For a film that opens with the words “il était un fois” (“once upon a time”) in enormous letters, Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman (1961) has a premise that may sound a tad sordid: Angela (Anna Karina), a stripper, wants to have a baby, but her boyfriend, Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), isn’t interested in becoming a father anytime soon. Unwilling to give up the idea, she threatens to turn to his friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who’s in love with her but whom she’s always brushed off up until this point. “Is this a comedy or a tragedy?” Alfred asks.
The answer to that isn’t entirely clear. “Before acting out our little farce, we bow to the audience,” Angela instructs Émile when the baby issue first arises, and they do just that — one of the many examples of the fourth-wall breaking that occurs throughout A Woman Is a Woman. There’s a decidedly farcical feeling to much of the film, a sense that Godard and company are simply having fun with the craft of movie-making and with the audience’s expectations. For example, although the word “musical” flashes by during the opening credits, and Michel Legrand’s score keeps breaking in — almost drowning out the dialogue in at least one instance — it always stops just as abruptly, so much so that it often seems as if something has gone wrong with the audio. Even during Angela’s discreetly-shot striptease routines, the film’s only real musical performances, the instrumental accompaniment cuts out unexpectedly quite a few times. Godard told L’Express that the plot was “an excellent subject for a comedy à la Lubitsch,” which helps to explain the pseudo-musical nature of it. (Lubitsch also happens to be Alfred’s last name.)
Playfulness abounds, even in the drudgery of cooking and cleaning. Angela and Émile fight via book titles when they aren’t speaking to each other; she and Alfred have a contest on the street to see whether they can match each other’s poses; the two men try to impress her, Alfred by shadowboxing and Émile by impersonating a chicken and producing an egg from his pocket. Godard gets self-referential when Alfred wants to watch Breathless (1960) on television (Belmondo had starred in the film, Godard’s first feature), then throws in a couple of nods to his friend François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Jules and Jim (not released until 1962, the year after A Woman Is a Woman). However, there are more serious elements too, mentions of job loss and financial difficulties, of hospitalization and terrorists throwing bombs, and even the main story, despite its anything goes, often downright silly surface, has an underlying sadness to it. “It’s because they’re in love that everything will go wrong for Angela and Émile, who mistakenly believe they can go too far because of their mutual and undying love,” a piece of on-screen text — itself a rather comical touch — explains.
As this suggests, it’s very much a love-it-or-hate-it sort of movie, doubtless as irritating to some viewers as it is amusing to others. For those who enjoy it, one of its key strengths is the cast, full of youthful exuberance and the sensitivity necessary to carry the more emotional moments, and all iconic faces of the French New Wave. Belmondo, as previously mentioned, had become a star the year before in Breathless, Brialy seems to pop up everywhere in the films of the nouvelle vague, and Karina, soon to become Godard’s wife, would also become his greatest muse throughout the early to mid-1960s. Seeing them play off one other, in jest and in earnest, and seeing Godard have fun at the same time, can be a real treat.
Comedy or tragedy? Either way, or somewhere in between the two extremes, A Woman Is a Woman is one of a kind.
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