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Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 pop-art essay-collage Two or Three Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle) marks the beginning of the director's move away from genre parodies and New Wave "fun" filmmaking. Playing almost exclusively to his select audience, Godard retained his experimental edge even as most of the rest of the Nouvelle Vague adapted to more mainstream forms. Two or Three Things continues Godard's mission to subvert conventional film conventions.
Godard expresses a strong central concern in Two or Three Things I Know About Her. Paris -- the "her" of the title -- is undergoing a consumerist reconstruction redirected in the interests not of its citizens, but of corporations. The show begins with the director's whispered comments heard over images of new freeways and high-rise apartments. Godard asserts that many tenants in these new buildings can't afford the consumer lifestyle set as the norm for the progressive "new Paris". The film takes as its inspiration a magazine article about housewives who compensate for the inability to balance their budgets by prostituting themselves while their husbands are at work. Godard proposes that the women make this choice in order to gratify needs created by advertising. In his view, people work not because they like their jobs, but to afford the false securities offered by the new material culture. The film is an essay-documentary version of the pulp fantasy of Godard's Alphaville: the "brainwashing" of advertising images is robbing Parisians of their souls.
The surface of Two or Three Things is pure visual pop art. Godard's cinematographer-collaborator Raoul Coutard delivers candy-colored Techniscope images dominated by advertising signs and graphics; the compositions turn Paris into a moving set of comic book panels. The one narrative through-line follows a housewife (Marina Vlady) who drops her child off at day care, in an apartment that doubles as a brothel. She shops for clothing before settling in at a café. She joins other women, including a friend, who are waiting to be picked up by customers. A pimp offers his services for only a 10% fee. In the evening she comes home to her happy family. Her unambitious husband is impressed by her ability to cope with the cost of living on his mediocre salary.
Two or Three Things is like an attractive slide-show lecture and poetry recital. Jean-Luc Godard's main emphasis is on communicating his philosophy and political views, some of which come through his whispered narration. A prospective John in the café stares into the swirls of his cup of espresso while Godard's feathery voice recites poetry about lost values and brotherhood. The narration continues over arresting but unconnected images of high-rise construction, the workings of a car wash, and repetitious images of his main actress walking through the Paris streets.
Godard minimizes the contribution of conventional acting. Marina Vlady is given a double introduction, as herself and as the fictional housewife Juliette Jeanson: the director thus asserting that he makes no distinction between the two. Vlady and several other actresses (Anny Duperey, Juliet Berto) are fitted with earphones so that Godard can feed them their dialogue lines. The women talk in measured tones, their speeches punctuated by gaps while they listen for the next phrase to recite. The performers are little more than puppets for more directorial messages. Godard might reason that all directors do this to some degree, but the actors of Two or Three Things I Know About Her are virtual robots, like the ant-citizens of, again, Alphaville that require the guidance of a dictatorial computer simply to function. The film's only "real" performance is from the four year-old who plays Juliette's daughter. When she cries, it's her crying and not Godard.
Martine Vlady recites her lines in a serene manner while striking a variety of artificial poses. We react as Godard wishes us to, admiring her beauty while contemplating the degree to which she is herself, an actress, or a fictional character. The Juliette Jeanson character interacts with Godard's anti-Vietnam War theme when she and another beauty arrive at the hotel room of an American called John Bogus (Raoul Lévy, one of the producers). Bogus films them (with a light meter!) before directing them to perform his personal perversion: walking around naked wearing airport flight bags over their heads. It matters not to Godard that John Bogus speaks both English and French with a French accent. The scene is inter-cut with images of the faces of peasants being mistreated in Vietnam.
Other encounters and discussions are just as cryptic. Godard is indeed subverting commercial cinema, but his prostitution theme is at least partially an exploitation hook as well. Juliette's husband recites an anti-Vietnam War speech that he supposedly hears on his shortwave radio set. Another bored woman refuses to discuss her sex organs with a man in the café; they barely look at one another. In an allusion to a classic French novel, two academics read brief quotes at random from stacks of books. But each book appears to have a director-inserted note, ready to read.
Godard is against the remolding of Paris into a consumer-driven metropolis, and drives his message home in a manner that mocks the advertising he loathes. A final scene shows an array of colorful household products arrayed on a scrappy patch of lawn. The shot resembles an aerial view of skyscrapers that are also boxes of laundry soap and toothpaste. It is one of many potent images in Godard's interesting pop collage.
Engaging, titillating and frequently frustrating, Two or Three Things I Know About Her is intellectually and politically complex. Critics often debate the transition from Godard's early light-hearted pictures with their vivid characters, to his later political films that sometimes come across as excessively didactic -- Tout va bien, for one. The real change came when the famed director lost interest in his characters for their own sake.
Criterion's DVD of Two or Three Things I Know About Her will likely give Jean-Luc Godard's niche-market art film an larger audience than it found when new. The enhanced color transfer is beautiful in every respect. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard gives the entire show a Kodachrome-like look, even when Godard insists on filming his actress against strong backlight, without fill.
Film scholar Adrian Martin provides an informative commentary that covers production and historical details as well as various academic approaches to the film. A "Concordance" featurette catalogues the film's cultural, political and filmic references, right down to Godard's many literary quotes. Two French television excerpts tap prime sources. Marina Vlady speaks about Godard's unusual directorial method on a break from the filming. Godard engages in an insightful mini-debate with a "civic futurist", a profession that he's is quick to say he'd never heard of. Godard collaborator and theater manager Antoine Bourseiller contributes an insightful new interview about his old friend. When Godard later dedicated his work to Maoist ideals, he dropped many associates like Bourseiller as part of a past "that must be abolished".
An interesting original trailer (it's completely silent) is included, along with an insert booklet essay by Amy Taubin and the original letter from a Parisian housewife who identified herself as one of those opting for prostitution to support her family's suburban lifestyle.
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