More so even than Les Carabiniers, which at holds holds the distinction of being so unlike the rest of Jean-Luc Godard's '60s output, Une Femme Mariée has since become lost in the shuffle. When I went to its Wikipedia page to check the spelling for actors' names and such, I found only a brief lead classifying the film as Godard's eight feature and but one link, to its IMDb page. Indeed, Google searches of the titles of Godard's early films (not a particularly scientific method, particularly given the simple titles of his movies) reveal a wide disparity from Contempt and Breathless, which boast millions of hits even when written in their native form, and the less than 500,000 afforded to A Married Woman.
Why is this the case? I could point to its relatively subdued cool, something it shares with Les Carabiniers, but that would suggest that the film is, like Godard's first misfire, dull and muddied. Truthfully, it's an emotionally engaging picture, albeit in a way wholly unlike the charm of Band of Outsiders. The logical response for the film's relegation to the fringe of Godard's legendary early output is that it marks a transition point from the chic of his early films to something altogether more difficult. Contempt, of course, was a noteworthy piece of self-criticism concerning his increasing popularity and what it meant for his art, but Une Femme Mariée actually moves beyond it.
Well, in a manner of speaking. It marks a philosophical shift in Godard's writing from the existentialist importance placed on the individual propounded by Sartre in postwar France to the structuralism that was replacing it. So, in a way, Godard's film breaks from his own cool and modernity by actually following a contemporary trend. Structuralism conflicts directly with Sartre's philosophy, suggesting that human freedom is a myth and that we are all governed by social institutions and norms, even ones that we do not openly identify. I noted the juxtaposition of the "Liberté" and "Sorties" signs in Bande à part, and I might -- if I might be allowed to toot my own horn ever so slightly -- have been onto something.
Godard communicates this shift in the opening moments, with synecdochical shots that introduce the titular character, Charlotte (Macha Meril). We see her hand (and the wedding ring on her finger) as cryptic dialogue plays over the image. Then a male hand enters the frame and grabs her wrist. It's her lover, Robert, an actor who worked with Roberto Rossellini. We see Charlotte as he does, through close-ups of her feminine features: her delicate wrists, her legs, her tight abdomen. Only when she walks around naked do we see her in full.
The actor views her as a sexual object, and thus our focus is drawn --as much as one can with censors breathing down your neck -- to the parts that stimulate the imagination (among other things). Charlotte worries that there's no real love in their relationship, only sex; at one point she pauses in a fairly bawdy reflection and asks, "Is it love when it's from behind?" Later, she discusses sex with an older friend, who details a horrific session with a fat, abusive man before staring wistfully into nothingness and remarking, "Ah, love." Is that woman simply kinky, or is she indicative of what Charlotte might become if she continues to allow herself to be seen in such a fashion by her lover?
And this is just her dilemma with the second man in her life. Her husband, Pierre, objectifies her in a different, even more insidious, way. Rather than simply view her as a sexual outlet, he equates her with all material objects, something that came with the ring. He's (justifiably) suspicious of her, but he takes out his frustrations violently. He brings back some records from Germany and cares more for their well-being than hers, threatening to beat her for playing them. He even rapes her when she doesn't feel like sleeping with him, which, perverse as it sounds, is actually quite progressive. I've talked with people today (including women) who still can't grasp that a woman isn't obliged to have sex with her husband when he wants it, and the idea of Godard so brazenly placing it in a film set before the sexual revolution goes a long way toward dispelling my previous assessment of his sexism.
Although, I suppose you could argue that the rest of film, particularly its portrayal of Charlotte, could be sexist or at least paternalistic. She comes to see herself as the object her men see when they look at her, and she spends much of the film obsessing over snake oil products designed to create "the perfect bust." Ads of women in bras fill the screen, always telling Charlotte that she isn't good enough, but could be, if only she bought this special item that would make her breasts larger. In one deliciously wry shot, she stands in front of an ad, framed on either side by the model's boobs. Why Charlotte would care so much about her bust size remains a mystery. She's already netted two men; clearly she doesn't need much help.
