Une Femme est Une Femme (1961): A Woman Is A Woman But Comedy Is Hardly Comic

Coming home to visit has put me behind on my “update the blog every day or two” mandate, but here we go. I will soldier on.

Watching Godard’s Une Femme est Une Femme was like watching Godard systematically satirize the conventions present in Hollywood romance, comedy or musical films. Through his direction, editing, performances, plot and even musical score, Godard puts his film to work sliding the veil of artifice from the face of the romance/musical/comedy genre of films.

Angela Impregnated by a Pillow BabyUne Femme est Une Femme brings Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy together in a romantic triangle in which Karina plays a stripper, Angela, who is in a relationship with Émile Récamier (Brialy) and wants to have a child; Émile does not want to have a child and the two get into a dispute over the issue. Angela threatens to have a child with the first man she sees and Émile reacts by calling for his friend Alfred Lubitsch (Belmondo) to come over and impregnate her. The remainder of the film consists of the push and pull of the romantic interests of the trio and how this situation plays out. In its bare elements the film reads as a conventional romantic comedy situation; however, it is in Godard’s manipulation of these elements, and the materials of the film medium, that the satire arises.

Immediately the viewer of the film is confronted by a very non-traditional film score; Godard employs arrangements that are saccharine or sweeping and completely adequate to provide emphasis or weight or levity in a romantic comedy. The musical cues in Une Femme, however, come at times completely slant to the situation on-screen and the conditioned expectation of the viewer who has been raised on the teet of the Hollywood formula for romance and comedy. The musical cues come in joyful during arguments, are conspicuous by their absence during tender moments and inappropriately soundtrack or accent the more mundane activities in the film. The sound editing of the film acts sympathetically with the score insofar as the background noise of the film will sometimes drop out, or one particular sound – such as footsteps – will be the only element heard.

Yup, light changesGodard’s visual editing strategy makes use of his usual jump-cut hallmarks, shots jump between one another sometimes with little connection but the kinetic energy of the scene – such as a scene in which Angela and Alfred strike various poses in an alley; my friend with whom I watched the film remarked that the editing style reminded him of Hard Day’s Night. Here the editing is markedly different from the elegant and direct editing of Hollywood romantic comedies and musicals, where transitions between shots are logical and a certain through-line of continuity is followed. Godard’s editing serves to deconstruct the conventions of comedy and romance in the same way that the score does.

The film embeds its satire of these genres within the design as much as in the way it is stitched together by Godard’s techniques. The lighting inside Angela and Émile’s apartment is the same light that appears in Angela’s place of employment, lens flare occurs within the domestic setting giving the viewer a visual cue that the interior and private space of these characters is completely constructed. Indeed, that Angela works as a stripper places her in the context of both creating and stripping away an appearance; Angela’s profession is emblematic of the play Godard enacts between conventional romantic comedies which build a contrived artifice for their plot to play out on, and his own film which seeks to expose those cinematic fallacies for their own inherently ridiculous and manipulative natures.

Godard’s film breaks the third wall, also, with the characters often pondering whether they are in a comedy or a tragedy and mugging directly into the camera; as a cinematic gesture this destroys the suspension of disbelief and the immersion in the story, removing the audience to a position acknowledging the createdness of the film they are watching and forcing them into a consciousness of it as a created thing, rather than an organic story. Godard even goes so far as to have Alfred at one point say that he is wants to watch Breathless, referencing his own film from the previous year. At other points characters reference both Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and Tirez Sur Le Pianiste, again drawing the audience out of the film they are currently watching by directing their attention toward other films.

Emile and Angela argueGodard also employs a colour scheme that he uses in other films – as well as on-screen text elsewhere in this film: one character will be clothed in red, one in blue and the third in white, or the red and blue will be foregrounded against a white wall or bed. I’ve always taken Godard’s proclivity to employ this colour pattern to be a way to mark his films as distinctly French, those colours being the colours of the French flag. Here, however, those colours also double as the colours of the American flag, so the film gains an ability to be related both to French and American cultures via the agency of the colour schemes relation to the flags. The film’s ability to loan itself to a reading as being a critique of American culture is necessary for the film’s satire to ring truly.

The solution at which Angela and Émile arrive provides a merely superficial remedy to the problem they confront; the actions taken by this pair provides a facade of a solution that glosses over, and further complicates, a deeply problematic situation. The resolution provided is indeterminate and as fabricated as the traditional romantic comedy fare that Godard criticizes with this film. Godard’s film arrives at an end point superficially less dramatic than Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, which he references, but equally as bleak when inspected. The two films share a very similar dramatic concern, but could not employ more disparate investigative measures.

AngelaGodard’s film reveals the artifice of the comedy, stripping away its layers of contrivance, manipulation, and, falsity to unearth the genre’s inextricable sibling relationship with tragedy; the characters are right to question which of the two genres they are moving in. While their situation may have reached a point of conclusion, the resulting ambiguity and confusion could easily slide into the realm of the tragic. The equation is simple: if tragedy plus time equals comedy than comedy minus time must equal tragedy. Une Femme Est Une Femme ends precisely at the logical intersection of these two equations where tragedy and comedy meet and shake hands before setting off into the night once more.

2 Responses to “Une Femme est Une Femme (1961): A Woman Is A Woman But Comedy Is Hardly Comic”
  1. Patrick Allen says:

    Godard’s satire of American musicals and romantic comedies ultimately comes to suffer from the same curse as its targets. Musicals and romantic comedies often feature whimsy and music for the sake of itself, creating a grandiose and colourful film that is hollow and lacking in something permanent. “A Woman is A Woman” is so packed with gimmicks, jokes and (literal) winks at the camera that it begins to resemble the churned-out, formulaic, American films it attempts to satirize. While his unique sound editing does, at times, lend humour or emotional weight, Godard’s technique quickly becomes gimmicky and self-indulgent.

    Too heavy-handed, the film buckles under its own weight and begins to resemble its target too closely to be truly effective satire, let alone a wholly pleasant film experience.

    P.S. I was wrong, “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) would’ve taken its cues from this film (1961) and not the other way around!

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  1. […] interesting companion piece to Godard‘s earlier Une Femme est Une Femme (1961), Contempt employs similar techniques to subvert and satirize the sweeping Hollywood action picture […]

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