“Et moi, qu’est-ce que je suis?”
“And I, what am I?”
There is a palpable contrast, almost shockingly so, between A Woman is a Woman and the films preceding it in Jean Luc Godard’s career. The earlier works seemed to delimit a very clear stylistic register: black and white, 16mm film stock, handheld cameras, jazzy editing, free form storytelling, a presumed naturalism. These are, for the most part, the chief identifiers of the first stage of the French New Wave, and are to be expected from the time period, but with A Woman is a Woman, Godard shifts gears: shooting in color, using glitzy filters, lens flares, quasi-diegetic music; the films manages to transition from the rugged, macho gangsterism of the prior features to a glamorously staged musical. On the one hand, the film could simply be said to be aping the styles and conventions of a different genre – namely, the Technicolor musicals of the 40s – and exploring the extent of its mutability. After all, Godard has already indicated an attachment to the plethora of genres in American cinema. But on the other, it marks a violent shift outward, to the exterior of images, to the thinness of their artificiality, and the realisms that can be found on the frontier between performance and identity.
But first, a detour: Andre Bazin was a prominent film and cultural critic for a decade and a half before he founded the influential Cahiers du Cinema, which we know featured Godard on its staff. Much of what he is remembered for now is espousing an aesthetic of realism, based on his belief that the essential quality of the photograph is its relation to reality. In 1950 Bazin wrote an essay on the Norwegian film Kontiki, directed by Thor Heyerdahl, in which a group of sailors-cum-filmmakers attempted to recreate the Polynesian voyage, sailing across the Pacific with limited technology (e.g. their camera) and documenting it. The film is captivating, in part because it is incomplete – every time the filmmaker-voyagers encountered some obstacle, like a large whale or a storm, they were forced to put down the camera and manage the events at hand. The event of the film’s production, and the film’s object are virtually indistinguishable, and because those two zones overlap and obscure each other, each image takes on a kind of crystalline quality, where two conflicting realities become visible. It is not one or the other of these that is significant, but the contradictory co-presence of both.
The reality effect produced by Kontiki’s incompleteness has a sort of corollary in Godard’s features up to this point. Both Breathless and Le Petit Soldat feature jump cuts, a jagged rupture of visible continuity, in which a character or background changes abruptly. This, prior to Breathless, was conventionally regarded as an error made during the production of the film; usually the sign of a small budget in which the filmmakers could not afford to remedy their mistake. This sign of sloppiness also confers a kind of reality effect; this is perhaps most visibly exploited by the contemporary genre of found footage horror films. However, in Godard’s films, they are not errors, but affectations – grace notes, chosen intentionally for the sake of style. They reveal the films as ostensibly amateurish while also acting in opposition to a legacy of film editing conventions. It is this affectation that distinguishes the two gestures and threatens to position Godard’s cinema against the realist polemic of Bazin’s writings.
If Godard’s flourishes are simply a mode of duping the viewer into a secure sense of reality, they work in opposition to what Bazin wrote about, and against the whole project of realism in the age of ideology. Filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica in Italy, and theorists such as Siegfried Kracauer and Christian Metz had already realized how easily realist strategies are manipulated to entertain audiences (cf. the aforementioned found footage horror films), and all called for new images of realism. The Italians had already begun their attempts, which we have come to know as neorealism, and to which we can already see connections with Godard’s early films. But Godard saw the way their images could be used to deceive as much as reveal, and in A Woman is a Woman, he seems to create a new kind of image. Having recognized the various artifices of realism, it is almost as if Godard abandons the project of realism in toto, substituting the artificial for the real, the mask for the face, and producing, through style, the crystal images Bazin saw in KonTiki.
“It’s mostly just bad theater.”
