To say that 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her marked the full cohesion of Jean-Luc Godard's developing techniques and cinematic philosophies is to ignore that every film marks a cohesion of Jean-Luc Godard's developing techniques and cinematic philosophies. Band of Outsiders consolidated the genre charm of Breathless with the looser, more personal style of filmmaking employed for Vivre sa vie and Contempt. Pierrot le fou took that and experimented with it further. Masculin, féminin perfected his structuralist technique used with Une Femme Mariée and Vivre sa vie even as it moved beyond the style.
Ergo, noting that 2 or 3 Things breaks cinematic ground by drifting away from coherent narrative into a philosophical deconstruction of image, sound and their relation to each other would be met with sneering looks and sarcastic nods by those who'd seen his previous features. But this film takes Godard's experimentation to a whole other level, distantly outpacing his own work and jumping out so far ahead of his predecessors and contemporaries that 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her has scarcely aged a day in the 43 years since its first release. The film marks Godard's first full foray into the film essay, a style of filmmaking that that brought theme and auterial preoccupation to the foreground. The titular "I" is Godard himself, who delivers a voiceove narration in whispers as if confiding something to the audience, spreading gossip and secret information concerning "her."
The "Her" in this case applies to several subjects. One is Juliette Janson, a fictional housewife who moved with her husband and child to a luxurious apartment in one of Paris' new banlieues. Another is Marina Vlady, the actress who plays her, who also has a say in the film's events and stands distinct from her character. (Godard stuck a speaker in Vlady's ear, through which he whispered lines for her to speak or even questions that she would have to answer, either as herself or in character.) The third is Paris herself, a city wracked by the disastrous, in Godard's opinion, politics of Charles De Gaulle. To him, De Gaulle not only weakened the nation's economy but its "moral fiber" as well.
After criticizing the growing commercialism in Western society in many of his features, Godard pulls out all the stops and uses his CinemaScope frame like a giant billboard. He and Raoul Coutard bring out the Pop Art in the city around them, highlighting saturated primary colors in shops, ads and the sky itself, with its constant blue hue. "If you cannot afford LSD," the director whispers, "buy a color TV." This brilliant statement condemns the governments for panicking over a drug when its primary propaganda tool has the exact same effect, as well as the hippies who mistake the numbing, superficial effects of the drug for enlightenment. Timothy Leary's desire for kids to "tune in and drop out" only creates a generation of ignorant kids, many of whom don't even know what they're rebelling against and thus cannot rebel successfully.
Godard got the idea for the film by reading a series of reports in the French publication Le nouvel observateur concerning women like Juliette who moved to these apartments. As the director tells us, through his narration and a cheeky scene in which a woman taking a long bath is interrupted rudely by a meter reader, these women were so thrilled with their new appliances that they overused them, running up hefty power bills and costing them even more.
(Godard highlights this particular side effect of consumerism, the fetishization of youth and newness, through a scene in which he allows a random character to speak to the screen. She talks of being a secretary fluent in multiple languages who can no longer find work, not because of incompetence but because she is "too old." 2 or 3 Things precedes the outbreak of plastic surgery as a desperate means for falsely retaining youth by some years, but it calls attention to the insidious veneration over that which is sleek and appealing over that which is rewarding and proven. Look out for one of the edits that displays a backwards sign reading "Beauté" with a rubbed-away 'u' that undermines the word just as this emphasis of shiny marketing presentation destroys true worth.)
Some of these women, like Juliette, then became prostitutes to keep their flats, a number with their husband's consent. Only through such means can people like Juliette maintain a middle-class (or, as Godard derisively terms it, "normal") life. This brings Godard's fascination with prostitution and its relationship between sex and commerce to its apex. He never shows the sex, and even Juliette's stripteases lack actual stripping. We see her in hotel rooms sitting off to the side, often discussing her thoughts aloud, to herself or to us, instead of serving her client. In one scene, Godard cuts away from Juliette and her client to one of his many sarcastic, Ozu-like pillow shots of cranes set against that blue sky. Apart from the potential sight gag of watching these cranes "erect" buildings, such cutaways stress the effect of consumerism on sex: the women need the money to maintain order, and the men don't seem to be all that desperate for sex, either. Sex has become another commodity, another way for money to change hands.
