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A WOMAN IS A WOMAN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Audio: French 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Early short film, 1966 interview excerpts, publicity gallery, audio recording, booklet
Length: 84 minutes
Release Date: June 22, 2004

"Pardon me, sir, but would you like to get this young lady pregnant?"

Film *** 1/2

Two directors are generally credited with popularizing the French New Wave during the late 1950's.  One was François Truffaut with Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959).  The other was maverick filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard with Breathless (1959).  Godard was not quite the most innovative of the New Wave directors (that honor must go to Alain Resnais for Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad), but Godard was certainly the most controversial and the most willing to challenge any movie-making convention.  Godard's early films were truly bold and truly daring, sometimes utterly ignoring the time-honored conventions of film structure to re-invent the cinematic language itself as Godard saw fit for his current projects.

Take, for example, Godard's Une Femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961).  Following upon the heels of Godard's Le petit soldat, which initially had been banned outright in France for its political content concerning the Algerian War, A Woman is a Woman was Godard's re-interpretation of the Hollywood musical.  While the film generally followed the narrative pattern and structure of a musical, it was in actuality not really a musical at all.  Rather it was, to paraphrase Godard himself, "the idea of a musical."

Godard took the whimsical fantasy world of the musical and envisioned it through the stylizations of cinéma vérité.  Working without a pre-established script, he shot his scenes along the streets, sometimes with hidden cameras to capture the reactions of real pedestrians.  Even apartment scenes were filmed on a set that was an exact replication of an actual apartment (complete with ceiling and locking doors).  As for the soundtrack, Godard utterly dissected it, recording for the first time ever in direct sound with ambient background noise.  Interspersed randomly between the lines of dialogue were bursts and fits of music, sometimes reactionary to the dialogue, sometimes setting a certain tone for the overall scene.  Many times, actors seemed almost on the verge of bursting out into song, but of course, they never did.  The frequent bursts of music established an almost comical tone to the film (Godard had in fact even employed a cartoonist to interpret some scenes in gag form for the film). 

Not surprisingly, the main story centered around a young dancer who dreams of starring in a musical comedy, Angéla (Karina).  She is, in fact, the only character who sings a song in the entire film (all the other "numbers" are mostly incidental music, heard either from radio, jukebox, or even a soccer broadcast).  Angéla's song itself is practically an after-thought, as she is barely audible, with the visual aspects of her performance overwhelming the actual lyrical content of the song.

That, in short, is a good summarization of the film's tone - Godard was attempting to channel the vibrancy and essence of a musical into a non-musical.  He infused a great deal of visual creativity into his film and maintained a strong sense of energy and motion through his rapid editing, cross-cutting, and rather schizophrenic soundtrack.  The result was an exciting, if sometimes chaotic, smorgasbord of sound and images.

A Woman is a Woman even begins with flashing color globes reminiscent of neon signs and Broadway strobe lights.  But then, we move to the central conflict in the tale - Angéla is filled with a sudden desire to bear a child.  When Emile (Brialy), her current boyfriend, proves reluctant to participate in any baby-making, Angéla searches for her solution in another man, Alfred (Belmondo), who is coincidentally Emile's best friend.  It is, in fact, Emile's very own idea, as he does not feel Angéla will carry out her bluff.  Some sexual tension eventually arise within this menage à trois, but in the end, all's well that ends well, Angéla and Emile are back together, and Angéla gets her wish after all.

The essential story is thus quite simple and uncomplicated.  The film's true innovation comes from Godard's directorial style.  Using an improvisational style that he likened to automatic writing, Godard shot the film quickly over a matter of weeks with only a film treatment and without a single word of written dialogue.  Godard wanted "everything to be constantly unstable."

And so, the dialogue is filled with unexpected twists and turns.  A goofy disagreement between Angéla and Emile disintegrates into a contest to see who can roll their R's better.  Another argument between the couple is communicated as the two compare the titles of various books lying about the apartment to one another.  Angéla settles upon a pantomime contest between Emile and Alfred to determine who will get to take her out for the evening.

The film does not take itself too seriously, either, and seems to acknowledge a self-awareness of its own staged entertainment.  There are frequent allusions to other New Wave films, such as Shoot the Piano Player, Godard's own Breathless, and Jules et Jim.  The characters wink at the audience and even address us several times, as though to suggest that the borders between where the theater ends and where life begins is not so distinct.  Perhaps this was Godard's intention in his contradictory quest to create his "neorealist musical."

A Woman is a Woman stars Anna Karina in her breakthrough performance.  As Angéla, a young and refreshing Karina practically bubbles over with cuteness.  She provides much of the life and allure of the film; when the film was shown at the Berlin Film Festival, Karina was even honored with a special award for most promising young actress.  A Woman is a Woman would jumpstart her budding acting career, during which she would star in several more Godard films and establish herself as one of the most popular French actresses of the 1960's (not to mention Godard's eventual wife).

A Woman is a Woman not only firmly established Godard's reputation as a major French director but also spotlighted his willingness to find new solutions to old cinematic conventions.  Over forty years since helping to usher in the New Wave, Godard is still creating new films.  He has proven to be the one of the most prolific and durable of the New Wave directors.  Let us hope that he still has the vision to bring fresh ideas into the cinematic world for years to come.

