Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

I’m extremely lucky that Vancouver’s Cinematheque is hosting a retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard’s nouvelle vague period (1960-1967). I’m even luckier that I’ll attend all of them, or die trying; I can’t expect to get a better opportunity in my lifetime to view such a major director so comprehensively on the big screen (and apparently there are plans for a retrospective of his post vague films later this year!) Perhaps above all else, Godard is famous for being difficult. I can’t think of another filmmaker of similar stature to produce so many shrugs of incomprehension or indifference, especially from freshman film students walking out of their first encounter with Breathless. Godard not only demands a thorough, critical working knowledge of film grammar, but the wherewithal to engage that knowledge on films that reinvent that grammar. One must interrogate, reform, and reapply one’s own philosophies and preconceptions — cinematic or otherwise — and be brave enough to see not just the past and present of cinema, but, as my film studies professor once put it, the possible. Still, I have to admit that though I enjoy the boldness of Godard’s first two films (Breathless and Le Petit Soldat), I’ve never been enraptured by them (though I can’t preclude that I may simply not be “there” yet). But Godard’s third completed feature collects all the innovation and anarchy and Hollywood-riffing of his earlier outings and puts it to its most focused and consistent use yet, this time spoofing Hollywood musicals. “Dizzying” is rarely a good descriptor for my response to movies, but Une femme est une femme is a breakneck cavalcade of formal rugpulls so numerous that I won't list them all for fear of oblique redundancy: the score suddenly bursts in and out; the editing cuts quickly and shockingly back and forth in time; a narrating subtitle will pop from left to right one or two words at a time, then the next one will pop in from right to left, etc. etc. etc. It’s Godard at his most gleefully unrestrained so far, and that cacophonous experimentation finds special purchase in the realm of out-and-out comedy. Still, I was surprised to come out of the screenings and find that friends of mine genuinely believed that the film was misogynist. Yes, Anna Karina — who plays a woman wavering half-seriously between her boyfriend (Jean-Claude Brialy) and his friend (Jean-Paul Belmondo) — is sexually stripped stereotyped (physically and pschologically) by the film. But to take this at face value is to miss the satire. Une femme takes pains to cue the audience into the fact that it’s having a go at the conventions of Hollywood hoots and hooters, from its colour scheme of red, white, and blue (America/France) to the self-consciously hammy, anti-Mickey Mousing of its score. 

Most telling of all is the actors' constant acknowledgment of their place in a movie: talking to a camera, bowing to the camera just before a domestic dispute ("always bow to the audience before you start acting!"), asking whether they're in a comedy or tragedy, saying they want to be in a Hollywood musical, etc. etc. etc. The entire film parodies Hollywood sex and romance, and its characters seem to be both in on the joke and completely sincere. Credit to the light-as-a-feather performances by the principles, especially Karina, whose turn in Godard’s next film is almost unrecognizable next to this one. Godard's New Wave films are famous for their visual fireworks (jump cutting, explosions of primary colour, etc.), but for me this retrospective is really highlighting his use of sound. His previous film, Le Petit Soldat, featured sudden hard sound cuts and virtually no ambient sounds, an idea that successfully deromanticizes the content but is a little haphazard in its execution. But Une femme's targeting of the musical, perhaps the quintessential genre of drastic intrusions and falsifications of sound, makes it a perfect vehicle for the technique. Sound blows in and out with a sardonic tone and moment-to-moment logic. The effect is at once absurd and pointedly clever. My favourite example is this song and striptease from early in the film.

The piano bangs away the intro to the tune, then just when the verse begins (0:22), it very suddenly cuts out. Karina sings with a fairly soft voice, her footsteps can be heard, and it sounds like it was probably unaltered location sound. As soon as Karina finishes singing her titillations, the piano crashes back into the soundtrack; this repeats until the end of the song. Throughout, we get unsavoury close ups of leering men. Godard is suggesting that sequences like this in musicals, where Judy Garland or Audrey Hepburn or Ginger Rogers sing seductively for the camera, are focused entirely on shallow eroticization of the woman. They're a gussied up excuse for the male gaze, where the song and dance are only flimsy cover-ups. This scene brings it to its logical conclusion with dripping sarcasm: there's no music to interfere with the voice of the female object, no choreography except for Karina lifting her dress and show us her panties, no visual distraction save for the aforementioned close-ups: throughout the number Karina is centered and staring straight at the camera, a musical blocking convention Godard mocks with a POV reverse that reveals she's looking at... nothing, really.

Where better to strip such scenes to their essence than a strip club? Am I reading too much into this? Was this just Godard being obtuse for the fun of it? If that's the case, then why does the pianist in the background have his hands folded throughout the song? And did you notice this obviously deliberate "mistake", or were you too busy watching something else?


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