August 19, 2013
Sophomore Efforts Marathon: A Woman Is a Woman (1961)
Jean-Luc Godard burst onto the film scene with Breathless in 1960. The black-and-white drama was a landmark in the French New Wave and remains beloved. The pressure would be much greater for his second movie, but it doesn’t show. A Woman is a Woman (Une femme est une femme) is a colorful take on the musical that introduces us to his muse Anna Karina. They were married in 1961 and remained together for six years, and this film is Godard’s love letter to the beautiful star. The Cinemascope format brings vibrant color to his offbeat style. My experience with Godard is fairly limited and includes just three other films — Band of Outsiders, Breathless, and Vivre Sa Vie. I enjoyed those movies, so my expectations were high for Godard’s second feature. It seems like a no brainer today given his extended career, but he was just getting started at this point.
What's this story about?
Angela (Anna Karina) works as an exotic dancer and dreams of having a baby, but her boyfriend Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy) wants no part of it. This rejection may send her into the arms of their friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who's willing to accommodate her. He loves Angela and is a kindred spirit, yet she's still hesitant to betray Émile.
How does this film connect with the themes of Breathless?
Although the stories are very different, both films share the sense that Godard is rebelling against structural convention. His jump cuts in Breathless are jarring and unexpected, particularly for the audience in 1960. He treats his second film like a jazz piece and isn’t content to stick with the main story. He pumps music into the background and then abruptly removes it, and there’s no clear reason for each change. Godard’s impatience matches the feelings of Angela, who wants a baby yet doesn’t seem committed to this goal. He injects such life into the story that we rarely feel confined within the plot. Instead, Godard employs all types of tricks to keep us engaged. The first half is spontaneous and lively, and there are few hints about where we’re heading. Angela frequently looks at the camera and performs for us more than the other characters on the screen.
Where is Godard venturing in a new direction with this film?
The biggest change is the move to color, which Godard perfectly combines with music. He’s also working with lighter material. No one dies, and even the quest to have a baby feels secondary to the style. The danger in taking such a light approach is minimizing our interest, but the opposite actually happens. When Angela performs and sings at the strip club, it’s thrilling because we’re way beyond depicting reality. Godard has placed us in a movie world where even this adult club feels like an okay place. He toys with the idea of a movie and takes frequent detours that remind us not to take anything too seriously.
Are the characters interesting? What performances stand out?
This is a tricky question and outlines a possible challenge. First of all, Anna Karina is stunning in her first significant role and owns the screen. She’s at her best while performing for the camera through song and various antics. The challenge comes with the plot, which doesn’t feel true. She belittles Émile to have a baby, and this story line feels beneath her. He’s hardly a model of goodness and has few issues hooking up with other women during their down times. We don’t want them to be together, so the focus on her maternal desires is frustrating. Jean-Paul Belmondo is more likable as Alfred and a better partner. He’s desperately in love with her and will do anything. While he might not be a great father, he doesn’t have the nasty moods of his counterpart. Émile seems to come around in the end, but I don’t get the sense they’ll live happily ever after.
Does Godard avoid the "sophomore slump"? If so, how does that happen?
A Woman is a Woman lacks the influence of Breathless, but it’s hardly a step backward for Godard. He continues to take chances and step away from typical cinema. He discovers his muse with Karina and creates the perfect star vehicle. This film’s strongest legacy is her career, which included memorable pictures with Godard and other top directors. Certain moments don’t ring true, but they barely slow down the momentum. What we remember are shots of Karina gliding through Paris and charming onlookers with a mere glance. Godard was just getting started, but there were few doubts that we here to stay.
Next week, I’ll join Tupac and Janet and discover John Singleton’s Poetic Justice.