Une femme est une femme
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Rialto Pictures 35mm print
If Jacques Demy had been a sufferer of adult ADHD, he might have made a film very much like Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman is a Woman. Thank goodness, he was not. In essence Godard’s love letter to MGM musicals, French pop, the Comédie Française, Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living, and the copious charms of Anna Karina, the film is, above all, a tribute to himself.
The plot is very simple: Angela (Karina), a striptease artist, wants to have a baby. Her boyfriend Émile does not. Therefore, in order to get pregnant, she sleeps with her ex-boyfriend and Émile’s best friend Alfred. Oh, the hilarity! The film is meant to be a tribute to the lush Hollywood musicals of the 1950s (which apparently means name-dropping Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, and Bob Fosse, filming in color and ‘scope, but not much else), but like Angela’s act, it’s just a big cocktease. The audience keeps waiting and waiting, scene after scene, for the characters to break into song, but they never do. Instead, we get a score by Michel Legrand and some French pop hits chopped up in that inimitable Godardian style. Listening to the stop-start judderings of the soundtrack is like being held hostage by a diabolical toddler armed with a fantastic record collection and a short-circuiting Close ‘n’ Play turntable. This is not helped by the incessant references to Godard’s own films as well as the oh-so-clever cameo appearance of Jeanne Moreau as herself in the midst of filming Jules et Jim.
When I was younger, I thought that Godard’s early films with their witty and ironic on-screen text, Nouvelle Vague in-jokes, youthful and vivacious performances, and seat-of-the-pants style were astonishing and fantastic. The older I get, the more irritating I find them, and the more lighthearted the film, the more grating it is. The unabashed cinephile in me still adores Godard as an unprecedented and greatly talented director and is rightly appalled at the crotchety way the cynical film reviewer with too much education in me squirms in his seat and looks at his watch every ten minutes every time he watches a Godard film. I cannot deny that this film has great moments. Who could not fall in love with Anna Karina with those snaggleteeth and that blue eye shadow, singing off-key? Who could not be amused when the two lovers, not speaking to each other, argue by holding up the titles of books to each other? But who would not be annoyed with a film that purports to be a musical when the only song heard in full is a Charles Aznavour 45 played on a jukebox as Karina sits and mopes. Where is the singing? Where is the dancing? Where are the showstoppers? Oh, I know, it is all part of Godard’s project to confound expectations and redefine the musical. That is all very clever, but it really just does not add up to much. Perhaps that was Godard’s intent in the first place. After a debut feature like A bout de souffle (Breathless), you have to avoid that sophomore slump. What better way to do it than with a film completely unlike the one that made you famous? Seeing as how he would go on to direct films with much darker themes (many of them so dire and earnest as to be unwatchable), I suppose I should count my blessings and be thankful for such a lighthearted romp. Still, watching it just makes me realize how much more fun I could be having watching a real musical or a real Lubitsch film instead of this limp Gallic simulation.
All in all, this is not a great film and is one that would likely have been a footnote in an otherwise notable career had Godard and Karina not followed up with their greatest collaboration a year later, Vivre sa Vie. Godard freaks will probably love it. God knows the woman sitting behind me in the theater thought it was hysterically funny. But you can give me Seven Brides for Seven Brothers over this any day.