Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Woman is a Woman (1961) - #238

I don't know if this is a comedy or a tragedy, but it's a masterpiece.

A Woman is a Woman was the third feature directed by Jean-Luc Godard, but to the viewing public of 1961, it served as his highly anticipated sophomore effort, the follow-up to Breathless, a film that seemed to galvanize the Nouvelle Vague as something truly rebellious, a definitive break from the cinema that had gone before it. The film he shot between those two, Le Petit Soldat, was withheld from release due to heightened sensitivities about it's political critique of the French war in Algeria. Even though I haven't seen Le Petit Soldat all the way through, the talky, downbeat clips I've watched on YouTube create the impression that in this case, a touch of censorship probably served Godard's long-term interests rather well. A Woman is a Woman, though hardly a rousing commercial success upon release, does a better job building on the energetic abandon and playful sexiness that still makes Breathless so indelible. And with Anna Karina's first-film growing pains in Le Petit Soldat already worked through and tucked away for awhile, it made her actual debut, in Eastmancolor and Cinemascope no less, all the more visually tantalizing and delightful.

In reading up on what many others have written about A Woman is a Woman, I've seen quite a few references to Ernst Lubitsch (and his Design for Living with its polyamorous conclusion in particular), Vicente Minnelli, Hollywood musicals in general and quotes from the film's frequent and numerous inside jokes, to such an extent that I feel drained of any willingness to rephrase what's so often been observed about this film. But one of those visual gags that jumped out at me, that I haven't seen anyone else point out, occurs right toward the beginning of the film. It's a shot where the face of Catherine Demongeot, young star of Zazie dans le Metro, grins impishly from the cover of Le Cinema magazine across from illustrations of sex positions and fetus in utero diagrams found in a book titled I'm Expecting a Baby.

Besides employing the symbol of precocious sassy vulgarity that Zazie represented (and compounding it a moment later with a young boy asking a vendor if he had something more sexy to offer than the children's picture book he'd put in his hand,) Godard was rendering tribute to a film that must have exerted some influence on A Woman is a Woman's zany experimentations with sight and sound - winks and grins through the camera to the audience, brash jump cuts, reverse sequence subtitles, overly sumptuous orchestrated music that abruptly drops out and randomly restarts again, incongruous film references and quotes that only viewers as cinema-obsessed as Godard himself were likely to get without having them pointed out. And those sly digs at kids coming of age more quickly than proper bourgeois adults found comfortable are about as youth-oriented as things would get in this film, and perhaps for the remainder of Godard's career, though the playfulness would come out abundantly in many other ways - just more more cerebral, angular and increasingly abstract from here on out. But before he got too deep into the changes that the 1960s would have in store for him, Godard was still ready to cut loose with the whimsy:

While shooting A Woman is a Woman, Godard was in the fullest flush of romantic love with Anna Karina, his wife of only a few months (they married shortly after work on Le Petit Soldat had wrapped) and the star around which this film's lights, camera and action revolved. The lovers' spats and maddening disconnects that had already cropped up between the prodigiously gifted young couple added distinct layers of nuance and texture to the scenario that Godard had already drafted and published a couple years earlier, and it's fascinating to read that brief treatment and then consider the changes that were introduced to the final product (though the concluding "infame/une femme" pun was there from the very beginning.) Godard obviously hadn't factored in his experience with Anna when he wrote that vignette, but the fiery conflicts that eventually drove them apart years later were already erupting in sparks off and on the set. Given where the two of them were at in the early stages of their relationship, one can't blame either of them for clinging to the hope that a wink, a smile and a cheerful spin on the underlying discordance in their marriage would be enough to see them through the strain of intermittent crises. And regardless of whatever role pregnancy or the lack thereof might play in episodes of domestic strife experienced by most in the audience, the emotional and often irrational interplay of the film's young couple adjusting to each other on the fly is well-rendered, universal and easy to identify with. And quite funny much of the time as well:

