Criticism of “A Woman is a Woman” (1961), dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Godard has always been a shameless manipulator of the rules of cinema, his experiments usually leaning largely upon technical aspects. This film is no exception. Nearly all of the comedy here came to life in the editing room, with jump cuts, overdubs and massive amounts of audio manipulation providing the punch lines.
The story is simple: A young stripper named Angela (Anna Karina) lives with her boyfriend Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy), and she wants to have a baby. He does not. Their mutual friend, Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), would steal Angela away from his buddy, but she won’t have him. Will Angela convince Emile to have a baby? Will Emile leave her? Will Alfred get what he wants? These are all peripherals to the real point of the film, which is to parody the thickheadedness of men and the fickleness of women. It also takes playful stabs at Hollywood’s treatment of relationships.
There are some rather brilliant scenes, like when Angela and Emile, who have decided that they aren’t talking to each other, take turns grabbing their apartment’s only portable lamp, walking to the bookshelf and selecting books with titles they can use to insult each other. Most of the other funny scenes are rhythmic collections of jolting edits and clips of music. One of the better examples is Emile, standing halfway down a stairwell, and Angela, on the landing, are arguing (yet again). They shout insults at each other from afar, but then, in between vulgarities, the music changes and they are locked in a romantic kiss – only to cut right back to Emile, angry on the steps, and Angela, angry on the landing… and back and forth again.
Anna Karina sparkles with charisma in the lead role, even if her character is teeth-grindingly immature. She has the energy and beauty (and the brightly colored outfits) of a Hollywood musical star. This, I have no doubt, did not escape Godard (who was romantically involved with her for quite some time). Brialy and Belmondo are equally good, if less relevant.
While the picture whirls by with unabated enthusiasm, it suffers a bit from the shallowness of it all. Spoofs and send-ups and comedies in general tend not to stray too deep into the pool, but these characters act like fifteen year-olds. They occasionally spout some eye-rolling philosophies that sound a bit too much like the director attempting to pull meaning from the absurd.
Godard’s liberties with film language have often been considered pretentiousness, and for many of his movies I won’t disagree. But in this film, he hits magnificently upon some real humor, making us laugh more often than scratch our heads.