Features and Columns · Movies

Criterion Files #238: Godard Gets Musical with ‘A Woman is a Woman’

By  · Published on April 13th, 2011

Welcome to the second installment of Guest Author month at Criterion Files: a month devoted to important classic and contemporary bloggers. Each Wednesday for the month of April, a writer and fellow Criterion aficionado from another site will be giving their own take one one of the collection’s beloved titles. This week, Joshua Brunsting, writer for CriterionCast and Gordon and the Whale, takes on Jean-Luc Godard’s beloved musical, A Woman is a Woman. Tune in every week this month for an analysis of a different title from a new author.

Sometimes, the splash a filmmaker makes with his or her first feature ultimately breeds a wave too harsh to ride as a career living up to the beginning.

While everyone and their mother points to a film like Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature, Breathless, as the (in my eyes definitive) auteur’s crowning achievement, it’s almost as common to hear the director discussed as a filmmaker of diminishing returns.

However, while his debut is for all intents and purposes a brilliant, all-time classic, it’s not until his third feature, the neo-musical fever dream known as A Woman Is A Woman, that one truly gets a hold of what kind of filmmaker Godard, in all of his feverish style, truly is.

Starring a trio of fantastic thespians – Godard staple Jean-Paul Belmondo, Godard’s muse Anna Karina, and French New Wave star Jean-Claude Brialy – Woman follows the story of Angela, a sweet and caring exotic dancer, who is not only torn between two men, but also by the fact that she’s trying to have a child with her current beau, Brialy’s Emile. Told through the lens of what Godard has described as “the
idea of a musical” A Woman Is A Woman is both unlike anything the director had done prior, and the crowning achievement of what he has done in his post-Breathless career.

Lights, Camera, Action

From the very outset, the viewer is told that the film, like it’s main character, is wholly rooted in being self-conscious. The film itself plays with not only tropes of films within the medium, but ultimately with the audience as a whole. Not afraid to shatter the fourth wall, Godard almost, in a way, doesn’t believe that the fourth wall exists. Putting the words “Lights, Camera, Action,” at the start of the film plays more like a command than a proclamation. With a style both cinematic in its nature and also very verite, A Woman Is A Woman has a feel of something more along the lines of a Godard-directed documentary – as if the filmmaker, and more so the audience, is right there in the room with these

Personified in a pair of brief moments consisting of a panning camera and subtitles, the film feels narrative in many ways, but also has a distinctly verite feel to it, something rooted deeply in Godard films, prior and post (particularly in his later career, in a film like Le Gai Saviour, one of his most experimental). Almost as if we are privy to being on a set visit during the shooting of the film in many ways.

The Auteur’s Auteur

While that word may be tossed around like a baseball these days, the concept of being an auteur may not be better cinematically personified than within Godard, The French New Wave, and particularly A Woman Is A Woman.

Featuring various in-jokes from other New Wave features (I’m thinking of one particular joke mentioning Shoot The Piano Player), Godard in this film, maybe better than in any other piece of his canon, proves that he is to the world of cinema what Pop Art was to the classical art world. Taking various queues from films or entire genres, A Woman Is A Woman is stylistically wholly rooted in the style of Godard’s canon, and also conceptually inspired by specific portions of cinema. Taking these inspirations, one ultimately discovers (as proven in one particular scene between Belmondo and two sunglasses-wearing Breathless wannabes) that this director has taken his knowledge, and is now inspired by nothing more than himself. An auteur’s auteur.

A Musical Is A Musical

A Woman Is A Woman may not ultimately look, taste, or smell like a musical, but it is still very much exactly that. Inherently a whimsical and fully alive piece of comedic cinema, the film holds the same sentiments as any classical music from that era. Featuring charming performances from the full trio of actors, the film is ultimately the sweetest of Godard’s features. Not without its dark humor and social commentary, the film places those ideas on the back burner, focusing on bringing the viewer color, comedy through music (be it musical cues, or the like), and most importantly, a truly moving romantic triangle which ultimately has its story told through these musically tinged moments.

Oh, and a great score ultimately helps as well.

Featuring music penned by iconic composer Michel Legrand, the film may lack in moments of heartfelt singing or multi-person dance sequences, but what it does have is heart. Heart the likes only Godard could craft. Oozing this sense of melancholy, the film has a simple premise, but is ultimately told through a style not only influenced by musicals of years prior, but one that does away with the oft-cliché artifice, and sticks to the conceptual skeleton.

I Think I Exist

However, unlike much of the rest of Godard’s canon, a deep discussion is not ultimately what this film attempts to spark. While it does have a lot to say, particularly when it comes to women and womanhood as a whole, it’s also just a viscerally enjoyable film. Featuring a cavalcade of stunning shots, this is in many ways the director’s most interesting film visually and directorially. Also, while they may not be as transcendent or era-defining as some of the performances Godard would be given before or after, they are still absolutely enjoyable. Karina is a special kind of beautiful in A Woman Is A Woman, both in an aesthetic way, but also charismatically. The viewer truly can’t take their eyes off her, because of both her indescribable good looks, but also because she’s simply so damn charming. Both Belmondo and Brialy are equally as charming, but in a very Godard-ian, conceptually masculine way.

Overall, while he may be best known for a film like Breathless (a better film in my eyes) or A Band Of Outsiders, it’s A Woman Is A Woman that proves to be the director’s most distinct and singular. Admittedly, the film is currently out of print in its Criterion Collection form, but if you can hunt this sucker down, you truly should. A perfect combination of Godard’s style, passion for cinema, and thematic elements, A Woman Is A Woman is an in your face fever dream of a musical, that does away with the cartoonish aspects of the genre, and just gives the viewer something far more pure. Full of sweet sadness, the film is Godard at his most artistic; his most vibrant; his best.

When Josh Brunsting isn’t busy singing “Chanson d’Angela” or having silent lovers’ quarrels by obscuring book titles, he lends his insightful musings to CriterionCast and Gordon and the Whale. You can, and should, follow him on twitter @isavedlatin89.

Let more Criterion Files sing their way into your heart

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