Though it was simultaneously his first color and first ‘scope film, Godard’s elegantly anarchic A Woman Is a Woman is one of the French New Wave’s true anti-spectacles. Beginning with its filmmaker’s soon-to-be trademark huge, multicolored, screen-encompassing font emblazoning “Once upon a time,” Godard’s self-proclaimed musical-comedy is not a fairy tale, nor is it a musical per se, or really much of a comedy, for that matter. It barely even fulfills the expectations of the “love triangle” plot it seems to be advancing. Like the curious tots soliciting Jean-Claude Brialy’s help at his book and magazine stand, who refuse his recommendation of Sleeping Beauty in favor of “something sexier,” Godard doesn’t want to fall into easy generic patterns; in fact, he wants to make sure the audience doesn’t either. Always demanding active participation from his audience, Godard plays off his contemporary audience’s knowledge of musical-comedies, constantly pulling the rug out by heightening the artifice: bursts of Mancini-esque jazz blare, like they’re attacking the characters, then drop out before the moment of catharsis; Eastmancolor primaries saturate our heroine, but then Godard reverses the shot and shows us an actual rotating filter at work; actors constantly break the fourth wall and address the camera directly. They’re the sorts of tricks that Godard would apply in different fashion so much over the coming decade that it can only be a tribute to his astonishing gift for subversion that nearly every visual and aural trick in A Woman Is a Woman still shocks to this day.
Watching this gorgeous 1961 oddity again I couldn’t help but keep wondering whether audiences—even art-house or festival audiences—would completely reject it had it been made today (not that it was exactly a Breathless-sized hit at the time). It has that unique mix of whimsical and assaultive that Godard was on his way to perfecting (probably by Pierrot le fou, four years later), and a self-referentiality that borders on the oppressive; at any moment the film’s never less than completely captivating and purposely alienating, and it’s hard to imagine today such militantly New Wave tendencies going down easy (the deliberate pacing of our current moment’s “difficult” cinema seems more indebted to Antonioni; no one really much dares adopt Godard’s technique).
Of course, the terrific trick of A Woman Is a Woman is that despite Godard’s incessant, playful foregrounding of cinema and his total deconstruction of the spaces the characters inhabit (from apartment to nightclub, the former a cluttered romper-room mockery of domesticity, the latter a black void), these are very real people with very real problems. Or, rather, this is a woman with very real yearnings. The film is a gloriously faux-glossy love letter to Anna Karina, who had just starred in Godard’s controversial commentary on the Algerian war, Le petit soldat, and who, during this film’s shoot would become pregnant (she later miscarried). It’s a poignant turn of events, since Karina’s character, Angela, a stripteaser at a smoky Parisian club, desires to have a baby, yet is rebuffed by Brialy’s live-in lover Emil, finally turning to Jean-Paul Belmondo (as “Lubitsch”) to give her what she wants. Bathing Karina in reds and blues, outfitting her in sailor suits and pompoms and sensual scarlet sweaters, Godard makes Karina the ultimate object of desire, while simultaneously refusing to allow us to objectify her.
Watching A Woman Is a Woman is indeed a joyful experience—when Karina exclaims that she’d rather be in a musical spectacular with Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly, with choreography by Bob Fosse, while kicking her legs up in spasmodic hope, there’s no conceivable response but a smile—but the jarring dissociation Godard creates between sound and image (not just the alleged songs but the soundtrack itself, including street noise or incidental score, drops out at regular intervals) constantly problematizes that joy. Karina’s Angela is sensible, yet constricted, and despite the ridiculous finality of the title, she is not all she seems. (Neither for that matter is the seemingly priggish but ultimately sensitive Emil, and underappreciated New Wave icon Brialy invests him with just enough sexiness to offset his bookworm mannerisms.) It wouldn’t be the last time Karina would play an image of a woman at odds with the woman herself.