we're watching a movie. Actors look at and address the camera. The musical numbers—if one can call them that—are amateurish in their choreography and strung together with a jagged editing style bordering on incoherent, a visual adjunct to the jagged starts and stops Godard has placed in the music itself. Carefully executed lens flares and lighting hot spots remind us of the technological intermediaries between ourselves and the characters. The strip club where Angela works is a minimally dressed soundstage, its lighting rigs left in plain view of the camera. Godard packs the film with witty allusions as when actress Jeanne Moreau makes a cameo in a café where Alfred asks her how Jules and Jim is coming along, the film being made at that time by Godard's pal François Truffaut; or the way Karina's pronunciation of "choreography" evokes the Danny Kaye number in Irving Berlin's White Christmas (a particularly appropriate reference considering "Choreography" is a song about musical numbers, set in a show within a movie—did you follow all that?). Each of these typically Godardian flourishes serves to keep our intellectual faculties engaged and our suspension of disbelief muted. The filmmaker wants to demonstrate how we are manipulated by film—specifically musicals. In forcing us to think about what we're witnessing, to try and make sense of it, he reveals how conventional musicals work their magic on us.
Godard's most obvious device is his heavy use of interrupted song cues. The swelling introductory notes appear throughout the film, sometimes at conventionally appropriate moments in the narrative, sometimes not. Either way, their being cut off before the characters can sing is both unsettling and a reminder of how artificial those moments are in true musicals. They also strip bare the hokiness of the characters' dilemma over Angela's sudden desire for motherhood, and reveal how songs have the power to transform a banal story into something piercingly romantic. Godard shows us this by refusing to let them do so in his movie. When the characters do break into song, it's always a cappella—even when Angela does her number at the club, the piano player inexplicably cuts out each time she begins singing. The effect might accurately be dubbed neorealist since none of the actors are particularly skilled singers and the numbers come off like regular people with common lives bursting into song, though doing so feels as inappropriate as it would in the real world.
The one time Godard violates his rule and offers singing accompanied by music is, ironically, the most emotionally potent moment in the film. As Angela sits in a café with Alfred, considering whether or not to sleep with him, she looks at a photograph of Émile with an old girlfriend and is heartbroken. Underpinning this moment is the tune whose introduction has been pre-empted throughout the movie, finally played in full. It's a song about romantic betrayal. Godard's clever here, though, because he doesn't allow the music to drive our emotional response. The song plays on a turntable in the café, and the director cuts between shots of Angela weeping and the spinning vinyl platter, contrasting the music's detachment and artifice with the girl's real grief. And we feel for her. For just a moment, Godard allows his movie to move us. But only for a moment. There's nothing real about Angela's grief. She's played by Anna Karina, just as the music is played by a turntable. Each of her words was written by Jean-Luc Godard. They're no less false and manipulative than the orchestral swells and crooning in a Hollywood musical, even if their simplicity claims a closer proximity to reality. Godard's precocious games don't let us lose sight of that either and, in the end, A Woman Is a Woman is as much a deconstruction of neorealism's claims to a higher truth as it is of the excesses of the musical comedy.
Despite everything Godard is juggling, A Woman Is a Woman is genuinely appealing as a comedy. He rightly recognized his preposterous scenario had something in common with the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise), and he laced his script (written hastily each evening before the next day's shoot) with funny dialogue. The picture's comedic tone gives the director's standard intellectual detachment a more playful air than usual, which is probably why many consider it lightweight. It's as charming as Band of Outsiders, and certainly more accessible than Contempt, but it's hardly lightweight.
Since A Woman Is a Woman is a movie about movies, Godard rightly shot the picture in scope—his first use of the wide frame—and in color. Criterion's presentation of the film—supervised by cinematographer Raoul Coutard—is gorgeous, maintaining the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and reproducing the vivid colors with eye-popping accuracy. The only major flaws are the lens flares and other peculiarities Godard intended, and we can't complain about those, can we? The single-channel mono audio, in French, has been lovingly restored and remastered. Other than some source-based distortion in a few of the more bombastic pieces of music, it's perfect.
The extras provided on the disc are more of the archival variety than the academic. With the exception of an insert essay by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, there isn't a lot to explain the film (probably because the film is, in large part, about explaining itself). The 24-page booklet also contains excerpts from two interviews with Godard and Coutard that appeared in the French magazine L'Express in 1961. They provide background on Godard's approach to making the film and how it differed from his previous efforts.
The highlight of the supplements is Godard's first short film, Charlotte et Véronique ou Tous les garçons s'appellent Patrick. Dating from 1957, it runs 20 minutes and stars Jean-Claude Brialy as a young gadfly who picks up Charlotte, then Véronique, not knowing the girls are roommates. Eric Rohmer (director of Pauline at the Beach) wrote the script, and finds much comedy in Patrick's minor alterations to his pick-up lines as he talks to each girl, as well as the girls' obsession with Hollywood movie stars (they have a huge poster of James Dean in their bathroom) and their contradictory comparisons of Patrick to Anthony Perkins and Cary Grant when they don't realize they're talking about the same boy. The film also offers a brief shot of a young Godard in his trademark sunglasses, perusing a newspaper whose headline reads "French Cinema is Dying Under the Weight of False Legends." It's positively Godardian. The film has been meticulously restored. The full screen, black-and-white image is nearly perfect.
The disc contains a wealth of publicity materials dating from the time of the film's theatrical release. A batch of around 60 publicity photos taken by set photographer Raymond Cauchetier is housed in one gallery, while a second gallery, entitled "Behind the Scenes with Godard" is just that: approximately 10 production stills of the director in the act of directing. A poster gallery contains a variety of international poster art from A Woman Is a Woman's initial release and its subsequent re-releases. As you scroll through the gallery, it offers a title card detailing the poster's country of origin and date of production, then the poster itself, followed by close-ups of interesting details.
A promotional recording is also archived on the disc. Originally produced as a 10-inch vinyl, it runs a whopping 34 minutes, much of which is Godard talking about the movie. It's in French, of course, with an English translation presented in easy-to-read block paragraphs on the display. The recording pops, hisses, and crackles just like a 43-year-old vinyl should, but that only adds to the charm.
Finally, there's Qui étes-vous Anna Karina?, an excerpt from a 1966 television production about the actress that contains interviews with her, Jean-Claude Brialy, and others.
If you love Godard, you'll love this disc. Criterion's done a wonderful job once again.
If you're unfamiliar with Godard but curious, A Woman Is a Woman isn't a bad place to start. It's got all the hallmarks of the director's style in a form that's easier to digest than some of his other pictures.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Charlotte et Véronique ou Tous les garçons s'appellent Patrick Short Film
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.