Une Femme est une Femme (a.k.a. A Woman Is a Woman), 1961.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
This isn’t just any musical comedy. This is a Godardian musical comedy.
“Émile and Angéla’s greatest flaw is that ‘They wrongly believe there are no limits to their everlasting and reciprocal love.’”
These words are printed onscreen at one point during Une Femme est une Femme (A Woman is a Woman). Angéla (Anna Karina) and her lover Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy) are in a rare moment of agreement when it does. For the rest of the film, they bicker. They argue and they fight and they quarrel, seemingly without end in that specifically 60s kind of campiness.
Angéla wants to have a baby. When? Now, tonight. Don’t be ridiculous, is Émile’s main defence. There is no foreground or exposition to their relationship prior to this discussion, bar a frosty exchange of glares in a Parisian book shop. Godard presents these two characters to us as warring from the start, as though they have been at it since the dawn of time. Une Femme est une Femme is only the most recent battle in the eternal conflict of Man Vs. Woman.
Émile’s best friend, Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), complicates things. He insists that he’s madly in love with Angéla, sometimes even in Émile’s presence. Alfred pops up between the two when they storm off from one another, mischievously either trying to pick up girls with Émile, or charm Angéla into bed, like some enchanted Puck, toying with the emotions of these two mere mortals.
Alfred is a notorious namedropper, behaving with Jean-Luc Godard, the film’s director, like a couple of arrogant school boys. À bout de souffle, the pair’s first film together, plays on a television in the background at one point, Belmondo appearing on both screens. He suggests they all go to see a film that has just come out because “my pal Burt Lancaster is in it” – at which point he stares directly at the camera, pulling a grin cheesier than Brie.
However, the self-reflexivity is not limited to just one character. Both Émile and Angéla constantly break the fourth wall, directly addressing the camera or sharing with it a disdainful look. Before one of their fierce arguments, Angéla tells Émile that they should “bow before we act out our farce”. Both turn and bow to the camera, and then back again to face each other as though nothing happened. “Why don’t you love me!?” Angéla immediately reprises. It’s an explicit statement to the viewer of how we watch these characters’ torment as entertainment. It’s an odd position to be put in, but from the awkwardness, a self-realising laugh arises.
The film’s form itself joins in on the self-reflexivity. Essentially, Une Femme est une Femme is Godard’s parody of this musical genre. Dramatic music will underpin the most ordinary of exchanges, the humour being in the juxtaposition. “Would you like lamb?” Angéla enquires about Émile’s dinner for the night, accompanied by the grandest of orchestral scores usually reserved for Hollywood’s most emotional moments.
Godard tinkers with the soundtrack with the same mischievousness of his characters. A particular scene will begin normally enough, with dialogue, background noise and a musical score – but then everything will fall mute, then just diegetic sound, and then only the music. Like the stopping and starting of a traffic jam, you’re prevented from becoming involved in the narrative. Watching these scenes becomes a frustrating chore, but that’s Godard’s intent. You’d like to think it’s because of some majestic deconstruction of the use of music in film, revealing how a score can affect one’s perception of a scene, or perhaps a distancing example of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt to make you better understand the cinematic apparatus of which you are a part. More likely, however, it’s Godard’s childish side wanting to see how far he can annoy his audience, cheekily searching for a reaction or a storming out. There is something remarkably admirable about such playfulness, and, for me, it is his greatest trait.
“Why aren’t you sulking?”
“I’m not sulking so you won’t sulk.”
“I’ve finished sulking”
“My turn to sulk, then.”
The above exchange encapsulates the recurring narrative of Émile and Angéla’s relationship, as it does of most couple’s. The initial disagreement is over whether to have a child, but their arguments riff into countless other territories. It’s difficult to keep up with them, and you find yourself not knowing what they’re bickering about. But then again, maybe neither do they.
Yet their quarrelling does have a constant theme: who loves the other more? When you care for someone deeply, it is often easy to assume you love them far more than they do you. It creates a love deficit that is exercised and, hopefully, reassured by these disagreements over nothing. That’s why neither wants to give in, as both feel they should receive an apology; that both require reciprocation, a vindication, of their love. Arguments are a vital necessity in relationships.
Comedy or tragedy? the film constantly asks. Without the music and the campiness, it could easily be the latter. And that’s Une Femme est une Femme most astute insight: relationships are both.
365 Days, 100 Films