Sunday, May 1, 2016

Film Review: Une Femme mariée (A Married Woman)

This is a revised version of an article that was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on February 17, 2012.

A frequent complaint about Jean-Luc Godard’s films is that they’re chilly and cerebral. He is far more interested in drawing intellectual connections than creating emotional resonance. In general, I disagree. I don’t believe for a moment that one looks at the protagonists in Breathless, or the assorted characters played by Anna Karina in his other films, and thinks that Godard is keeping them entirely at a remove. They are meant to be identified with as much as analyzed. However, I do believe the charge is justified with his eighth feature, Une Femme mariée (A Married Woman), released in 1964. He adopts a cold, flatly objective tone in this character portrait. Like many of Godard’s protagonists, Charlotte (Macha Méril), the married woman of the title, is flighty and defines herself relative to aspects of contemporary media culture. But Godard has never gone this far in treating such a character as an embodiment of modern spiritual emptiness. The most shocking aspect of his portrayal is that he doesn’t even seem disgusted. He renders her anomie as dispassionately as one might write out a math problem.

The aloofness is present from the start. The film opens with a conversation between Méril’s Charlotte and her lover Robert (Bernard Noël). The two lie naked in bed together, but Godard goes out of his way not to evoke any sensuality or intimacy. The two are presented in a sequence of shots that reduces them entirely to body parts: hands, arms, backs, midriffs, legs--all fetishized in a way that recalls advertising imagery. When Godard finally reveals the couple’s faces, he emphasizes they have no rapport. The two don’t look at each other while they converse; they talk while staring off into space. When Charlotte says to Robert, “I love you,” she does so in a series of affectless repetitions. It’s a posture; it isn’t felt. She seems to be trying to reassure herself of her feelings for him, but the affair comes across as just a way to pass the time.

Charlotte is no more emotionally involved when it comes to her husband Pierre (Philippe Leroy), although she resents his controlling behavior and suspicious attitude. Robert isn’t her first dalliance, and when Pierre became aware of things the last time around, he hired a detective to follow her. But as much as Pierre annoys her, the offense she takes is no more than a moment-to-moment thing. There are times when she even enjoys playing with his efforts to control her. It is certainly suggested by her efforts to elude any possible tail he has hired. Her trysts with Robert have her constantly changing cars while making her way across town. When they get together at an airport hotel, she takes an elaborately convoluted path through the terminal before going to their room. She certainly seems to take pride in her ingenuity in shaking any follower, however unnecessary it may be. She has a great time defying Pierre when he forbids her from playing some records he has brought home from work. There’s initially a hostile edge to her insolence, but it turns playful as things lead to a slapstick chase around their apartment. But this is just another example of her persistent whimsy. She has no deeper commitment to Pierre, Robert, or any other long-term relationship. When she discovers she’s pregnant, and doesn’t know which man is the father, she can’t settle on what to do. To a certain extent, she can’t even reconcile herself to the fact that she’s going to have a baby. Her whimsy is shown as a lack of engagement with life; she is drifting.

Godard emphasizes Charlotte’s shallowness and lack of direction in other ways. She takes a great deal of enjoyment in living vicariously through others, whether it’s listening to her housekeeper recount a night of lovemaking, or eavesdropping on some teenagers’ conversation about sleeping with a boy for the first time. But most of all, Godard emphasizes Charlotte’s narcissism. She obsesses over the models in lingerie advertising, and her preoccupation with her bust size illustrates how much she compares herself to them. In many ways, she’s a model herself, albeit on the set of life, and she can’t find her mark. It’s a conscious analogy on Godard’s part. Macha Méril’s features seem doll-like, and her hair is perfectly coiffed. She and Godard never make Charlotte appear as if she’s strutting her looks, but she seems born to be looked at nonetheless. The model analogy is even more conspicuous when he frames her against a brassiere-ad billboard. There’s also that opening sequence, in which she’s reduced to a set of austerely pretty body parts. Charlotte defines herself through the ideals of advertising imagery, and Godard presents her as just as superficial.

I may be making Godard sound more judgmental than he comes across. If he’s at all appalled by Charlotte, one would never know by the film’s steady, uninflected tone or the impersonal elegance of the visuals. Godard’s staging has never been more immaculate, and Raoul Coutard’s black-and-white cinematography is so clean and perfect one could eat off the images. It’s a handsome film in many respects, but it isn’t beautiful; the lack of expressiveness makes it seem sterile. I don’t think it has much depth, either. Godard doesn’t discover Charlotte over the course of the film the way he does with most of his protagonists. Nuances and shading don’t present themselves and ask the viewer to reassess the character. (One feels sorry for Macha Méril. The intelligence in her eyes suggests a depth that Godard never allows to come out.) Everything in the film seems predetermined, and Godard makes it feel like he’s going through the motions in presenting it. At the beginning, Charlotte says, “Who am I? I’ve never really known for sure.” When the film ends, the viewer is no closer to an answer. Godard tried to render an emotionally stunted character. He instead created an emotionally stunted film.

Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:

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