CAPSULE: A WOMAN IS A WOMAN (1961)

Une Femme Est une Femme

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PLOT: When striptease artist Angela says she wants a baby, reluctant boyfriend Emile dares her to conceive with his best friend Alfred, who has a crush on her.

Still from A Woman Is a Woman (1961)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Une Femme has that certain Godardian edge to it, but it’s not strange enough to grace a list of the weirdest movies ever made.

COMMENTS: Just as Godard’s debut feature, 1960’s Breathless, deconstructed gangster movies by contradicting cinematic conventions and defying audience expectations, his followup A Woman Is a Woman deconstructs the already unreal world of the Hollywood musical. In these early films Godard shows a fondness for the genre material, even as he rips it to shreds– he’s only taking it apart, like a curious schoolboy, to see how it works. For an alleged musical—Godard actually called it “the idea of a musical”—there are remarkably few songs, and those that do come and  go in fragments. Michel Legrand wrote a lush score for the film, but Godard chops it up and doles it out in bits and pieces, just to call attention to the emotional artifice of film music. When Emile and Angela argue over whether they should have a baby, a few seconds of angry strings punctuate each of their statements; at other times, happy woodwinds pipe up, but are laid over the dialogue, partially obscuring the couple’s words. As Angela walks down a Paris street, the soundtrack cuts back and forth at random between orchestral cues, loud street noise, and silence. When she sings her cabaret number while stripping out of a sailor suit, the piano accompaniment conspicuously stops whenever she opens her mouth to sing. A background chanson cuts off as soon as she drops a coin into a jukebox and punches in the numbers. And so on.

The jokes are in the lightly absurd mode we expect from hip French films of this era (see also Zazie; Catherine Demongeot grinning off the cover of “Le Cinema” magazine is one of the many nods to his contemporaries that Godard spreads throughout the film). When they are not speaking, Angela and Emile carry on heated arguments using the titles of books they collect from their apartment’s shelves. Angela flips an omelet into the air, runs off to answer a phone call, then excuses itself and returns to catch it as it falls back onto the skillet a minute later. The subject matter (unmarried Bohemians, one of whom dances naked for strangers, casually discussing having a child out of wedlock) and a glimpse of female nudity (not from Karina) made it a naughty picture in 1961, though it was far too sweet-natured to be a dirty one. There’s a pleasant silliness to this souffle that we do not associate with Godard, who usually comes across as angry even when he’s joking (especially when he’s joking). That could be due to the presence of the vivacious Anna Karina, the Danish pixie girl Godard offers up here as the nouvelle vague’s answer to Audrey Hepburn. Between her pout and her smile there isn’t room to fit in a centimeter of cynicism. Godard married Karina during the shoot; they divorced four years later. Perhaps not coincidentally, the director’s work turned towards the sour soon thereafter.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Analytical whimsy, captivating dissonance… Infinitely inventive gaiety is but a veil for anxiety…”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion (DVD)

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