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.

Lola (1961)

Jacques Demy | 1hr 30min

Unlike so many other auteur filmmakers closely associated with movie-musicals, Jacques Demy was no American working within a restrictive Hollywood studio system – this is a French director who stepped up to the plate in 1961 with his enthralling debut, Lola, and thus began his own cinematic revolution contained within the larger French New Wave movement. While not quite the full-fledged musical that his later efforts would be, Lola is instead about as close as a film could get to being a musical without intermittently indulging in songs. In fact, there is only one number to be found, “Lola”, sung near the halfway mark by French actress Anouk Aimée. This song, much like the film’s title, is named after its leading character, who herself is named after the iconic Marlene Dietrich character, Lola Lola. Similarities to the German cabaret singer of the 1930 film The Blue Angel are abundant, particularly in Aimée’s enthralling performance as a beautiful, talented woman with a long line of suitors, receptive to their charms but ultimately unwavering in her singular focus.

Anouk Aimée is mesmerising as Lola, commanding every second of screen time, most of all in her one, big musical number.

The relative lack of songs should not be taken to mean that Lola unfolds with any less panache, vigour, or sensitivity than a traditional musical though. In the same year, 1961, Demy’s French contemporary, Jean-Luc Godard, also deconstructed the genre in A Woman is a Woman, similarly using an instrumental score beneath scripted dialogue to imitate the rise and fall of emotions conventionally expressed through musical numbers. But where Godard’s effort is marked by bright colours, self-awareness, and his trademark dissonance, Lola is far more elegantly muted in comparison. Demy would later indulge in striking colour compositions in his most famous musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but this is his first and only film shot in black-and-white, and as such it is rather through his brisk tracking shots, soft natural lighting, and rhythmic cutting that his delicate artistry shines through. 

Unlike other French New Wave directors, Demy turned away from Paris, and instead used the beautiful city of Nantes as his choice of shooting location.

Though it is Josef von Sternberg who is honoured in the character archetype of the titular Lola, Max Ophüls is the one who Demy pays tribute to right up front in his opening credits. The Ophüls influence is certainly present in the way Demy glides his camera gracefully through his streets and sets, but it can also be found in his feminist-tinted meditations on fate, which underlies the form of the entire narrative. Whenever one character in Lola is drawn to another, there is almost always a slightly obscured nostalgia behind the attraction, with the object of their attraction often bearing similarities to a man or woman they once loved. The most obvious case of this is in the real past shared between Lola and Roland, an old friend she runs into by chance on the streets of Nantes. While he pursues her, Lola herself seems more hung up on another former lover, Michel. This longing becomes the motivation for her fling with American sailor and Michel-lookalike, Frankie, who himself strikes up a friendship with Cécile, a 13-year-old girl that reminds him of his sister back in Chicago, and who, coming full circle, reminds Roland of Lola.

Within this tangle of faint reminiscences, Cécile stands as the only one clear-minded in the connections she forms with others, having not yet been tainted by the pain of long-lost memories. When Frankie takes her to the fair, Demy draws us away from the immediacy of the moment in his swelling score and slow-motion photography, as if to turn this into a pure, nostalgic impression that she will never fully recapture. Though Cécile is one of the lucky few who can live in the moment without the burden of the past, the emphasis on the celebration of her 14th birthday underscores the transient nature of her own youth, indicating that one day she too will find herself pining after old memories.

A glorious slow-motion sequence as Cécile runs through the fair with Frankie, a young girl’s first love in bloom.

With the ghosts of old lovers, friends, and relatives emerging in vague associations all throughout Lola, the physical manifestation of one such memory towards the conclusion seems almost too good to be true, despite it keeping with the tradition of happy musical endings. Why is it that Michel returns to whisk Lola away? Is this abrupt resolution really all that earned? That any of these characters who are so bogged down in bygone days might actually have a future seems impossible. As Lola drives away with Michael towards her new life though, the figure of Roland walking the opposite direction down the street catches her eye. And just as she has always done whenever teased by a hint of the past, she once again turns backwards to linger on what could have been.

This bitter sting in an artificially sweet ending may be a departure from the traditionally optimistic fare of movie-musicals, but Demy is not a cynic at heart. In his characters’ foolish devotion to the past, we can see his own love for cinema history, as he aims to evoke a similar joyous innocence to those musicals that inspired him – yet in holding Lola back from becoming a proper musical itself, and by adding in notes of such ambiguous regret, there is a purposeful incompleteness to this feeling. For Lola, and for everyone else around her, their nostalgic yearnings are never-ending attempts to reclaim a feeling that never existed, but as Roland reminds her just before their final farewell, “There’s a bit of happiness in simply wanting happiness.” And just as that is enough for Lola as she moves on, it too becomes enough Demy in his wistful musings over his love of film.

Demy’s use of natural lighting is superb, making white shades seem to glow and then finding glorious frames such as these within windows.

Lola is currently available to stream on Stan, Mubi Australia, and Foxtel Now.