Friday, May 6, 2011

Film Review: A Woman Is a Woman

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Angela (Anna Karina), the main character of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 film A Woman Is a Woman, is a young Danish woman living in Paris. She works as a stripper, and she lives with her boyfriend Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), who works in a bookstore. Their apartment is in a rundown section of the city; the police may knock on their door while investigating a street crime, and their next-door neighbor is a prostitute who uses her place to service johns. Angela and Émile don’t have much--their apartment is sparsely furnished, and they share the telephone with the prostitute--but Angela wants a baby. And when a home fertility test tells her she’s ovulating, she decides to conceive that day. But Émile won’t accommodate her, so she looks to Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), his best friend.

This rather forlorn little story is the foundation the film is built on, but in many ways it’s just another dissonance that Godard employs toward the film’s real purpose, which is to satirize the conventions of Hollywood musical comedy. Godard constantly highlights the various tropes of the genre. However, he never really gives in to the genre’s most basic requirement, which is to provide a showcase for singing and dancing. Karina is the only one of the three stars who sings--in one scene--and it’s anticlimactic. The music stops when she starts, and Godard doesn’t let her voice dominate the soundtrack. He instead has it recede into the ambient sounds of the location. It’s the same with the dancing. All we get is a half-baked mock striptease during which Karina lifts her skirt and shakes her rear end at the camera. Godard has said the film is “not a musical--it’s the idea of a musical.” He has created a cinematic collage of the genre’s narrative and stylistic conceits. He wants the audience to recognize them as conceits, and to be entertained by the recognition.

Godard uses the seaminess of the story, setting, and characters to satirize the artificial innocuousness of these elements in Hollywood musicals. The grungy aspects of Angela’s life at work and at home point up the extent to which Hollywood bleaches the grit out of its productions. Making Angela a stripper mocks the sexlessness of the standard leading-lady roles in musicals of the time, and there’s an added edge: is there more of a travesty of a musical-comedy diva than a burlesque performer? And speaking of satirizing sexlessness, why else would Angela have to pressure Émile---her live-in boyfriend--to make love to her? It’s an absurdity that’s topped by having him refuse her, and then topped again by his referring her to Alfred.

One can also see Émile’s conduct as a commentary on the often ridiculously contrived behavior of musical-film characters. The principals all have their oddball moments, such as when Émile rides his bicycle around the apartment, or when Angela and Alfred imitate dancer poses from musical-comedy advertising in the street. The most inspiredly silly bit, though, occurs in the scene in which Angela fries an egg. When the phone rings in the building hallway, she flips the egg up so it sticks to the ceiling, and then, after answering the phone, comes back to catch the egg on her plate and eat it. Godard loves the absurdity of such moments, and when he’s not mocking the narrative idiosyncrasies of musicals, he’s parodying their formal stylizations. Examples include the arbitrary stop-and-start use of Michel Legrand’s lush score, the transformation of dialogue--particularly arguments--into ping-pong spoken-word duets, and using the unfurnished quality of Angela and Émile’s apartment to give it a conspicuously stage-set look.

The irony of A Woman Is a Woman is that for all the travestying of musical-comedy conventions, Godard also manages to convey the equivalent of those films’ playfulness and appeal. The key to this is Anna Karina. Here, as in other films, she displays a free-spirited charm that has few rivals in the history of film. Her colorful outfits combine with her attitude to create a unique pop glamour. She looks especially great in the apartment scenes; the sparseness of the location, with its uncluttered white walls, offsets her clothes stunningly. She’s great fun to watch, and no matter how ridiculous her character’s behavior, she always has one rooting for her. My favorite moment of her is the film’s final scene. Angela and Émile lay in bed after reconciling, and he says to her, “Tu es infâme.” She replies, “Non, je suis une femme.” Her delight in delivering that sassy pun has one grinning from ear to ear. Godard married Karina shortly after production wrapped. Is anyone surprised?

Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:

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