A Married Woman: Maybe She’s Born with It, by David Bax
Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman, showing at the Nuart in Los Angeles for a week starting Friday, is highly sympathetic to the everyday ennui of the twentieth century woman, even though it can also be a tad patronizing. Macha Méril’s Charlotte is almost archetypal, the very embodiment of the idea that all it takes to be cool is to look good being bored. Yet she also embodies the regrettable stereotype that a mildly childlike woman is a sexy one. It’s tempting, though, to give Godard the benefit of the doubt when it comes to such uncomfortable reductions, as he repeatedly returns, in both subject and presentation, to the cultural and economic pressures on women to conform to arbitrary ideals of femininity.
Charlotte is a mother and, as the title suggests, a wife whose husband, a pilot named Pierre (Philippe Leroy), is often away. So she fills her day with distractions like fashion magazines or Robert (Bernard Noël), her lover. When her doctor tells her she is pregnant, she doesn’t know which of her men is the father and so must decide what to do. That’s the plot of A Married Woman but everything around it is the point.
Charlotte spends most of the first half of the film with men who are constantly cajoling her to do things she doesn’t want to do, insisting she remove pieces of clothing she would prefer to keep wearing, taking hold of her elbow and telling her where to sit and stand. Her husband casually threatens to rape her.
Yet she finds no solace in female company, either. Most of her interactions with women go no deeper than comparing bizarre beauty standards gleaned from magazines, such as the ideal number of inches from the nipples to the base of the neck. In one of the film’s best scenes, she passes an afternoon by eavesdropping on the conversation two younger women in a café are carrying on about their anticipated sexual adventures. Godard veers, in that section, into a kind of wholly subjective filmmaking, only showing us the other women as Charlotte would perceive them as she absentmindedly flips through the advertisements in one of her magazines.
That leads us directly into the most fascinating chunk of A Married Woman. Godard focuses intently on the powerful superficiality, the cheap but effective semiotics, of advertising, particularly how it depicts and attempts to influence women. For Charlotte, print ads and billboards at first represent a fantasy into which she can escape but, as Godard depicts them in increasingly tight, overwhelming close-ups, they become malevolent and oppressive.
It’s ironic that Godard, whose prioritization of impressionistic techniques like jump cuts over serving the needs of the narrative would go on to influence so much of filmed advertisements, had such a preoccupation and a good deal of disdain for advertising itself. The difference is that he used his tricks not to reduce his subjects to commodities but to find something more in them than initially meets the eye. A Married Woman opens with a series of close-ups of Charlotte’s body, disembodied fragments of a person who will soon insist, “I prefer American films. Hollywood.” Yet it’s this very French (and very good) film that seeks to understand her.