A WOMAN IS A WOMAN (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)

Sometimes a woman is just a woman. — a paraphrase of something Freud may or may not have said

Jean-Luc Godard’s attempt at an attempt at musical-comedy, Une femme est une femme, places its protagonist, Godard’s muse, Anna Karina (best actress, Berlin, and brilliant), in space and time and conjures the drama of her attempts, and Godard’s, to resist the flux of space and time. Its title only seems tautological; rather, it refers to the irreducible nature and reality of a woman, who, like Godard and the rest of us, exists as herself beyond others’ attempts to make her their appendage or projective fantasy. Angela, the character that Karina plays, cannot be contained or defined by her relationship with boyfriend Emile. She wants a baby (and in the next 24 hours!—a wonderful expression of Time’s wingèd chariot at her heart and heels) and, because Emile doesn’t want one, she reaches beyond the limits of this relationship to another man, friend Alfred Lubitsch. The specific nature of Angela’s desire is irrelevant, nor is it conventional since the baby she desires is an occasion for self-expression and self-determination, not a gauge of what society wants for her. A stripper, Angela is not wanted at all by society except when she performs for a few seedy patrons at the Trocadero (a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, 1958, to suggest Godard’s eternal contemplation of Karina). A baby would announce her existence beyond her job category. Alas, one needs a man to have a baby; one’s own reality is always a negotiation with the reality of others. And with space and time.
     To begin with, Angela almost seems to glide into a shop out of the rain as a recording of Charles Aznavour singing comes to a close. It is useless to try to determine whether the music exists in the shop, simply on the soundtrack that we alone hear or, perhaps as we suspect, in Angela’s head. In any case, Angela goes back outside, meets and chats with Emile and Alfred in turn, and walks toward us down a street—a scene that explodes into agitation with the use of handheld camera. The music we hear, beginning with Aznavour, is continually interrupted; in effect, the “interruptions,” if you will, compose the score. Implicitly, we find here reality intruding on the musical-comedy that as a result of her favorite Hollywood movies exists as space that Angela imaginatively inhabits. At the Trocadero, in a sailor suit as Gene Kelly might wear, she sings, “I’m the girl for every guy . . . I say ‘yes’ every time.” (Later, wearing ruby boots, she sings from under an umbrella.) But this is a ridiculous performance that doesn’t touch Angela’s reality; Godard underscores this fact by keeping the camera above Angela’s neck as she strips off her clothes.
     Cumulatively, the many times that musical chords set up an expectation in the audience that their interruption with silence disappoints suggest Angela’s frustrated attempts to succeed at negotiating with reality. We all must bend to the exigencies of space and time; even Godard must do this. As a filmmaker, however, he can also play with these elements. A mirror in Emile and Angela’s apartment creates the illusion of additional space, as do Emile’s physical antics: pantomiming soccer with a sweeper broom; riding his bicycle around indoors. Moreover, his attempt to improve Angela’s French pronunciation—like Karina, Angela comes from Denmark—is also an attempt to stretch back further the time that Angela has spent in France. As for Angela, her burning the roast, while at one level an affront to the role of housewife to which Emile might wish to consign her, is also a statement of her not wishing to become a slave to time. But the gesture in this direction that really requires Godard’s impish collaboration is the flip of a fried egg by Angela that allows her to answer the telephone while the egg remains suspended in air.
     As ever with Godard, melancholy underpins playfulness, Brechtian distancing duly sacrifices “entertainment value” for thoughtful analysis and contemplation, and love, however eternal, will not prove permanent in time.

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