A Woman is a Woman is an effervescent delight, revealing its director loosening up after using his first film to attack the stale conventions of the cinema and his second, repressed for three years by the French government, to comment on the Algerian War still being fought. It pushes the director into that most Hollywood of genres, the musical, to see how this enfant terrible would treat a genre he dearly loved, just as he overhauled the gangster picture with Breathless. The result is something I've not yet seen with Godard, something that has peeked shyly from the periphery in his other earlier works but never been fully coaxed into the open: pure magic.
Godard teased his acolytes by describing the film as a "neorealist musical," two words so wildly opposed to each other that they seem less oxymoronic than paradoxical. He adopts a musique concrète approach to the "showtunes" -- for lack of a better word -- splintering Michel Legrand's score into blasts of brass instruments, lilting woodwinds and suspenseful strings that jut into scenes before ceasing abruptly. At times, the music overwhelms the dialogue, at others it cuts out and takes the rest of the audio track with it. There's not much singing in the film, but Godard lays music over the speech, highlighting its melodrama and deliberately creating artifice while speaking to the true emotions of characters who spend the entire film lying to each other almost against their will.
They lie because they're in love. Angela (Anna Karina, who refines eyelash batting into an artform), a striptease artist, suddenly hears the ticking of her biological clock and asks her lover Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy) for a child. He refuses, so she turns to their mutual friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who routinely pledges his love for her, to get the job done. In between, the two men argue with Angela over her flightiness and petulance, while she brushes it off and persists in the pursuit of her desires.
Like Contempt, A Woman is a Woman devotes a sizable amount of time to a couple engaged in bitter warfare, yet the fighters here are evenly matched. Émile is a chauvinist who responds to his girlfriend's rhetorical question, "Why is it always women who suffer" by saying that women cause the suffering and even condescendingly instructs her on grammar. He never gives reasons for not wanting a child, only resorting to cruel insults at Angela's insistence. But, for her part, Angela is manipulative and impatient. She doesn't know why she wants a child but comes to demand one. When Émile castigates her for her profession, she retorts that his paltry salary couldn't support them both (a gender inversion of a similar materialistic argument in Contempt), neglecting to realize that pregnancy would put her out of a job as a stripper. She leads both of the men in her life on, exploiting their attraction to her. Early in the film, she sings a sultry tune as she strips, lingering briefly on the line "I can be a real devil" before the color lighting projected on her by the establishment for some cheap "artistic" effect paints her in red.
But her ability to twist men around her fingers and Émile's sexism belie their true feelings for each other. Text appears on the screen in the midst of their argument, telling us how much the two care for each other; when the other is just out of earshot, one character will whisper an apology and a declaration of love, only to return to the insults when the other pops back in and says "What was that?" Godard beat Pat Benatar to the "love is a battlefield" conclusion by 20 years, suggesting that relationships are constant struggles between people who argue incessantly for no reason (that he married its star during production adds another facet to this).
At times, as usual, Godard dips into sexism, though he always does enough to balance the straightforward presentation of his misogyny to convince me sufficiently that he's making a more complicated point. Angela mentions her distaste for "modern women" who don't cry in an attempt to make themselves "more like men," yet she says this as an aside in her elongated rant against her lover's inferiority complex at her being the real breadwinner thanks to a job that somewhat emasculates him. As she eats lunch with Alfred later in the film, a lament comes on the jukebox with the lyric, "What did I ever see in you?" and Godard cuts directly to Karina looking straight into the camera. Is this a commentary not only the character but on Karina herself (after all, something in the relationship took a turn for him to script Contempt partially as an apology to her)? Or does the song, sung by a man, actually reflect Karina's thoughts as she looks at her real-life lover with a look of mild bemusement?
Her mere presence slices most of my arguments about any possible sexist content to ribbons. There's something preternaturally hypnotic about Anna Karina. It's not merely that she's beautiful -- which she certainly is. She is simultaneously innocent and fiendish, someone to be both pitied and feared. She's an ingénue who every so often reveals bigger stones than the rest of the men combined. Had Karina come of age in America in the late '90s, she could have played the Fred role on Angel. Hell, she probably would have been Joss Whedon's muse the way she was Godard's for a time. You're never quite sure where you stand with her and her character, which is precisely where Godard wants you.
Karina looking into the camera is but one of countless examples of the film's giddy self-reflexivity, which makes the winking in Godard's other early works seem formalist in comparison (there is literal winking to be had here). Belmondo carries over his essential cool by attempting to cut through Angela and Émile's argument by reminding them, "Breathless is on TV. I don't want to miss it." Who couldn't see Michel watching his own demise, secure in the knowledge that he'd become an icon like the Bogey poster he worshiped? Belmondo even makes a crack at his stardom by suggesting a movie playing at the theater by facetiously mentioning it stars his "pal Burt Lancaster" before flashing the dopiest grin you ever did see at the audience. The existentialism that defined Breathless pops up here and there, such as a bit of text placed on-screen in such a way that the word "is" (est, for you Francophiles) appears by itself. Heck, before Angela and Émile begin their first major argument, Angela instructs her lover, "Before we start this farce, first bow to the audience" and they do, beaming right at us until you can't help but smile back.
Godard's first color feature offers a striking contrast to what was then his only other film of reference, the hand-held, full-framed, monochrome Breathless. Raoul Coutard uses verité camerawork here as well, but the wide-screen of CinemaScope gives him the chance to introduce more formal shots. Godard does not use CinemaScope against itself here as he did as protest in Contempt, and the pop art decor of the apartment offers relief from the weary, working class drab of the Strasbourg-St. Denis area where the movie was filmed. Not yet has Godard turned against it as a part of the problem of bourgeois commodification of art that he hinted at in Contempt. Really, if there was any benefit to watching Contempt first, it's that I get much of what I liked about that film -- albeit without the stronger message about the right of women to cast off the yoke, a message that clouds the background of some conversations but never fully condenses here -- without the occasional tedium of what was essentially Godard's (often justifiable) bitch session against the ignominies he suffered during that production.
"Is this a comedy or a tragedy?" asks Alfred when he finds himself in the middle of the lovers' spat, and for much of the film it's hard to answer that question. A Woman is a Woman is certainly funny, with its giddy disregard for the rules and Godard's willingness to tease himself (Angela and Émile grab heaps of books off their shelves to use their titles to lob insults at each other, a cheekily simple way to use Godard's literary memory). There's one brilliant segment just before the two start to really argue in which Angela realizes she's burnt dinner and needs to prepare something to make her request for a baby as smoothly received as possible. She asks if he wants meat or fish, and when he says "fish" she replies without missing a beat, "What would you have preferred if you were having meat?" until she manages to guide him into choosing beef. But what makes a comedy is a happy ending, and Godard ties in those text scrolls that confirm the couple's love with their outward arguments, using his jump cuts to leap merrily from sniping to reconciled kissing and back again and again. The movie even ends with a pun, as the couple reunite and agree to try to have a baby, and Émile can only marvel, "Tu es infâme!" ("You are shameless"). Karina turns to the camera and replies, "Non, je suis une femme." A Woman is a Woman lacks the ambition and historical import of Breathless and Contempt, but its overall lack of pretension and its uncanny ability to tap into the true spirit of the musical genre while it tears down conventions -- Godard giving Alfred the surname Lubitsch, after the legendary comedy/musical director Ernst is not ironic but reverential -- makes it the Godard film I cannot wait to revisit.