A Woman is a Woman tells the story of a crisis between two lovers, Angela and Emile, who are at odds over having a child. Angela has decided one afternoon that she would very much like one, and is ovulating to boot, but Emile is reticent for various reasons. They fight and yell and Angela ultimately threatens to sleep with the next person she sees: Emile’s best friend Alfred (who flirtatiously courts Angela on the side). Much of this is carried out with an air of performance: the characters address the camera, their actions are exaggerated, they reveal a kind of showmanship, theatricality that exists between them, as if the social roles they embody are as thinly fictional as characters in a film. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Emile, Angela and Alfred are actually just characters, ontologically speaking, who do enact a brief drama in pictures – but more on this later.
There are two fights in particular where this theatricality erupts, shows its face. In the first, the couple is fighting over the central drama: they feel differently about the possibility of a child. The scene begins with Angela’s suggestion, and Emile’s mild acceptance. He is willing to have a child, but at some indefinite point in the future, when they are both stable. And of course he wants her to be happy, but not necessarily at his own expense. This escalates, to the point where they are traversing their apartment amid mutual protestations, all shown in the limited time and space of a single shot (as Godard is wont to do). Immediately after Angela makes her threat to sleep with the next person she sees, a knock comes at the door. It is a strangely ironic knock – we practically expect it, and are halfway expecting Alfred, the only character we know so far to walk through the door. At the very least we expect Angela to stay true to her hastily made promise, at least in service to the drama at hand. But instead, two police officers enter, and their fight dissipates over the officers’ concern for finding a local serial killer. The real world asserts itself, lays claim to their private drama and reveals its inherent smallness, its limited relevance. Their drama only matters to them (and us), but where we often substitute the stage for the world, here the world is far more inchoate and resistant to reduction.
Later in the film, the couple is bickering again; only this time language begins to break down for them. Language is clearly a struggle for Angela, whose French is often broken, and the cause of many a pun (including the film’s title), but simply struggling with one’s second tongue is not necessarily a reason for the gulf that separates the couple. Rather there is this immeasurable distance between them, a distance that language helps to bridge, and yet it has failed them. So they resort to an iconic game of grabbing books off the shelves and using the titles to insult each other. “Monster,” “Eva-te faire foudre” (“Screw off!”), and other insults are not quite hurled at each other as read, shown, revealed through found objects in an almost surrealist turn of events, but it isn’t long before the couple gets up together and tries to collect all of the best (read: most insultingly titled) books before the other. It’s an odd scene, one where the frustration between the two becomes a replacement bridge – they both feel they cannot speak and be heard, and so they each emphasize the thinness, futility, and subjectivity of their frustrations through blocks of language that were neither uttered by them nor intended for such a dispute. What is particularly interesting about this, though, is that the breakdown of language is not something that the characters experience alone. We, too, are searching for hidden meanings in the books they bring, and struggle to make sense of the chasm that separates these lovers.
This surface of theatricality is doubled in Angela’s occupation. Angela works as an exotic dancer at a club not far from where she lives. She sings cabaret songs, dances, strips, and all to a vivid panoply of expressionist lighting. She performs. She puts on a show. She plays a part. During whole sequences here she addresses the camera, confronting its gaze, making visible the transaction of voyeurism taking place. During one such dance, the camera cuts away from the boldly lit Angela to look at the projector mounted near the ceiling at the back of the room. We watch as the color filter changes, and realize that the shifts in lighting, which evoke passion, lust, sensuality, are themselves just textual effects meant to elicit those sensations. The narrative rug is pulled out from under us, and we see precisely the manner in which we have been duped by the show. I associate this move with German playwright/theorist Berthold Brecht, an idol of Godard’s, and one of the most influential writers on theater in history. Reductively, his aim was to reveal the stage to the audience, to assert the power of the Real by making visible the contours of the fiction he was creating. This alienation effect produces and reveals the schism between the stage and the action played upon it. But, more on that in a moment.
“I wish I were in a musical, with Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly.”
