The main character is something of a bubblehead and the plot is a piece of fluff. The humor is ham-fisted, the whimsy is brittle and the charm is almost nonexistent. And yet A Woman Is A Woman (’61), the third feature by the prolific French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard is, like all of the 14 films he made during his initial burst of creativity, from Breathless (’59) to Weekend (’67), essential viewing for anyone seriously interested in cinema.
The plot is this: Angela (Anna Karina) is a stripper/singer who wants her live-in boyfriend Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) to impregnate her. Emile loves Angela but isn’t ready to become a father, so she turns to his best friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who is happy to oblige. It’s a serviceable plot if handled gingerly. For Godard it was the starting point for his first full-scale experimental film, and the gulf between the gossamer premise and his archly intellectual approach, with its odd editing and sound drop-outs, manages to keep the viewer largely disengaged from, if not occasionally embarrassed by, the plight of the characters.
This is a movie with a high wince factor, from its condescending view of its heroine, egregiously chauvinistic even for the mid-20th century, to the would-be witticisms that fall from performers’ mouths like so many rhetorical stones. The in-jokes, which must have seemed fresh 42 years ago, now seem like film geek coyness. Some of the references are in the mode of homage: The Belmondo character’s last name is Lubitsch, a nod to director Ernst Lubitsch, famous for the sort of sophisticated romantic comedies of which Woman is a fun house mirror version.
Others are more insular gags that fall flat: Belmondo mentions that he has to get home to watch Breathless, in which he starred; Marie Dubois shows up briefly and pantomimes the title of Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player (’60), in which she starred. Jeanne Moreau cameos at a bar where she’s asked about Jules and Jim (’61), the Truffaut film which hadn’t been released yet and in which she ... well, you get the idea. Suffice it to say, Godard’s cross-film interjections became more subtle and effective in later films.
On the plus side, this is Godard’s first wide-screen color film and the documentary-like shots of Paris are enhanced by Raoul Coutard’s sumptuous photography. It’s also his first to feature Karina, whom Godard married after filming was completed and with whom he made six more features. If Godard was a mad scientist, fever-brained but always a little cold, Karina was a genuinely warm and emotional presence in his fractured scenarios. Rarely emotive, she was often filmed in close-up, a beauty whose wide eyes were as expressive as a silent movie star’s. Which may be why in color she was merely a pretty girl; but in black and white, and in the collective memory of film buffs everywhere, she became a cinematic icon.
Finally, if the film seems a little forced — comedy isn’t really Godard’s thing — it was still an important step in the director’s development and a precursor to much better things to come. Despite my minority opinion that it isn’t all that good, it’s a definite curio that’s worth making up your own mind about. The film is presented in French with subtitles.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday, Nov. 7-9. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].