Godard and Karina both used their artistic intelligence to great effect in crafting the scenes where Angela and Emile strive for relational power and one-upmanship after he turns down her sudden, impulsive request for him to impregnate her. He's all about reasonableness, problem-fixing and common sense, she's an expert at dealing heart-melting pouts, alluring smiles and bewitching flutters of eyelash. Godard's contribution was to script these scenes out, practically on the spur of the moment each day, placing the lines in front of Karina and her co-star Jean-Claude Brialy mere minutes before they were supposed to recite them on camera, then skillfully frame them in the vast expanse of his 2.35:1 canvas. As unpolished as the performances turned out, whatever flaw one might find in them is more than compensated for in freshness and raw immediacy, even to the extent that Godard used some flubbed lines, clumsy stumbles and miscues in his final cut.  (For example, in Karina's emotional weeping scene after she's dropped eggs on the kitchen floor, when she responds to Emile's brusque comment that he finds crying women ugly, she misspeaks, mutters "that's not right" and regathers herself. It's not what Godard intended, but the tender vulnerability she displayed in that moment, staying in character, was too good to leave on the editing room floor.)

Though Godard's mastery of cinematic vocabulary and his relentlessly creative reconfiguration of the medium rightfully earned him credit, not only for this film but for so many others soon to follow, as one of the greatest directors of his generation, I can't help but think that he was also incredibly fortunate to have had access to such arrestingly charismatic performers as Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo in first establishing his reputation. (Brialy, for his part, is impeccably handsome and on target - but not especially charming - in his role as the boyfriend who's grown a bit exasperated by his partner's impetuous emotionalism.) Here, Belmondo gets to shine as the roguish pal of the couple who seizes advantage in the short interval of opportunity when Emile and Angela's rift is at its widest. It's a supporting role that he could have passed up since he'd already ascended to leading man status, but he was smart to take a paying gig where he could twiddle with Anna Karina's hair in bed while she sat there in her cute little undies. What kind of fool would pass up that opportunity anyway?

Even though the Criterion DVD has been out of print now for a couple of years, A Woman is a Woman is currently available for streaming on Netflix, though with a different subtitle translation, intriguingly enough. Still, this disc package is highly worth seeking out for access to its supplements. One gem is an early collaboration between Godard and Eric Rohmer on a short film, Charlotte and Veronique, or All  Boys are called Patrick, that also starred Jean-Claude Brialy (apparently leading to its inclusion on this disc.) You can find it on YouTube as well, I won't post it here, but it's good for a few laughs. There's also a nice half-hour episode from French TV featuring a Brialy interview with Anna Karina in 1966 that provides a bittersweet look back on her life with Godard (they'd already broken up by then.) But the real treasure of the DVD is a rare recording that Godard made and preserved on a 10" vinyl record that was never commercially distributed. In it he interpolates soundtrack from the film with his own summaries of the narrative that serve as a condensed director's commentary track from the period in which the film was made. On top of the glimpse it offers into Godard's creative process, Criterion's design department came up with beautiful Op Art graphics mimicking the circle designs on A Woman is a Woman's cover art, gradually shifting and oscillating in hues of blue, white and red during the musical passages of the recording. It's one of the most delightfully surprising little bonus bits I've stumbled across on a Criterion DVD in awhile.

Next: Il Posto


David said...

I've never seen it and always confused title with Masculin féminin and a man and a woman.Since I just watched Lubitsch's Design for Living last week,I'm ready to explore more interesting trio stories,just like this one.

David Blakeslee said...

Pairing Design for Living and A Woman is a Woman for close-proximity viewing is a great idea, I recommend it! Do you have a strong opinion on Godard, David? This is about as light and playful as he gets, so for some people A Woman is a Woman is their favorite JLG movie.

David said...

No,I'm afraid I don't.I've only seen a couple of his films and Pierrot le fou is my favorite, Alphaville and Contempt is also pretty good.I had a tough time watching Band of Outsiders since there are too many literary,historical and cinematic references.

I admire the playfulness and free-style in his films,and his exploration of what film making can be,and I'm always ready to see another one of his.

What about you?

David Blakeslee said...

I've seen all of the Godard films on Criterion at least once except for 2 or 3 Things and Made in USA, which I've only watched portions of just to get a sense of what they're like. But I watched them in scrambled order so I think I have plenty more to discover as I make my way through his filmography, especially in context with other things happening in cinema at the time.

I appreciate Godard's sharp intelligence, enjoy his humor and of course his taste in lead female actors is impeccable in this early phase of his career at least. He clearly understands the value of having aesthetically pleasing visuals (including his cast) as a calling card to advance his more difficult-to-absorb ideas. I expect that he will be a director whose films I will integrate into my systematic review of cinema history even after I get to the point where Criterion stopped releasing them (i.e. Tout va bien, as things now stand.)