A Woman is a Woman (1961)

Jean-Luc Godard | 1hr 25min

Perhaps the last time a major Hollywood genre had such a significant re-invention before 1961’s A Woman is a Woman was the year before, when Jean-Luc Godard deconstructed the gangster film with his self-reflexive, uniquely French sensibilities in Breathless. It isn’t surprising that he was so quick to move on given his improvisational style of filmmaking, challenging traditions of perfectionism with reckless abandon, and thus moving world cinema into a new age along with other French New Wave auteurs. Though Le Petit Soldat was shot directly after Breathless, it was this loving pastiche of Golden Age movie-musicals that was released first and became his follow-up effort, splashing a vibrant world of primary colours and nonsensical gags up on the screen to prove that the success of Breathless was no accident.

In relating this postmodern melange back to the movie-musical genre though, there is a biting dissonance at play – notably few songs can be found here at all. Instead, soaring strings, swinging pianos, and swaggering saxophones offer instrumental interludes between lines of dialogue, giving the impression that these characters are always on the verge of breaking out into a song. Or maybe their conversations of poetic banter are the songs, just as Godard’s jump cuts between frozen tableaux are equivalent to dances, translating conventional musical expressions into the ever-evolving language of cinema.

Godard finds the cinematic substitutes for theatrical expressions, here turning a dance into a montage of frozen poses in tableaux.

In bringing these creative choices directly to our attention, Godard puts forward a challenge in our ability to absorb ourselves completely into the lives of his characters, especially as they monologue, wink at the camera, bow to the audience, and verbalise their actions as stage directions. The highly-curated artificiality of classic musicals is also evoked in the production design of Angela and Emile’s apartment, bursting with flashes of scarlet in costumes, set dressing, props, and even a single red rose standing out in a bunch of white ones.

Bowing to the audience – self-aware on every level.
A deliberately artificial curation of production design in the reds, far removed from the location shooting of Breathless.

On one level we can read this lack of naturalism as a deliberate denial of entry into this world, but at the same time, this is Godard – he’s not going to take that away from us without at least turning it into a cheeky gag. In one scene, Angela flips an egg up past our line of sight, walks away to answer a phone, and then catches the egg when she returns, subverting all laws of logic with a throwaway non-sequitur. It is natural for a film flinging so many formal experiments out there to occasionally miss, and yet with its whimsically self-conscious attitude to its own structure, A Woman is a Woman remains remarkable for how seldom this happens.

A fair share of this creative genius must be credited to Anna Karina too though, who in her first released collaboration with Godard matches his magnetic and self-aware style filmmaking with a strikingly similar attitude to acting, playing the camera with her bright, expressive eyes and bold costuming. She also carries the few musical numbers of the film, singing acapella at the strip joint which her character, Angela, works at. As beautifully vivid neon colours shift across her face caught in close-up, she holds our gaze, the camera transfixed by the mesmerising performance she is delivering right into its lens.

Gorgeous neon colours flashing across Karina’s face as she sings to the camera in close-up. Nicolas Winding Refn would surely have to be at least somewhat influenced by this.

While Karina commits to each of Godard’s wildly creative tangents and farcical fourth wall breaks that seem to answer the questions milling around this screenplay about whether this film is a tragedy or a comedy, she also takes the time to reign herself in for quieter, more vulnerable moments. As Angela begins to consider a life beyond her image as a sex symbol, her insecurities around her womanhood begin to surface, and questions of maternity become more immediate. She yearns for a state of authenticity in which doesn’t feel the need to present herself as feminine, but also doesn’t feel the need to push back against that as some sort of statement.

“I think women who don’t cry are stupid. They’re modern women trying to be men.” 

Relationship troubles between Angela and Emile, though Godard keeps us at a distance.

But it is not a melancholy, contemplative tone Godard wishes to leave us with. There may be tragedy in Angela’s struggles, but she lives firmly within a world of comedy. Just as Breathless closes out on a piece of French wordplay that doesn’t translate so well to English, so too does A Woman is a Woman wrap up with a brief conversation playing on phonetics that could be easily missed by foreigners.

“Angela, tu es infâme.” (Angela, you are shameless)

“Non, je suis une femme.” (No, I am a woman)

As much as Godard adores American culture in all its extravagant, musical spectacle, it is his love of the French language which gives this playful, fourth-wall breaking screenplay its spark of inspiration. In its last seconds as the camera tilts up from the post-coital banter between Angela and Emile, the word “Fin” shines in neon lights through the window, this absurd, vibrant world getting in the final word on its own structure with a cheeky smile and a wink.

A quippy ending like so many great musicals, then a camera tilt up to reveal the final frame.

A Woman is a Woman is not currently available to stream in Australia.

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