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The greatest film by the greatest post-1950s filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her presents the critic, humbled by the beauty of its surfaces, the density of its ideas, and the uncanny coherence of its fragmented structure, with a writing dilemma. If any film deserves a book-length exegesis, it is this one. Alternately, one pithy paragraph might do the trick. Since the situation in which I write precludes both of these options, I’ll take up the irresistible strategy Godard suggests and offer just two or three things about 2 or 3 Things.
“I wanted to include everything: sports, politics, even groceries. Everything should be put in a film,” wrote Godard about 2 or 3 Things. It could have been Andy Warhol speaking. And given that Godard and Warhol had the same genius for purloining the words and images of others to create visions of the world like no others, I hesitate to venture which of them was first to express the desire to encompass “everything” in a movie. It was Warhol, however, who in 1962 brought “groceries,” or more specifically brand-name grocery packaging, into the institutions of high art, creating a media sensation. So one can safely say that Warhol was very much on Godard’s mind when, in 1966, he plucked from the magazine Le nouvel observateur a letter in response to an article enticingly titled “The ‘Shooting Stars,’” about women living in the newly built housing developments on the edge of Paris who worked as part-time prostitutes in order to pay for the basics of a middle-class life (what Godard ironically dubs “a normal life”), not the least of which was their groceries.
The story was scandalous in a way that might have appealed to Warhol. Godard saw it as an opportunity to explore a subject always on his mind—prostitution, and not only the actuality of it but as a metaphor encompassing all exchanges involving labor, money, and power in capitalism. He had already made the affectingly restrained Vivre sa vie (1962), in which a young aspiring actress (Anna Karina) is seduced into selling her body because she can’t figure out how else to survive. (Of course, she does not survive for long.) And one would be hard-pressed to think of the Godard film that does not at some point make metaphoric use of prostitution. (Movies as varied as Chantal Akerman’s 1975 Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 The Girlfriend Experience have for better and worse been influenced by this idée fixe.)
Pronouns being what linguists refer to as “shifters,” the title 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her has the elasticity of Silly Putty. Godard is the chief contender for the “I.” It is an essayistic “I,” and this film is the first fully realized of Godard’s cinema essays, the form that has dominated the last forty-odd years of his career. His whispered voice-over brings the viewer into his confidence from the beginning. The film is strung on the rope of his words and the disconcertingly intimate sound of that whisper, which suggests a physical proximity to which we haven’t consented in advance. It’s a violation and a display of power. We paid for our ticket, but it is he who possesses our ear. What does one whisper? Secrets, information that is taboo, ideas that are illicit. When one says of a woman, “I know two or three things about her,” one isn’t implying that one’s knowledge is limited as much as that one has the dirt on her.
And who is this “her,” the object of the attention of this “I”? Godard explains in the opening sequence that she is at least threefold. She is Juliette Janson, a fictional character who only exists within the confines of this film; the two or three things we learn of her here are all there is to know. She is also Marina Vlady, the actress who portrays Juliette but is not, as Godard points out, one and the same with her. Only a few things about Vlady are known by the director and the viewer. That is the case also with the third “her,” the city of Paris, which in the mid-1960s was at the center of de Gaulle’s project to modernize France. 2 or 3 Things depicts the violation of both the city and Juliette, who has bought into the Gaullist economy. One of the ways Godard defines the difference between fiction and documentary—as obsessive an issue for him as prostitution—is that documentary cannot contain the entirety of its subject; fiction is by definition self-contained. And yet, as Juliette remarks several times in the course of the film, “a face is like a landscape.” But whose face is she talking about? The face of Juliette Janson or of Marina Vlady?
Godard’s essay follows twenty-four hours in Juliette’s life, beginning and ending in the evening in the apartment she shares with her husband and two young children. In the morning, after dropping her daughter at the local day-care center, which doubles as a brothel, she travels to central Paris, where she browses for clothes, hangs out in cafés, and picks up clients, some of them regulars. An American war correspondent, fresh out of Vietnam, likes to watch two beautiful women parade back and forth with flight bags covering their heads, one a blue Pan Am, the other a red TWA. Forty years later, the joke has shifted slightly to be at the expense of those who believed those corporations were invincible. The underlying idea is no joke, however, and is utterly of the moment; one has only to replace Vietnam with Iraq. In the late afternoon, Juliette meets her husband, and they go home. So much for the fictional narrative thread, an account of which conveys next to nothing.
Better to describe 2 or 3 Things as a machine that morphs the colliding meanings of words and objects with dazzling speed, and generates an astonishing array of metaphors, paradoxes, digressions, and, above all, dialectical relationships, between idea and action, word and image, sound and picture, interior and exterior, microcosm and macrocosm. The swirling surface of a cup of coffee is transformed into the primordial ooze and also the infinite universe; two women in a café look at a magazine from different angles, but the collaged and cartooned female faces and bodies on its pages are degrading from any perspective.
Two paradoxes shape the film in its entirety. First, although Godard’s ostensible subject is the disastrous effect of de Gaulle’s economic policies on Paris and its inhabitants (he may not have predicted that Pan Am and TWA would go belly-up, but he certainly foresaw, as the riots of recent years show, the extremity of alienation created by the banlieues), his most intense rage is directed toward the United States and its war in Vietnam. Bloody images of Vietnamese dead and dying litter the screen. “It’s strange,” says Juliette, thinking aloud, as she often does, “that a person who is in Europe on August 17, 1966, can think of another who is in Asia.” As she speaks, Godard cuts between the hotel bedroom where Juliette has refused to participate in a particular sex act with her friend and the American war correspondent and a Life magazine photo spread of wounded Vietnamese prisoners. The pornography of the bedroom (largely unseen) meets the pornography of the war, examined in close-up, albeit at one remove through documentary photographs. That said, the film is also pictorially an homage and challenge to American pop and minimalist art, in terms of its scale (Godard uses the CinemaScope screen like a billboard), saturated primary colors (it’s Godard’s retort to Barnett Newman’s own challenge to pop in the 1966–70 series of huge color-field paintings titled Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue), and critique of the power of advertising—implicit in the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein, explicit here and in all of Godard’s films, particularly during this period.
The second paradox is between the fragmentation of daily life, depicted with the most brilliantly percussive, elliptical editing of Godard’s career, and a longing for wholeness, for what in art can be described as the complete fulfillment of a form. Juliette, who describes waking up feeling as if there were pieces of her missing, has had a fleeting experience of such wholeness, and throughout the film she falteringly attempts to describe it. It happened, she says, on her way to meet one of her johns, a pimply faced young man who works in the subway. “It was as if I were the world and the world were me.” Juliette seems to have felt what the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, whose writings were popular in the 1960s, termed “a peak experience,” a merging of interior and exterior, of self and other—also the aim of Godard’s dialectics. This is problematic to represent on-screen, although we can be sure that Godard’s desire is to create a similarly transcendent experience with his work. The correlatives he finds for Juliette’s description are the 360-degree panning shot and snatches of a sublime Beethoven string quartet, whose triumphant three final chords are the last thing we hear in 2 or 3 Things. They immediately follow the final image: a pullback from a tableau of grocery products arranged on a field of dying grass so that they look like a model of an apartment building complex. At the center is a box of Hollywood Chewing Gum. This and the surrounding boxes are the French versions of the items that filled Andy Warhol’s mother’s shopping cart day after day and that inspired some of the most profound art of the twentieth century.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor at Film Comment and Sight & Sound. She also writes frequently for Artforum.