I can't quite imagine how A Woman is a Woman was originally received by audiences. This new wave nod to musicals is lively and spirited but still comes off as more of an intellectual prank film than as a movie per se.
It's cute and sassy to the extent that its actors feel comfortable mugging for the camera. Jean-Luc Godard's insistent style deconstructs every foot of film with jarring music cuts and other devices that keep us aware that we are watching actors in a movie. The film playfully refuses to become a real musical (there's no real dancing and only a pinch of singing), while Godard plays clever conceptual games with cutting and dialogue. A Woman is a Woman plays to a very specific audience - non-cinephiles won't last ten minutes.
It's in color and 'Scope and has a real script with real jokes in it; we're informed that Jean-Luc Godard used only an outline and started each day with freshly-written dialogue. The story is a cartoon situation without direction or logic but it plays like a movie anyway, kept aloft by virtue of the moment-to-moment charm of its actors and the kick of Raoul Coutard's eye-catching cinematography. Godard is quoted as trying for the spirit of Ernst Lubitsch and makes A Woman is a Woman into a light bon-bon of a film, new-wave style. It's more than enjoyable if we concentrate on the caprices of the pixieish Anna Karina and let everything else go. How's that different from any old Hollywood film that trades on the pleasure of spending time with Cary Grant or Ginger Rogers?
Godard's style is, was an will always be jarring, but to call it self-indulgent is short-sighted. A Woman is a Woman is an anti-musical the way Alphaville is an anti-thriller. In the sci-fi detective film we're cued for spaceships and fistfights but are instead given a freeway and actors striking static poses from action comics. In this film's first musical number, the leads announce their desire to be in a big splashy musical and then leap into action. The action consists of striking poses and shouting out the names of musical stars ("Gene Kelly!") while Michel Legrand provides stirring musical intros, warm-ups and stings that are never allowed to progress to an actual song or melody. Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy are as filled with verve and energy as the great talents in American musicals, but there's no performance content - the sequence gets along on a smile and a joke. It's odd, because it's uplifting anyway. Godard has delivered everything we expect to see and feel - except the actual musical performances.
Conventional musical comedies thrive on trivial romantic mixups and misunderstandings, which Ernst Lubitsch often weaved into satisfying romantic soufflés with nothing more complex than boy meets girl, or sentiments like, "The Son of a Gun is nothing but a tailor!" It's all in using the personalities of the actors and communicating feelings through the screen. Godard emulates this by starting with an absurd premise (Karina just decides to have a baby after looking at a magazine) and embellishing it with one piece of cute business after another. Reality is colorful Parisian streets and the silly striptease club where Anna works; Godard plays camera tricks to dress and undress the women in artificial ways - by stepping through a "magic doorway," for instance.
Essayist Hoberman reports that Godard described his film as not a musical but "an idea of a musical." As usual, Godard responds to literal questions with more poetry. Even though it's accurate, the answer doesn't tell us much.
It's possible in Alphaville to leap forward to Godard's intellectual punchline - to connect the dots and see that the undigested pulp of mad scientist, dictatorial computer and revenging secret agent are the stuff of our own anxieties and desires. A Woman is a Woman is far lighter, although I've read more than one essay claiming deep significance for its portrayal of the female at odds with society. On the third viewing, maybe ... and only after one has decided that Godard is doing more than pulling our leg for 84 minutes straight. To say that it's a challenging picture makes me wonder about how we respond to "challenging" movies. Something different and jarring is likely to be at least partially rejected at first. But if we're hooked by some aspect of the show - here, the irresistable Karina, or Godard's film jokes - we'll try harder to understand it. "Understanding" a new kind movie is often little more than accepting its conventions. Since A Woman is a Woman is made up of the same stuff as Gone with the Wind (personalities, motion, color, music), with a little effort we can join in with Godard's cinema hipster games.
So that's how we come to the image of crowds of Parisian art students or lines of American college students lining up to see A Woman is a Woman. It's really like any other movie. Half the crowd came along out of curiosity. Of those who claim to be hip to Godard's message, some actually respond to the Frenchman's cinema poetics and the rest may have read an artsy review. I think that Savant was in the latter category. I saw these films ten years after the fact, when they were already canonized by film professors. In my case, reading about them was an absolute requirement as I was unequipped to receive anything that didn't fit into my preconceived ideas of what a movie should be. I'm probably still like that to some degree. 1 The main defense of Godard, for those who question what the heck he's doing, is that the director's reflexive films legitimately explore what movies do. It's his private intellectual film genre, made of films that analyze their own structures.
Is A Woman is a Woman entertaining or fun? Well, I responded to Anna Karina and found myself accepting the film "reality" along with her; she bounces from situation to situation and deals with the non-sequitir jokes and visual puns just the way we do. She doesn't even try to maintain a mask of "character" and yet she's still fascinating. Godard may have been deconstructing cinema, but his movie hangs on star quality just like the most hollow Hollywood picture.
Jean-Claude Brialy must have more charm for those who understand French better than I; I feel as though I'm not receiving a full picture of his personality. Jean-Paul Belmondo has top billing but his performance is a jokey walk-through; interestingly, his big moment comes when he breaks the slight character he's given to address us directly, laughing at his own joke about Burt Lancaster. There's a shot in the movie of the marquee of an arthouse cinema showing Lancaster's Vera Cruz; I guess we can assume the Lancaster joke sprung from the fact that the western happened to be playing the week Godard was filming.
The proof of the pudding, as it were, in A Woman is a Woman is Karina's main song number. She's an unsteady singer and there's nothing remarkable about the filming, but her enticing attitude and the clever lyrics allow her to hook us the same way any screen siren does. Karina has something that pierces the screen and grabs us, and that's all that's really required.
Marie Dubois (Shoot the Piano Player) and Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim) both make cameo appearances. Moreau is even asked how Jules and Jim is coming along while standing at a bar, a cross-reference gag that was imitated in What's New Pussycat? and Casino Royale.
Criterion's DVD of A Woman is a Woman is the first time I've seen this crazy picture in a decent version. The color on the 16mm film school prints was fishy, and even when uncut and letterboxed on TCM the picture just wasn't clear enough. Raoul Coutard's photography pops and his color in the hazy Parisian streets has some very special qualities. Describing the film styles of cameramen is difficult and I'm probably not good at it, but Coutard's images look as if he'd magically stumbled onto perfect lighting effects, instead of worked at them.
The disc has some terrific extras. First up is Godard's first professional short subject All Boys are Called Patrick, a cute film from 1957 about a boy (Jean-Claude Brialy) who sets up dates with two girls who turn out to be roommates. Qui êtes-vous Anna Karina? is a 1966 TV interview with Karina, Brialy, and Serge Gainsbourg.
The galleries for the film include the expected stills and posters, and an interesting audio montage-presentation that Criterion has backed up with clever visual graphics that key in with the overall disc design. The fat insert booklet has a new essay by J. Hoberman, and a 1961 interview with Godard and Coutard.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Woman is a Woman rates:
1. Everybody has limits
of that kind ... I'm always interested in people who can't get into anything in B&W - a lot of
younger people fall into this category. Some have no patience for movies at all. I feel vaguely
offended until I realize how many people think I'm weird for having zero interest in most sports.