The prostitution scenes draw out the explicit anti-Americanism of the feature. With the Vietnam conflict heating up, Godard cannot hold back his disgust with the country's involvement in a war that did not concern them. He frames a typeface for Pax Americana so that only the word "Pax" appears on screen in disturbing, ironic blood-red. Juliette and her husband criticize an ad for American shoes: "They trample Vietnamese toes in them," says Juliette. "And South American ones too," her husband adds. An American correspondent, fresh from reporting in Vietnam, hires Juliette and another prostitute to act out a bizarre gag involving the two women wearing bags over their heads (one a blue Pan Am sack, the other a red TWA), and he speaks of his own hatred of the atrocity. "A dead Vietcong costs the U.S. Treasury a million dollars," he says. "Johnson could enjoy 20,000 girls like these two for the same price." That preference for sexual indiscretion, the likes of which would instantly sink a politician's career, over mass killing is reflected in the juxtaposition of the cutaway from this sex act to photographs of dead and dying Vietnamese in a magazine. Both images are pornographic (or both would be, if we saw the sex), but social modesty compels Godard to shy away from such visuals while he can show photographs of warfare and murder without a peep. The editing reveals the perversity of displaying the dead alongside ads when far tamer photographs depicting a sexualized human being would cause a scandal, particularly with the pro-war conservatives who fought the sexual revolution.
The film's most political statement, however, concerns images. Practically comprised of asides, allusions and visual metaphors at the abandon of cohesion, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her infuses its radical ideas into its form. For Godard, no image can be inherently superior to the other, so why should he restrict himself to depicting a narrative, or even a narrative within a narrative, and leave so many images out of the picture? Someone asks whether poetry is embellishment or instructive. "Everything that embellishes life is instructive," comes the response. Godard takes that to heart, communicating his themes through his seeming disjunction -- such as a prolonged sequence at a garage that visualizes the ennui and machination of modernity better even than Juliette's passionless sex for money -- but he also includes shots simply to have them, as he does when he moves away from that garage to zoom in on some trees. "Where do we start? But start what?" Godard asks. For every big, vague question, there's another larger one encapsulating it; ignorance is bliss precisely because it avoids such questions and the questions they in turn spawn, but Godard wants nothing more than to chase after knowledge
More than any of Godard's other features -- which would place it high in the running of all cinema -- 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her breaks down the frame to its most artistic pondering. The characters exist to be placed exactly within the frame. That is not to say that Godard exhibits a Hitchcockian disdain for the actors; instead, he manipulates the actors and their characters to enhance the mise-en-scène and to tell their own stories separate from the protagonist or the "narrative." Godard used dialectics before, but he splits nearly everything in two: the usual sexual and economic element of prostitution, relevant and irrelevant images, its condemnation of hip advertising and Godard's clear intrigue with striking Pop Art colors, the distinction between actor and character. "A landscape is like a face," Juliette says occasionally, a statement that refers to the constant juxtaposition between her personal life and the societal shift she reflects, both Vlady's face and Juliette's and Godard's new fascination with the human form -- particularly the feminine one -- as another piece of the world.
Thus, 2 or 3 Things stands as the most rigidly planned and structural film Godard had yet made, yet it's also the most ephemeral and in-the-moment. "The image is usually steeped in memories and meanings," we are told, and Godard gives us those, as well as some images that do not fit within the purview of "usually." That we cannot automatically discern the difference between the two is not a weakness on Godard's part but a testament to the way that he celebrates beauty, in the same film where he viciously attacks its false side. Two extreme zooms define the picture, one of a coffee cup and its contents, the other of the lit end of a cigarette. Both utilize cosmic imagery, the bubbles of the black coffee swirling around the blackness of its faux-space and congealing in the center like mass forming into a planet (or a unicellular organism growing and multiplying until it splits apart). Likewise, the image of the cigarette burning in pure darkness the tumultuous, fiery birth of a star. These images contain interpretations -- they could be either visualizations of the solipsism of capitalist egotism or a poetic focus on the details of everything around us -- but they exist on their own terms as some of the most striking and gorgeous shots to exist in any film.
I always worry that I can never cover what I need to in a review, but A.O. Scott's recent response to the death of "At the Movies" and the talk of criticism's death that built to a fever pitch throughout March put forward an excellent point: no review, not even those staggering academic essays that set my eyes a-spinning with their seemingly impossible (for a 20-year old reading them) base of knowledge and style, contains everything objectively relevant and personally memorable. I can only impart what I see, and thus this review cannot begin to cover anything. Perhaps one day, that "book-length exegesis" on the film that Amy Taubin rightly believes could exist will be written, but it too cannot fully explain the joy, the frustrations and the potentially boundless rewards to be found within a film that, when you stop and think about it, actually depicts that "normal" life to which Godard sarcastically alluded.
After I finished watching 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, I turned around and watched once more. Then I listened to the informative (and refreshingly relaxed) commentary by Adrian Martin. That's a start. I will not say that the film is Godard's best -- how could I dare make such a lofty claim so early in this retrospective? -- but it is the feature that grabbed me most intently. While the last lingering doubt in my mind washed away with Pierrot le fou, I now find myself utterly reversed in my initial view of the artist: once a philistine, now I struggle not to sing his praises to my classmates, who, not being cineastes, will look at me strangely and attempt to have me barred from campus. Everything in 2 or 3 Things is still relevant, still beautiful, still allusive and still ahead of its time, and it is the kind of work that could only come from a consummate master.