Video *** 1/2

A Woman is a Woman is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format.  The picture quality is generally quite sharp and colorful, as might be expected for a "musical."  The film does occasionally show its age, though, with some specks, age spots and some fluctuation of the color emulsion here and there.

Godard also seems to have deliberately aimed for a natural, non-glossy look.  There is occasional lens flare appearing from time to time (from on/off-camera light sources).  The rapid editing and a constantly-moving camera lend an aura of spontaneity to the film but can be exhausting at times.

Audio ***

The film's audio is all over the place, and Godard is not afraid to ignore the rules of soundtrack conventions.  During the early course of the film, the soundtrack alternately jumps between ambience noise (traffic, crowds, footsteps, etc), silence, random dialogue, and brief clips of music or song.  No sound is allowed to linger for more than a few seconds at a time, which may be somewhat disorienting to the listener.  The film is clearly an exercise in Godard's disdain for post-dubbing or other measures used to clean up the soundtrack.

For A Woman is a Woman, the sound was regularly recorded on the streets, so background noise does at times obscure the dialogue (happily, not a problem with subtitles turned on).  This "flaw" nevertheless coincided with Godard's stress upon the reality and natural texture of the scenes, and if the dialogue was occasionally drowned out, then so be it.  Ironically, this haphazard style suits the film well and infuses it with energy and vitality.  I should point out however that the musical excerpts are occasionally mixed significantly louder than the dialogue, which may leave some listeners struggling to find a happy balance.

The film's musical score was written by Michel Legrand.  This composer should be familiar to fans of French cinema, as he has contributed to many New Wave films, perhaps most  famously Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).

On a final note, the audio is in French monaural with subtitles, but since a great deal of the French dialogue is colloquial, it doesn't always translate quite readily into English.  This can be seen in a number of scenes, including the play-on-words that concludes the film:

Emile: "Tu es infâme."

Angela:  "Non, je suis une femme."

Features *** 1/2

Criterion evidently had a bit of fun designing the presentation of this DVD.  The menu screens emulate a sort of Broadway spotlight glitter, supported by peppy French bar tunes sung in the background.  All the extras can be found in the section entitled "Lights, Camera, Action!"

The most notable feature is Charlotte et Véronique, or Tous les garcons s'appellent Patrick (All Boys are Called Patrick), a short film (21 min.) by Godard from 1957.  Written by fellow New Wave director Eric Rohmer and shot by Godard while he was still a critic for the film journal cahiers du cinéma, this short film starred Jean-Claude Brialy, Anne Colette, and Nicole Berger.  It focused upon a day in the life of two young French women who are roommates.  Each meets a persistent but friendly man in the park named Patrick.  Only later, after they compare their Patricks (and see him with another woman) do they realize they have both encountered the same pick-up artist.  The short film's fast pacing (rapid editing and progressively sped-up projection speed) and musical backdrop can almost be seen as a test run for Godard's later "musical" efforts, including A Woman is a Woman.

Qui etes-vous Anna Karina? (13 min.) offers interview excerpts from an April 23, 1966 television broadcast.  Focusing mainly on Anna Karina, these clips describe Karina's initial arrival in Paris, her early modeling career, and her start in the cinema.  We also see Karina in some moments of playfulness, whether putting around in mini-golf or relaxing with A Woman is a Woman co-star Brialy.

Next, there is a promotional section with numerous stills and posters.  A photo gallery (60 photographs) shows the stars on the set during production.  Behind the scenes (10) shows Godard on the set as well.  The international posters (39) section contains publicity artwork from the 1960's to the recent 2003 American re-release of the film. 

The promotional section is rounded out by a provocative trailer that includes narration from Godard himself.

There is an interesting promotional audio recording (33 min.) included on the disc.  Narrated by Godard, it describes the film and Godard's theory behind the film's interpretation of the relationship between cinema and music.  This audio recording was originally released on a small pressing of 10" vinyl records.  Criterion presents it here accompanied by a visual burst of kaleidoscopic colors and inventively-displayed English translation in red, white, and blue hues.  Contained within the recording is a more musical version of the song that Karina sings in the film as well as numerous sound clips from the film.

Finally, there is the fantastic 24-page booklet included with this DVD.  It contains a new essay by film critic J. Hoberman as well as interview excerpts from 1961 with Godard and Coutard about the film.  Interspersed among the many pages of text are numerous snapshots and publicity stills from the film.  The overall design of the booklet matches the 60's-chic design of the DVD's menu screens (and the audio recording visualizations, too), so overall this is a fairly attractive booklet.

Summary:

Godard cemented his stature as a maverick New Wave filmmaker with films like A Woman is a Woman.  In part a tribute to the American musical genre, this charming, whimsical film displays Godard's typical inventiveness and willingness to bend the rules of moviemaking.  If genre-defying musicals such as Cabaret, All That Jazz, or Moulin Rouge are your cup of tea, check out this celebrated New Wave film, which retains its freshness even decades after its initial release.