A Woman is a Woman is rarely described without Godard’s own genre mash-up term – Neorealist Musical. It’s something of a nonsensical designation, but jamming the two words next to each other, a la the same principles of montage we’ve discussed, does produce a strange kind of synthetic meaning. Neorealism, as I discussed in this essay, was a movement in postwar Italy, where non-professional actors, diegetic music, working class subjects, location shooting, and a focus on the struggles of day to day life produced a kind of new realism, outside of the tropes of Hollywood and other cinematic conventions. Musicals, on the other hand, are known for their glitter and glamour, wild expressionism, where actors sing the thoughts they might otherwise act, and a kind of conventional narrative structure, with happy endings and good feels in abundance. It seems impossible to simultaneously care about the “reality” of something and also watch as a group of people breaks into song to talk about their emotions. And yet, watching this film, and the way it plays with music and image, it is clear that Godard’s term is intensely useful for discussing it.
As the film begins, we are met with a jarring series of musical themes that begin and trace a classical kind of melody, one rife with possibilities for sing-alongs. And just when it hits its peak, the soundtrack drops out and we hear banal street sounds, all traffic and horns and footsteps on cobblestones. But then the music picks back up again, and we remember we are in a musical; it lifts us up, carrying us higher, elated by just the feeling of the music. And it drops us just as quickly. Already the film is telling us “This music is a sham.” It is pulling the Brechtian rug out from under our musical aspirations and reminding us of the hard concrete that awaits us when we fall. Music here is fiction, fantasy, illusion – all of the things that are the opposite of reality. Right?
Let’s think back to that first fight, the one where Angela and Emile are interrupted by the police. The fact that their fight is revealed to be inconsequential, theatrical, excessive doesn’t change the fact that it is really what the characters feel. They live in the heightened states of emotions that the film gives them license to portray. They aren’t calmed by the fact that they are acting emotionally. They aren’t assuaged by the essential unreality of it. So is it even false to begin with? I don’t think so. Just as their fight is real to them, just as their emotions and desires ricochet around that room, just as Angela bathes herself in a deep purple glow, and just as she sings her way through problems, these are the manifestations of their lived experiences. The music and the musical qualities of the film are not opposed to that realism; they are the texture of it. When we witness the apparatus, when we see the fights reduced to book titles, when we lapse into song and dance, we see the artifice by which their world is constructed; the musical sequences are not violations of the neorealism, they are the fictions themselves which organize the characters’ various worlds. We might even say that these fictions are both untrue and real.
There is one song that isn’t cut short though, and it’s a fantastic moment in the film. Angela is at the diner with Alfred, and she goes to the jukebox to play a song she likes by Charles Aznavour (recently star of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player). As it begins, the two of them stop talking and simply listen to the song. A whole silent abstract narrative unfolds over the course of the song, as Angela weeps silently and Alfred retreats into himself, both revealed as the lonely individuals they are, even as they share a two-shot. The song is not interrupted, it is not cut short. Instead we listen to the entire piece, over a solid three minutes, and experience an actual song in real-time. It’s such a small moment of true encounter. Only instead of seeing them nakedly, we see more clearly the masks they hide behind. For Alfred, this is a mask of braggadocio and goofiness (where now is his smile?). But for Angela what we see is that the refuge of music is no longer able to keep back her tears. Both of them confront, if not each other, themselves and their secrets, their lies, their escapes.
“I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy, but it’s a masterpiece.”
What’s with this title, though? A Woman is a Woman? Are we supposed to agree with it? Is it ironic? Do we jump and say “Aha! A woman is more than the word woman!” Or can we talk about womanhood being a thing produced by language? Or how about the discursive contours of our existence, where any thing is always and only the word that designates that thing? A cup is a cup? An essay is an essay? And if we were to protest and say that the statement is false, that a woman is almost certainly not a woman, where would that lead? The only point of departure is at the edge of language, where we’d lack a word to tell us what a woman were instead. So, is it simply a banal utterance of tautology? Does it say anything? There is a reference to the title somewhat late in the film, where Angela mishears Emile’s wry comment about how “Une femme est infame (A woman is nefarious/infamous).” But even this doesn’t fully account for the strangeness of the title. Perhaps we should come back to this beguiling issue.
