A Woman is a Woman (Une femme est une femme) [DVD]
Director : Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay : Jean-Luc Godard
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1961
Stars : Jean-Claude Brialy (Émile Récamier), Anna Karina (Angela), Jean-Paul Belmondo (Alfred Lubitsch), Catherine Demongeot (Zazie), Marie Dubois (Angela's friend), Ernest Menzer (Bar Owner), Jeanne Moreau (Woman in Bar), Nicole Paquin (Suzanne)
Jean-Luc Godard spend the decade of the 1950s writing influential film criticism for the French journal Cahiers du cinéma, and when he launched his own filmmaking career in 1959, he dove in and never looked back. In just over a year, from 1959 to 1960, he had completed three feature films: the groundbreaking Breathless (A bout de souffle), widely considered the first of the French New Wave films; Le petit soldat, which was banned by the French government for four years because it dealt with the Algerian situation; and A Woman is a Woman (Une femme est une femme).
Although A Woman is a Woman was his third feature film, audiences saw it before Le petit soldat, and thus was viewed largely in comparison to Breathless. And the two films couldn’t have been any more different. Whereas Breathless was a black-and-white evocation of old American crime films shot through with an existentialist sense of humor, self-reflexive posturing, and the then-revolutionary use of jump cutting, A Woman is a Woman is a colorful, widescreen poem to that great, dying American genre, the musical comedy. They have in a common a deconstructionist approach to American filmmaking, but after that the two films part ways.
Where Breathless is ultimately a downer, its sly, knowing humor masking an underlying subtext of existentialist dread, A Woman is a Woman is light and cheery, brandishing its bold color scheme and playful use of sound not just to undermine conventional cinematic techniques, but to celebrate the beauty of life. The seemingly opposing words tragedy and comedy are self-consciously evoked throughout the film, but the ultimate message Godard wants to leave us with is the sense that there is little dividing the two.
The story centers on a woman, Angela (Anna Karina, who was soon to become Godard’s wife), a beautiful young striptease artist who aspires to a better life. She decides, quite on the spot, that she wants to have a baby and she wants to have it now. This does not sit very well with her boyfriend, Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), who has clearly settled comfortably into their relationship and feels that they have all the time in the world. Meanwhile, Émile’s best friend, Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), pines away for Angela, thus setting up a love triangle, one of the structural staples of the musical comedy. (The fact that Alfred’s last name is Lubitsch is an all-too-obvious wink-wink nod to Ernst Lubitsch, the German expatriate Hollywood director who is still the enduring grand master of sophisticated romantic comedies.)
Godard himself described A Woman is a Woman as a “neorealist musical,” which it is and it isn’t. Most of the film was shot on the streets of Paris, thus maintaining the French New Wave’s borrowing from Italian neorealism, an emphasis on location and a disdain for studio-bound sets and their artificial lighting. It is never quite a musical, though; it might be better described as a frustrated musical, one that constantly threatens to break out into full song and dance, but is thwarted again and again. Godard employs a garish orchestral score that swells at all the right times, instilling basic human movements and situations with a sense of urgency and drama they might otherwise lack. Yet, at the same time, he playfully cuts off the score at any given moment, replacing the artificiality of its audience-nudging emotionalism with the gritty location sounds of Parisian streets in the middle of the day.
Yet, it is not the self-reflexive undermining of cinematic expectations that we’re left with at the end of the film. Rather, we walk away with a giddy, unbridled sense of joy. A Woman is a Woman is a film about love by a man who was clearly in love, and its legacy is the sense that Godard could be just as playful and life-affirming in his artistry as he could be political. Godard is celebrated by art film and avant-garde enthusiasts for his unconventionality; Breathless is a masterpiece not because of the story it tells, but because of the way it literally rewrote the possibilities of cinematic language in one bold stroke. A Woman is a Woman can’t make similar claims, but it is certainly one of the most enjoyable and clever films to emerge from the French New Wave.
|A Woman is a Woman Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Charlotte et Véronique ou Tous les garcons s’appellent Patrick early short film directed by Godard|
Qui êtes-vous Anna Karina? TV interview with Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, and Serge Gainsbourg
Original theatrical trailer
Stills gallery of promotional art and production photographs
Promotional audio recording
24-page booklet featuring excerpts from a 1961 interview with Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard and a new essay by film critic J. Hoberman
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||June 22, 2004|
|The new high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer, which was supervised by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, looks marvelous (not surprisingly, it absolutely blows away the now-out-of-print nonanamorphic Fox Lorber transfer). The transfer was taken from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored via the MTI Digital Restoration System. Godard’s bold use of color pops off the screen, and the image maintains a good deal of detail even though it is somewhat soft overall (given the fact that the cinematographer approved the transfer, I have to assume that the picture is supposed to look somewhat soft). There are a few minor instances of dirt and white speckles, but otherwise the picture is pristine.|
|The original French monaural soundtrack has been transferred from the magnetic track and also digitally scrubbed. There is an inherent roughness to parts of the soundtrack, which was probably Godard’s intention. The musical numbers sound very good for their age, and they make a strong contrast with the more naturalistic, documentary-like sounds at other points in the film.|
|For historical reasons alone, the inclusion of Godard’s first professional film, a 20-minute short titled Charlotte et Véronique ou Tous les garcons s’appellent Patrick (known in English as All Boys Are Called Patrick), would be reason enough to pick up this DVD. Shot in 1957, two years before he made Breathless, it evinces none of the radical departures from traditional cinema that would mark the first decade of Godard’s directorial career. Rather, it is a straightforward story about a player who manages to score a date with a pair of roommates who each thinks she is going out with someone different. It’s an amusing trifle, although one that offers a great window into both French life and gender relations in the 1950s. |
Other supplements on this disc include a 13-minute 1966 French television interview with stars Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy and French composer Serge Gainsbourg. The film’s marketing campaign is reproduced in an extensive stills gallery of international poster art and production photographs, as well as the original theatrical trailer and a 35-minute promotional recording by Godard that was originally released on 10-inch vinyl records. Lastly, there is a 24-page insert booklet that reproduces an intriguing 1961 interview with Godard and Coutard, as well as a new essay by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Rialto Pictures