A Woman is a Woman

 (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1961) 84 minutes


Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: Georges de Beauregard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard, based
  on an idea by Geneviève Cluny
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Editors: Agnès Guillemot, Lila Herman
Music: Michel Legrand
Anna Karina (Angela)
Jean-Paul Belmondo (Alfred Lubitsch)
Jean-Claude Brialy (Emile Recamier)
Nicole Paquin (prostitute)
Marion Sarraut (2nd prostitute)
Marie Dubois (Suzanne)
Jeanne Moreau (woman in bar)

Reviews and notes

1961 Berlin
1964 New York
2006 Belgrade
2010 New Horizons (Poland)

Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman is A Woman remains one of the director's more accessible works. Never heavy-handed, the film defies genre-placement. This subversive musical celebrates female empowerment and takes sly jabs at Hollywood film conventions. Godard's use of music is at its best here, not to be rivaled until the impeccable, metallic soundscape of Alphaville. Godard pokes fun at film tropes such as the inconsequential supporting players when two detectives inexplicably invade the home of Angela (Anna Karina) and her boyfriend Emile (Jan-Clause Brialy). The film's absurd underpinnings are heightened by Emile's need to ride around his apartment on a bicycle. When he refuses to impregnate her, Anna turns to Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to do the job. Godard is a man who loves women but has never really understood them though you'd never know it from watching A Woman is A Woman. Angela's emotional turmoil is flatteringly complimented by Godard's formal yet airy compositions.
- Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine, 14 August 2001.

Une Femme est une Femme is unique among Godard's films in that it is completely and (almost) unequivocally light-hearted: not only a paean to Anna Karina at her most ravishingly beautiful, but to the cinema, its masters, its myths and its power of sleight-of-hand. At the drop of a hat, the characters will leap into the hieratic poses of a Hollywood musical; at the mention of Vera Cruz, Belmondo will grin a toothy Lancaster grin straight at the camera; and at a pinch, recalling lesser events, Brialy will solemnly light one cigarette with two matches. In general, the gags which seemed impossibly naive five years ago (the business with the tossed egg, for instance) still seem impossibly naive; but the freshness, the spontaneity, the ebullient use of colour as an enchanting toy, remain untarnished.

Dig a little deeper, and one comes down to a foundation in one of Godard's beloved contradictions: Angela may be a reductio ad absurdum of femininity in her single-minded desire to have a child, but she also denies this singleness by being an actress essaying as many roles as she can find time for, from striptease dancer to musical comedy heroine and lady of the camellias. But the paradox is tentatively handled, and if, in the light of Godard's later development, one has a criticism of the film, it is that Godard's attempts to impose some sort of reality on what is basically fantasy material do not really work. And in the later films the ambivalence of Godard's view of things already exists in the way he conceives his material: no one has to point the way by asking, as Belmondo does when invited to take Karina into the bathroom to give her a baby, 'Is this a tragedy or comedy?'.

The one exception is the remarkable sequence in the cafe, during which Alfred tries to convince Angela of his love and tells her the story of the girl who lost both her lovers, while she stares unbelievingly at a photograph of Emile with another woman, and the jukebox churns out a melancholy Aznavour song (Tu t'laisses alley). Here, in an as yet uncertain but unmistakably Godardian way, the contradiction between hope and love betrayed is demonstrated, not merely stated. -Tom Milne, Monthly Film Buttetin, May 1967.

Twenty-eight years after it was first released in France, Godard's Une Femme est une Femme is back in a sparkling new 35mm print (and new subtitles) struck from the original negative. Like many of Godard's 1960s works, it has effectively been out of distribution here for an entire generation - merely a title to those who were not around at the time or a fading memory to those who were. Love it or hate it, it is a crucial movie, made when the New Wave was still in its first flush of enthusiasm. It was Godard's third feature, his first in colour and scope, and one of his rare films to use studio interiors.

Seen again after all these years, it more than stands the test of time, looking fresher in many ways than Godard's Breathless (made only a year earlier). Perhaps it is the colour and scope; perhaps Godard's greater assurance. For its setting is the same - the Paris of juke boxes, Barclay discs with holes in the middle, endless Gitanes, cafes, polo necks, long scarves, and girls in bright jumpers. Aznavour croons on the soundtrack; the script is littered with in-jokes; Godard uses every trick in the book except reverse action (even including a scene where Karina forgets her lines and does a retake); and Belmondo looks as if he is making it up as he goes along. He may well have done; the dialogue, as usual, was still wet on the page when they were shooting.

Godard called it a "musical comedy without music" but it is more like a film that thinks it is a musical - or a parallel movie to a musical that was never made. There is plenty of music - Hollywood-like, opera-like, chanson-like (bleeding chunks of Michel Legrand flying around in al directions). When someone sings, the music stops. And all the time the dialogue sounds like a pastiche of some awful Broadway musical comedy. If it had not been made three years earlier, Une Femme est une Femme could almost be taken as a send-up of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.

It is a glorious mish-mash. The clues are in the opening titles between the technicians' names - il etait une fois (fairytale), Rene Clement's Quatorze juillet, Comedie Frangaise, Lubitsch, musical, theatre, opera, feelings... where Godard's movies once seemed impenetrable, they now seem crystal clear: strip away the jokes, the verbiage, the word-games, and his 1960s films come up as plain old-fashioned love stories. Or as Brialy says to the camera at one point: "I'm not sure whether this is a comedy or a tragedy; but it's definitely a masterpiece."

The whole film is a musical poem to Godard's love of the time. Anna Karina, the 20year-old Danish ex-model was his original choice for the Jean Seberg role in Breathless but she turned him down; she later went on to make over half a dozen pictures with him, of which Une Femme was the second. She never looked better or more joyous. One can see why this was Godard's favourite of his early batch - and why in his book Godard par Godard he calls this whole period (1960-67) Les annees Karina. With this under your belt you'll be ready for Anna and Jean-Paul in Pierrot le Fou next year.
- Derek Elley, Films and Filming, October 1989.

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