The question remains – is this film a comedy or a tragedy? We are used to the convention of distinguishing between the two narrative drives, the former indicating the perseverance of life, continuity, even pleasure and happiness, while the latter signifies death, the harshness of reality, the inevitability of conclusions. Well, the film is a bleak film, filled with emptiness, loneliness, unrequited love, unconsummated desire, loss, and profound struggle. It is also punctuated by moments of joy and happiness, communication, bonding over pop songs, connections between people, poetry, beauty. It’s immediately clear that this is not an either/or scenario but a both/and, it is an upheaval of a false dichotomy that we use to distribute our experiences into dramas that are intelligible.
When Angela disappears on stage behind her theatricality, and sings wistful songs about cultivating male desire, we can sense a staggering loss behind her words. As much as she puts on her masks to entertain, to maintain, to manage her relationship, to brighten her world, it is only that will to brightness that illustrates precisely how dark it is. So when the film reaches it’s points of highest comedy, these reflect in turn, the darkest passages; and when the relationships seem at their most stressed, when it seems impossible for it to get darker, comedy erupts. Tragedy and Comedy here only direct us to each other, like a never-ending circuit. Each only points to its own inability to account for reality, so that the tragic becomes a kind of cosmic joke while the comic elicits the deepest sadness. The two are co-constitutive.
Maybe this is because they are themselves simply other masks. They don’t reveal or reflect the world, so much as already stand to interpret its events. They pare away the rest until a clear vision emerges, but this vision is artificial, manufactured, delimited from the world it appears to show. The unreal and the true are here merged, so that comedy and tragedy simply become additional untruths that structure our world, and pale in comparison to the genuine article in all its inchoate complexity. What A Woman is a Woman serves to reveal, then, is not the thing itself, out there in the distance, the real world, the truth, as it were. It opens us up to the falseness of our own images, the limited nature of our narratives, the unrelenting closed-ness of our attempts to reduce the world.
So, then, are we wrong to do so? Are we doomed to simply make false images, images that are untrue and yet pervade our discourse? I don’t know, but I don’t think the film speaks towards some mass condemnation of this instinct. Rather, it lights upon the notion that it is through producing images, through producing artifice and illusion, regardless of intent, that we produce meaning. And meaning is hard to come by in the grand indifferent universe that we inhabit. But meaning can only be made, it cannot be found, and the process of making it is through our countless daily theaters.
In another essay, Andre Bazin distinguished between two modes of filmmaking that he could see developing in the 20s through the 40s. There were those filmmakers who privileged the image, the spectacle, the artifice, and those who privileged reality, the things that the image could not access, but which could direct the viewer to contemplate those very things. We might think of Neorealism and Musicals as occupying opposite ends of that spectrum, but here they are brought together. Here, we don’t get reality, or even simply images, but the textural reality of images, the artifices of realism, the contours of language. To say “a woman is a woman” is both to say everything and nothing at the same time, and it is that simultaneity of speech that concerns me here. What are the fictions that structure our lives, and can we glimpse them? Can we see the image in it’s own truth? Both as an actual and virtual image?
Angela asks, while appropriately looking into a mirror – an object that reproduces a false, two-dimensional version of herself – “Et moi, qu’est-ce que je suis?” which translates to “And I, what am I?” or perhaps even better, “And me, what is it that I am?” The answer, which doesn’t really exist, will always be incomplete, if taken to mean something beyond the language with which it is uttered. But the essence of this film seems to be the recognition of that incompleteness, and our reconciliation with that fact. I don’t really have answers here, but then again, the answers would be only false, perpetually incomplete renderings of what I’d hope to express, so that’s alright. In the end, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.
This is the fourth entry in my year-long Godard Project. The other entries can be found here.