Monday, November 22, 2010

A Woman Is a Woman

(France, 1961, 83 min.)

Starring Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

I've been trying to catch up lately on foreign films I either missed during my stint as a videostore clerk or saw but feel I should see again, and I knew that, inevitably, I would feel the possibly masochistic urge to revisit the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, a man with whom, my friends could tell you, I have had a very contentious critical relationship. But time being what it is, and a decade having passed since the store closed, who knew what changes in myself might affect changes in my attitude towards this vastly overrat- sorry, old habits. I mean, this widely respected but perhaps over-praised filmmaker. That sounds benign enough.

When I decided that the time had come, I figured a dip of the toe would be preferable to a plunge, so I chose this, remembering it as one of the films I liked better than others. (And to clarify, I do enjoy some of his work; I just feel that many celebrate his creative strengths while completely ignoring his weaknesses.) This is Godard’s attempt to make a musical without any songs. (Not many anyway; one scene is set to a Charles Aznavour recording and Karina does perform a number onstage early on.) Using creative music cues to effect this, the filmmaker shows us a young exotic dancer (Godard stable member, director’s paramour, and genuine dollface Karina) pressuring her boyfriend (Brialy) to impregnate her and, when he refuses, considering their close friend (Belmondo) as an alternative, or at least as a way of making the boyfriend jealous enough to relent. The “story” is then played out with various playful sequences, word games, and passing jokes, such as the brief cameo by Jeanne Moreau, wherein Belmondo asks her how filming on Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is going.

If you have ever spent any time with an active theater company, you’ll know the sort of exuberance of which they’re capable, and this movie feels like nothing less than such a company let loose with a camera. As someone who wholeheartedly encourages both creativity and experimentation, I have to give Godard credit for that.


If you have ever spent any time with an active theater company, you’ll also know how overbearing that exuberance can get if you’re exposed to it for too long without being a participant. This reminds me of the repeated comment, if I may genre-jump for a moment, that Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things’ rather accurate portrayal of a bunch of theater types is both one of its greatest accomplishments and one of its deadliest liabilities. Coincidentally enough, I recently ran across tapes of a video project in which I was involved in junior high. It was a kick watching it after so many years, but I couldn’t kid myself that anyone without a personal attachment to the project would feel a corresponding enjoyment.

Moving right past the thinness of the narrative of A Woman Is a Woman, it occurs to me that Godard, in this period at any rate, was very much like the child who does something genuinely clever to the tremendous delight and ringing adulation of the surrounding adults…and who then proceeds to do the same thing over and over and over again, the blissful ignorance of calfhood inuring him to the decreasing charm of the bit. Now that’s not an entirely fair comparison; the child, after all, doesn’t understand what made it a good bit in the first place, and Godard obviously does know what he’s doing, and yet the film tries so hard to mesmerize you with its dimples, one can almost feel the stickiness of the syrup coating the proceedings. I would speculate that this might have worked better as a short, and yet the original trailer included on the Criterion DVD itself almost collapses under the weight of its own precocity, so who knows?

Heh. I did say this was one of my preferred films in the Godard canon, didn’t I? I suppose it still is. And I’m perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that my reservations about it stem from my being a curmudgeonly fucker, but to embrace fully that interpretation would be to deny my honest reaction to the film. I don’t actually demand solid storytelling (although this is a consistent failing on Godard’s part in his early work) as long as the progression of the film is interesting enough; hence my love of David Lynch. And obviously some people can watch this, see how much fun the people making it are having, and be swept up in that spirit. For whatever reason, I can’t seem to do that. Despite the obvious enthusiasm behind it, the innovation used to make it, and the moments of genuine inspiration scattered throughout it, it still feels to me a bit too much like watching someone else’s home movies. Creative home movies, to be sure, but home movies nonetheless.


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