Written, filmed, and screened at the Venice Film Festival, to much praise, as The Married Woman, Godard’s eighth feature was then subjected to intense scrutiny by the French censorship board, who delayed its release by many months and enforced a title change to A Married Woman. It may seem like a minor detail, but the rationale behind the alteration—that the former seemed to make a blanket statement about all married women, especially rude in a story about adultery—says a lot about where the film was placed within the trajectories of Godard’s career, the French New Wave, and film history generally.
Apart from its title change, the subject matter was perceived as lascivious, its attitude towards extramarital sex confoundingly vague, and its references to the Holocaust, and specifically an inference of French culpability, too controversial. This was 1964; Godard was 33, and his filmic approaches were changing; visually and philosophically he was moving into a new realm with The Married Woman, and he was moving quickly, on the cusp of a new cinema, not just politically engaged but forthrightly structuralist. The old New Wave approach wasn’t suiting him anymore. In The Married Woman, we see the stirrings of the editing and photographic tactics he would be employing for much of the remainder of his 60s cinema: people as abstracts, dialogue as interrogation, direct address, whispered voice-over, billboards and advertisements as interstitial commentary. That all this comes within the ostensible context of a character-driven, mostly realist love-triangle shows Godard at once shirking off old constraints and diving into dangerous new waters. Of course the French cinema would respond with wildly varied reactions; though it’s now, oddly, one of his less discussed films (at least in light of the more accessible genre plays—Contempt, Band of Outsiders, and Alphaville— that buttressed it) at the time it was popular, debated, and resolutely on the vanguard.
In form, The Married Woman seems informed by Godard’s fellow New Wave leftist Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, with its compressed time structure, its black-and-white X-ray-vision approach to a woman’s quotidian experiences, and even its co-opting of pop imagery as political commentary (in this case, a stunning midfilm tangent in which Godard uses the entirety of a Sylvie Vartan song to accompany sexually provocative magazine images of bras and bathing suits)—the difference being that Godard seemingly casts judgment with every cut while Varda remained ambivalent toward her protagonist’s journey through a commodified Paris. If Godard might be somewhat unsure here of how he’s conflating the choices and situations of his main character, Charlotte (Macha Méril), with loftier notions of collective cultural memory and political engagement, the film is nevertheless a fascinating bout of wrestling with various philosophical ideas, a post-coitus plunge into the nature of contemporary existence.
Godard directs all of his scenes with a stringent, modernist calculation, whether it’s Charlotte lounging with her lover (Bernard Noel), as the two discuss the meaning of the word love, their bodies abstracted into elbows, knees, and arms against sheet-white backgrounds; Charlotte arguing with her controlling husband (Phillipe Leroy) amidst the hysterical cackling of an imported record, the camera gliding back and forth between two spacious rooms while hovering just outside their apartment; or in a terrific, beautifully composed single shot in a cafe, Charlotte covertly listening in on the conversation of two teenage girls discussing sex, while their words, obscured by the cafe’s din, appear as hovering subtitles between them. Godard considers every set-up as a stand-alone art object, and every conversation as a clashing of ideologies. Many of the techniques Godard forged here would soon be put to ever more sophisticated view in works such as Masculin féminin and La Chinoise, but Une femme mariée still packs a hefty intellectual punch, and its climactic delineation of Charlotte’s liberation (hopefully from both husband and lover, but it’s left ambiguous) is memorable for its emotional pull. “It’s a film in which something is missing. But this something is the subject of my film,” Godard said. For the rest of the decade, at the very least, it seems like Godard kept looking for that elusive missing something.