As Breathless deconstructs the Hollywood gangster film, Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman attempts to do the same thing for the Technicolor Hollywood musical. While his ostensible role model with Breathless had been the B-movies of Monogram, Godard was now in the realm of Vincente Minnelli’s M-G-M musicals like The Band Wagon and Gigi. For this he once again summoned Jean-Paul Belmondo, already the reigning star of the New Wave. Jean Seberg was replaced by Danish-born Anna Karina (soon to be Mrs. Godard), and Jean-Claude Brialy, who would rival Belmondo both in the film and throughout the 1960s, became the third member of the plot’s menage-a-trois.
The overall effect of Godard’s direction is to establish rule-breaking as the new rule; the abnormal becomes the new normal. Standard filmmaking with a clear narrative presumed a steady flow of images and plot. Even the great iconoclast Orson Welles respected audience expectations, and the brilliant conjurations of his imagery compensated for any disorientation his films might induce. Godard’s fragmentation of the narrative could induce something approaching pain or punishment, but it is compensated for somewhat by the behavioral charm of his performers—a quality soon to be denied to us in much of his major work. Karina, whom I had the pleasure of meeting, could not have been more charming. She won the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival for this film, and went on to work in several of Godard’s best films, including My Life to Live, Band of Outsiders, Pierrot le Fou, and Alphaville. Following the title role in Jacques Rivette’s excellent The Nun, Karina remained an active film star for the next quarter-century, performing for the likes of Luchino Visconti, Volker Schlondorff, George Cukor, and R. W. Fassbinder. Although still acting, she has also become a major chanteuse, a novelist, and a film director in her own right.
In this early period, Godard was enthralled by Hollywood glitz and glamor, here referencing people like Burt Lancaster, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, and Ernst Lubitsch. There is a comedic element and an absurdity that both parodies and echoes the silliness of many Hollywood musicals. Godard playfully refers to Breathless and has Belmondo ask an uncredited Jeanne Moreau how Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim is progressing. So part of Godard’s rule-breaking has a pleasant, almost endearing, self-referential quality. Yet, for me, the director seems unable to fully give himself over to the spectacle and alluring magic of the musical form. Of course, at this point in his career Godard did not have the resources of a Jean Renoir, who could produce a ravishing Gallic variation on the genre like French Cancan. Whereas Renoir re-created the Moulin Rouge, Godard is bound to the strip joint in which Karina is employed. In one of his early critical essays, before he made movies, Godard referred to “the innate sense of comedy possessed by the great film-makers.” Try as he might, this also seems to be something Godard the filmmaker could not attain. There is humor in A Woman Is a Woman and in other Godard films, but it seems labored, almost as if the director is apologetic for diverting the audience from the serious business of watching a movie. The Argentine director and author Edgardo Cozarinsky cites Godard’s reference to the early talkie, René Clair’s 14 Juillet, but Clair’s 1930s musicals had a lightness of touch (like Lubitsch’s) that Godard would probably consider beneath him.
It would not be long before this tendency toward heaviness, tinged with 1960s politics, would begin to predominate over his youthful exuberance. A scion of a well-to-do Geneva family, Godard declared himself a fervent Marxist, torn between admiration for John Wayne’s tear-inducing performance in John Ford’s The Searchers, the ending of which he compared to the climax of The Odyssey, and his passionate hatred of Wayne’s politics. (This dichotomy is pointed to in Glenn Frankel’s superb new book on Ford’s film, which Frankel will speak on at a screening of the movie here on September 11.) Whatever one’s feelings toward him are, Godard’s contradictions and complexities, his long journey of self-exploration, make him undeniably an auteur.