But her obsession reflects Godard's larger structuring of the film around Marxist commodity fetishism. Her designation as an object, be it material or sexual, for men to use as they see fit reveals the effect of capitalism on postwar France. One of the records that Charlotte plays against her husband's wishes is titled "How to Strip for Your Husband," an indication that romance has become something to be sold to people. Near the end of the film, Godard places the sound of a female airport announcer over some scenes, which reminded me somewhat of a recurring motif in Frank Zappa's triple-LP Joe's Garage, in which the conformity and dehumanization of the world is signified by the constant repetition of "The white zone is for loading and unloading." But the most troubling, piercing moment comes as Charlotte sits in a café, gently eavesdropping on the conversation of two young women, one of whom counsels the other in the loss of virginity. Charlotte had previously been flipping through yet more advertisements promoting a standard of beauty, and fragments of her own thoughts appear in text on the screen as the ladies talk about what will happen, the foreplay and the actual act, and we see that Charlotte isn't the only one whose thoughts have been broken up and simplified by the unchecked influence of capitalism: all women, it seems, are doomed to enter into a life of objectification.
What about the men, then? Are they affected too? I would venture to say that, while Godard does not spend as much time with them, he hardly lets them off the hook. Yes, Charlotte is vacuous. Her asinine comment that follows a tasteless Holocaust joke (are there any tasteful Holocaust jokes?) reveals her ignorance, and her voice-overs are every bit as incoherent and childish as the things she actually says. But she is a product of the capitalist industry, an advertising blitz meant to distract France from its complicity with the Nazis in WWII, its attempts to stop Vietnamese independence and its then-current war against Algeria for the same reason. Instead of owning up to their options, the French were instructed to buy, buy, buy, something that persisted in America during Reagan and Bush II's reigns. But the men are molded by this too: misogyny predates Madison Avenue by, oh, however far back humanity stretches, but this commodification of it does not simply accept sexism as inherent but promotes it as an ideal. How many of you have ever looked over an old periodical in a library and seen ads from the '50s openly delegating the role of women to that of submissive housewife? Hell, just last weekend, a Super Bowl advertisement paid for by Dodge (the makers of the ram, named for the male sheep that symbolizes force and virility) that sold its Charger as the last bastion of masculinity in a world run by shrieking harpies -- and that was one of many openly sexist ads on display.
Perhaps Une Femme Mariée was Godard's way of dealing with his crumbling marriage and the knowledge that Anna Karina had begun a relationship with someone else -- and some aspect of this no doubt influence the basic love triangle setup -- but I hardly think he was concerned only with his personal life by casting the husband as a vile, objectifying rapist. If he was, he certainly blamed himself for their marriage even more than he did in Contempt. I would say that the politics and philosophy takes center-stage, however. Godard fashions his film into a structuralist critique, focusing on the parts that make up Charlotte and even fragmenting the story into chapters of a larger whole (the film's subtitle is Suite de fragments d'un film tourné en 1964). Even his use of photo-negative shots comments on his new outlook, returning the film stock to its look before proper copying and treatment.
Earlier I mentioned that Une Femme Mariée was one of Godard's more emotional films, which might strike those who've seen it as odd. It's a disconnected feature, not simply because of its divided structure but its stern approach to its openly repulsive characters. It's far more experimental than the formalism on display in the director's previous two features and positions the characters even more so as stand-ins for Godard's philosophical and personal musings. But he also employs numerous close-ups, not only of Meril's various body parts but of her face and the pain in her eyes as she deals with her overbearing men. She takes out her frustrations by doodling the name of romantic poet/filmmaker Jean Cocteau on the wall of her house and by denying the past. By living solely in the present, she says, she stays ignorant but she is not haunted by the knowledge that she did something wrong. "The present keeps me from madness," she tells her husband, who can only dwell on the past discovery of his wife's infidelity. Despite Charlotte's ignorance, she begins to assert herself at the end, asking tough questions of Robert to see whether he is acting when he's with her; he answers well but does not convince her, and the film ends with a pregnant Charlotte deciding that neither he nor Pierre are worthy of helping to raise this second child. Godard may force these characters to sleep in the beds that they've made, but he stumbles upon something here that speaks to the gently simmering heat that would start building over the next few years, and the fact that he can be so uncompromising yet comical and genuine while doing so makes Une Femme Mariée a fantastic transitional film that has been unjustly relegated to the No-Man's Land of the Lesser Work, and if it is not actually my favorite of the director's films I've thus seen, it stands just behind Band of Outsiders.