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Nouvelle vague euphoria was at its height when Jean-Luc Godard made his enormously clever third feature, A Woman Is a Woman (1961). This big-budget, widescreen extravaganza appeared as the payoff for the unexpected success of Breathless (1959) and the follow-up political scandal of Le Petit soldat (1960), banned for its treatment of France’s Algerian War. A Franco-Italian co-production, shot in color and CinemaScope and starring Godard’s soon-to-be wife Anna Karina, A Woman Is a Woman was, he would say, his “first real film.”
However eccentric, Godard’s earlier two features were both tough-guy thrillers. A Woman Is a Woman was something else. A young striptease artist (Karina) decides to get pregnant, and when her lover (Jean-Claude Brialy) refuses to do the job, she recruits his more-than-willing best friend (Jean-Paul Belmondo). In an on-set interview with L’Express, Godard declared this triangle “an excellent subject for a comedy à la Lubitsch” and, in fact, the Belmondo character is named Alfred Lubitsch. (Godard dropped the idea of calling Brialy’s character Ernst but assigned him the surname Récamier “so that Anna could want to become Mme. Récamier,” the sultry subject of Jacques-Louis David’s celebrated portrait.)
Although often described as a musical, A Woman Is a Woman is, despite its moments of singing and dancing, something else. The filmmaker called it “the idea of a musical,” “nostalgia for the musical,” and, most provocatively, a “neorealist musical.” For the first time, Godard was making a movie about its own making. A Woman Is a Woman was shot in five weeks in late 1960, with a detailed treatment but no script. Godard says he followed his scenario “word for word, down to the last comma,” but, as he wrote the dialogue each day while his actors were making up, he considered this neorealist experiment to be his most improvisational film to date.
The underlying impulse was vérité: The actors wore their own clothes; the Strasbourg–Saint Denis district was chosen as a location for its unglamorous, workaday grayness. Godard had hoped to use an actual apartment as his main set, but when the elderly couple he had approached changed their minds, the apartment—big enough for Brialy to ride a bicycle through—had to be recreated in a studio. The walls were immovable, and a ceiling was constructed to forestall the thought of lighting the set from above. There was even a working front door, which the director locked behind him at the end of each day. For the first time, Godard recorded his dialogue in direct sound (which accounts for the occasional noises of the crew in the background).
The subject, however, was make-believe. If the studio was treated as though it were an actual place, the streets often seem to be a movie set. Although many scenes were shot with a hidden camera, the action is continually being overwhelmed by the suddenly erupting soundtrack. “I’d like to be in a musical comedy starring Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly,” Karina hopefully announces in the midst of an interpolated montage. (Is she imagining A Parisian in Paris?) Poised for numbers that never quite blossom, Godard’s characters strike poses and briefly cavort. The daringly fragmented use of Michel Legrand’s score verges on musique concrète—albeit closer to that of cartoon maestro Carl Stalling than Edgard Varese. The blatant aural cues complement sight gags that would scarcely be out of place in a Frank Tashlin film; indeed, A Woman Is a Woman introduces the flat pop-art look, predicated on a wide screen and primary colors, that Godard used in his high sixties masterpieces Pierrot le fou (1965), Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966), Made in U.S.A. (1966), and La Chinoise (1967).
To call A Woman Is a Woman self-conscious is to call the sky blue. Beginning with the call “Lights, camera, action,” the movie is filled with proscenium jokes—the actors repeatedly acknowledging the audience—and relentless, exultant references to other movies, mainly those made by the director and his then pal François Truffaut. Jeanne Moreau and Marie Dubois, female stars of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) and Shoot the Piano Player (1960), respectively both have cameos, while Belmondo, enjoying the first flush of stardom, winks at the camera and makes facetious references to his “pal Burt Lancaster.” Brialy, too, was associated with the nouvelle vague—having appeared in Claude Chabrol’s first two features as well as Jacques Rivette’s Paris Is Ours (1960).
Mainly, A Woman Is a Woman is a valentine to Karina, who became pregnant during the course of the movie’s production; she and Godard were married in March 1961, an event that made the cover of Paris Match. A Woman Is a Woman was their second film together, and Karina would appear in five of his next nine features, none of which offer a comparable sense of conjugal possibility. Of course, A Woman Is a Woman’s celebration of love is also ambivalent; even at thirty-one, Godard was too dour for sweetness and light. The harsh gaiety of this nonmusical musical, at once jaundiced and festive, is Brechtian in a far different sense than Godard’s later, more political films. “I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy,” Brialy tells Karina towards the end of the movie.
Reviewing A Woman Is a Woman when it first opened in New York in late 1964, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris called it “a documentary not only of Karina but of the sheer otherness of all women . . . employ[ing] all the resources of cinema to express the exquisite agony of heterosexual love.” Seen today, what’s fascinating is how much social awareness Godard brings to the notion of “heterosexual love.” With her masklike makeup and bouffant hairdo, Karina is a total construction. This stubborn, graceful creature is not only the world’s most demure stripper but merely the idea of a woman—or, at least, Godard’s idea of one.
In the punning punch line, Brialy calls Karina shameless: “Tu es infâme!” Sweetly, she corrects him: “Non, je suis une femme.” A woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do.
J. Hoberman is senior film critic for the Village Voice and the author, most recently, of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (The New Press).