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Godard and Feminism Part X: Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967)

January 31, 2014

2or3There are two inevitable byproducts of human existence: sex and war. This isn’t a fact nor a statistic, but merely an empirical observation of the evolution of mankind. Since humans could document their experiences these two elements have long been present. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the worlds oldest surviving works, follows Gilgamesh, a half-man half-god who gets his kicks out of raping and oppressing the citizens of the city he rules. To offset Gilgamesh’s power the gods create his rival and soon best friend, the primitive Enkidu, who is tamed and civilized by a temple prostitute Shamhat. Even in Genesis The Bible introduces the creation of humans, their defiance, procreation, then war between their children all within the first few chapters.

Jean-Luc Godard picked up on this truth of humanity tailoring most of his films in the first half of his career to visit those topics in some fashion or another time and again. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been drawn to his work since my first viewing. Godard’s lesser known 1966 film Two or Three Things I Know About Her is perhaps his most ambitious in the realm of exploring sex and war simultaneously resulting in a ground breaking, hypnotic film that works as a slice of life view of a group of Parisian women living their day to day lives.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her calls to mind the triumphant work of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a book that ushered in the second wave of feminism in America by dissecting the life and further dissatisfaction of the average housewife. Before then, women were thought and expected to innately desire being a mother and housekeeper. A woman’s place was in the kitchen taking care of the children and putting the needs of other always before herself. Naturally, women all over felt unsatisfied and confined by assuming these roles without a minute to revel in self-awareness or satisfaction. The Feminine Mystique told American housewives they weren’t alone in their unhappiness or struggles to fit into the motherly role. Most importantly it told women their desires to crave a life of their own was natural.

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Friedan’s critique of feminine society closely correlates Godard’s early body of work as through images and an assortment of stories he exposed the world individual women who possess some degree of power, whether equal to or greater than their counterparts.  Godard focused the attention of his work largely on women being the central driving force of a story providing the gender with a voice not previously heard on the big screen before. In Two or Three Things I Know About Her we follow Juliette (Marina Vlady), a mother of two whose husband barely makes enough to make ends meet. With desires for the finer things in her life she takes a side job as a prostitute leaving her kids with pimp of sorts as she goes through a day of business.

Juliette’s oldest son is wise beyond his years. He engages Juliette in conversations about the statehood of North and South Vietnam and tells her of his ideas on the totality of girls from his young prepubescent understanding. However, the main focus of the film is how unfulfilled Juliette feels due to the mounting desires of a consumerism lifestyle as well as living a simple life as a wife and mother. Being defined by that alone begins to suffocate her as indicates in a scene when asking her husband what will they do next after coming home from work. He replies sleep, she asks, “then what?” He tells her eat. “Then what?” And so forth until the final answer is “then we die.” Juliette sighs deeply before questioning, “then what?”

 

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Juliette isn’t the film’s only focus. Through montages of random events and places we are introduced to a slew of characters, mostly women, who talk to the camera revealing their names and giving interesting anecdotes about themselves. These moments present each character as a realistic individual with desires  prompting empathy and an ability to relate to each person we meet. While Godard dabbles with the social stigma of discussing sexuality, he looks a stern daunting eye towards war and politics as usual. In one scene a character reads a magazine revealing to audiences the images of dead Vietnamese citizens sprawled on the ground reminding me of images of dead Afghani sprawled on the pages of Rolling Stone magazine during our most recent war. Godard also doesn’t forget to turn a critical eye onto the assimilation of brand names into households which ultimately persuades characters of the film to need these products.

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On an aesthetic level, Two or Three Things I Know About Her is perhaps Godard’s most magnificently successful as it possesses a more realistic coat to it than most films of the the period. Two or Three Things I Know About Her  reminded me of the aesthetics in 70s film, more particularly Robert Altman’s Nashville in its cinematic appearance. There was something about the lighting in the 1970s, perhaps a heavier usage of tungsten, fluorescent, or maybe even natural lighting, but whatever it was the images of those films look tangible and “real.” Actors look like regular people due simply to not being bathed in flattering lights and angles.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her is mostly alluring for, if nothing else, its intentions. It acts more as an essay on a number of things from Godard than as a standard film. Godard narrates large parts of the film through a hushed whisper, engaging audiences about the nature of consciousness, sexuality, and war. He juxtaposes questions raised within the film and actions taking place with hypnotic imagery that includes close ups of leaves on trees, the swirl of foam in coffee and moments enduring the blaring construction work of Paris’ steady expansion calling to mind images from contemporary directors Darren Aronofsky and Terrence Malick. Two or Three Things I Know About Her is a fascinating film that mixes documentary and experimentation for a revolutionary conversation on all the topics that still makes most uncomfortable to discuss.

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