Godard and Feminism Part V: Une Femme Est Une Femme (A Woman is a Woman) (1961)
A Woman is a Woman left a lasting impression on me when I first saw it nearly a decade ago. The story of Angéla (Anna Karina) and her boyfriend Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy) isn’t a particularly interesting one. Angéla is an exotic dancer who desperately wants to have a child with Émile. He doesn’t want to, and for an hour and half viewers watch as through a strange, jostling string of events the two argue each others reasons. Things become even more complicated when Émile’s neighbor and friend, Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who’s in love with Angéla, gets mixed into the situation. A Woman is a Woman flaunts themes of sex, politics, and gender; all aspects that went right over my head all those years ago. Yet, I still considered the film among my favorites. Recently upon re-watching A Woman is a Woman I was reminded of how Jean-Luc Godard’s visual narrative is the succulent treat that drew me to this film like a candy store to a sugar deprived child.
Watching A Woman is a Woman is just visually tantalizing. Notably shot in CinemaScope, the images burst into bold, striking colors on the screen which is a testament to the film’s meticulous cinematography as well as its precise placement and arrangement of primary colors throughout each scene. Blues and reds are in constant battle with one another being separated on numerous occasions with eggshell white. If walls are blue, towels will be yellow, if Angéla wears crimson stockings, her dress will be ivory or navy. The bright assault of colors makes the screen hard to look away from.
Always one to peel back the curtain of movie making, Godard reveals the technicalities of filming through moments that jolt viewers out of the story and into the process. During a scene in which Émile continually steps in the way of Angéla as she attempts to dodge each step, the scene effortlessly morphs the perspective of Émile’s gaze to the spectator’s. Angéla then turns to confront us and not him. Music plays a major part within the film by exposing how it works as a device to evoke emotions. At times the music swells to epic proportions only to cease mid-note leaving scenes to sit in awkward silence before forcibly starting back up again. And then out.
Godard reveals the strings long enough to remind us A Woman is a Woman is just a film. But within that film he unfolds a very real discourse between men and women. A Woman is a Woman ultimately shows how in the end all human beings are the same: emotional, foolish, irrational and overall pretty dumb, especially when in love. Now some may view the relationship of Émile and Angéla as vapid, insipid, and plain out annoying. And one wouldn’t be wrong, it is. These characters aren’t brilliant, poignant people. Angéla proves herself to be extremely irrational and possesses the naivety of a 4-year-old. But, she’s genuine and we grow to understand why men put up with her. During her first strip tease she glides through the room singing on top of a piano interlude that cuts every time her voice starts. Her close ups are crosscut with men gazing at her body, one man even bringing out binoculars. Angéla tells us through song: “I am no angel. I can be a devil. But men don’t complain because I’m so gorgeous!” Just as she plays up her stereotype, the men of the film promptly do the same.
The conflict over the differences between men and women is the major topic of A Woman is a Woman. Points and views are exchanged, questions are raised, names are called, sexes are generalized and the stereotypes of both genders are poked and prodded with the long sharp stick that is Godard’s cinematic techniques. There is no answer for any problem or generalization that gets raised, but I think what Godard does so brilliantly and so early in his career and a cinematic high-point was to bring such conversations to light. Godard made a film where despite how ditzy this particular female character is, she’s intelligent enough to define herself and fight conventions set up against her by those she surrounds herself with: immediate friends and society at large. Likewise, Émile and Alfred prove themselves as just as irrational and childish as Angéla making moments of the film reminiscent to an “I Love Lucy” episode. There’s a wit about A Woman is a Women that is unlike any of Godard’s film I’ve seen as of yet. That humor along with its portrayal of an unconventional lifestyle with an independent female taking charge makes this absurd tale one of Godard’s greatest attempts.