Lights, Camera, Action, Silence!: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘A Woman Is A Woman’

My contribution to the Criterion Blogathon is a post on Jean-Luc Godard’s joyous ‘A Woman Is A Woman.’ Seeing as the DVD is no longer in print, my copy is a prized possession. I really love this film. The Criterion Blogathon is being hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy and Silver Screenings.

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Is it possible to make a musical without songs? If anyone was ever willing to try, it would have to be director Jean-Luc Godard. In just his third movie, 1961’s A Woman Is A Woman, Godard paid tribute to the American musical but ditched what made so many of those films great in the first place: the songs.

A Woman Is A Woman‘s plot is pretty straight forward. Young burlesque dancer Angela (Anna Karina) wants a baby with her boyfriend, Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy), but Emile doesn’t want one. So, she decides to have one with their friend, Alfred Lubitsch (Jean-Paul Belmondo), instead. Alfred has always loved Angela anyway, so he’s happy to be at the center of her attention. But Angela is gleefully playing both of the men against each other and has figured out how she’s going to make a father out of Emile.

While A Woman Is A Woman might look too bright and too wide (it was shot in Francoscope – a French version of Cinemascope) to be a French New Wave film, that plot actually doesn’t sound too off base compared to other New Wave movies from the time. Godard just decided to filter that story through a completely unexpected style that’s apparent from the very beginning.

The film opens with words flashing on the screen, alternating between one-word descriptions of the film and the last names of people who worked on it. (How would an audience know that “Coutard” refers to cinematographer Raoul Coutard anyway?) Then, Karina shouts, “Lights! Camera! Action!” before the film goes completely silent for the title card. That tells the audience right away that whenever you expect sound, you will not hear it. When the characters are supposed to start breaking out into song, and Michel Legrand’s music starts to swell… you will not hear them sing. When Karina does her sexy burlesque dance and sings, you will not hear music.

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Godard’s use of music is so obvious that it often intrudes our enjoyment of the film, but the director doesn’t care. A Woman Is A Woman is the ultimate fourth-wall breaking movie (although Blazing Saddles gives it a run for its money, no doubt). The first time we see the lovely Karina in a cafe, she winks directly at the camera. When Brialy and Karina begin fighting, they check in with the audience. “Yes, I know I just did a long apartment scene in Breathless, so I hope you don’t mind if I do that again,” Godard tells us. “Oh, I also hope you don’t mind when I do it again in Contempt.”

There’s also countless references to other films throughout the movie. We check in with Jeanne Moreau to see how Jules and Jim is doing. Alfred pleads with Emile and Angela to let him go home to watch Breathless on TV. Alfred’s very last name is a reference to the great Ernst Lubitsch, who probably would have loved every second of this film if he lived to see it. And then there’s my favorite moment of the film, when Angela says she wants to live in a movie with Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and choreography! (Who wouldn’t want to live in that movie?)

A Woman Is A Woman would also be incredibly hard to pull off without Anna Karina. With her irresistible charm, she manages to look like a naïve young girl in some scenes and still a woman who can take command of every situation. When she outsmarts her veteran co-stars, she isn’t just acting enjoyed. She loves that Godard has figured out how to use her abilities as an actress, singer and comedian. The only way the punchline works at the end is if Karina is there to deliver it.

A Woman Is A Woman, like all New Wave films, is also a fascinating look at Paris in the 1960s. There’s the cars, the tight streets, beautiful marquees and this incredible sense of community between characters. Everywhere we look in this film, there are friends for Angela, Alfred and Emile to talk to, even if they don’t have anything good to say to each other. No matter how small the part, it’s clear that every character has a history with out leads, from the children in the bookshop to the man Alfred trades insults with. Sure, Paris might be nothing like this today, but if the reaction to the terrorist attacks from this past week prove anything, it’s that it is still a community of people who come together in crises.

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It’s a shame that Criterion lost the home video rights to A Woman Is A Woman when Studio Canal bizarrely decided not to license films to the label. This is a movie that would look wondrous on Blu-ray, with its popping colors and inventive soundtrack. A Woman Is A Woman is such a deconstruction of what a film should be that the whole movie is inventive, using every sense that the art form can take advantage of.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch this move again and get lost in Anna Karina’s smile…

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13 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Action, Silence!: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘A Woman Is A Woman’

  1. It has been awhile since I have watched this one. I also own the old DVD and watched it back when I bought it. Yeah. 🙂 My memory of it is as you describe, dancing without music, winking at the camera, self-reflexive celebration, and of course the incomparable Anna Karina. Thanks so much for contributing!

  2. This sounds truly fascinating. I can’t even imagine how the concept of a music-less musical is pulled off, but I want to see it ASAP. Thanks for the review.

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