A Movie Is a Movie, by Darrell Tuffs
Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (1961) opens like a grand theatre production, as we, the audience, are sat surrounded by darkness, in anticipation for the show to begin. An orchestra is heard warming up, a conductor is heard preparing, and huge blocks of one word text engulf the screen itself, quickly flashing relevant cue words such as “Eastmancolor”, “Musical” or “Sentimental”. Suddenly, the sounds cut, the words vanish, and from the silence, a French voice using American words shouts, “lights, camera, action!” From here on in, we are thrown into the magical world that is Godard’s A Woman is a Woman. The effect of this opening prologue is a startling one; the film feels unprepared, as though the audience caught a rare glimpse of the show before it began, while the curtain was still lowered, and the actors still in their dressing rooms. Godard, in this segment, seems to be setting up what is to come throughout A Woman is a Woman, in terms of its formalist aesthetic to emphasise the real, as well as laying down foundational rules of how we may view theatre, how we may view film, then attempting to mix and blend those contrasting sets of rules and expectations together. The first few shots of A Woman is a Woman see Angela (Anna Karina) walk into a bar, taking life, energy, and colour in with her. However, she leaves quickly due to lack of time, winking playfully at the audience as she does. In this wink from Karina, as well as in the opening sequence, Godard has created the sense of a musical, the sense of Hollywood, and the sense of the golden age. A Woman is a Woman is both a parody and pastiche of Hollywood musicals, while all the time never failing to give its audience a small, discrete and playful wink.
The core aesthetic theme of A Woman is a Woman is centred on Godard, at all times, letting the audience know exactly what he is trying to do. The film is as a puppet show; we understand that puppets cannot move by themselves because we see the string, we see the mechanisms, and socially understand the artifice behind the performance. The cinema does not often attempt to offer us such an opportunity to see behind its artistry, to see it’s strings. Not only does Godard in A Woman is a Woman allow us to see the film’s strings, but he forces us to look directly at them, and question their very nature. Ben Lacker points out that, within the film, Godard “plays with our notions of truth and falsehood and blurs the boundaries between frivolity, irony, and seriousness.” (Lacker) As well as many occasions of the film’s characters looking directly into the camera’s lens, we are also given very direct lines of dialogue, ones that completely acknowledge the authenticity of the viewing audience, as well as the deceptive nature of the performers and performances. During an early sequence in which Angela and Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) argue in their studio apartment, Emile, at first, walks into another room, still shouting to Angela as he moves. However, Godard’s camera does not follow Emile, but instead, stays fixated on a medium close-up of Angela, as if the audience of a theatre production are viewing only one room, and Emile has exited the stage. When Emile returns to the same room as Angela, they pause for a slight moment, suggesting that before they continue their argument, it would be sensible to first bow to the audience, which they then do. This not only breaks the fourth wall between performers and audiences, but completely deconstructs it, brick by brick. We as an audience are placed in between the social expectations of a cinema crowd, and a theatre crowd. On odd occasions, actors from other new wave films begin to appear, mentioning their roles, such as Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character, who states his anticipation to catch Breathless (1960) on TV one night, a film of which he himself stars in. Cinema audiences are rarely confronted so directly with the actors of a film, so the way in which character is presented to us through A Woman is a Woman becomes not only shocking, but also comical, as we are given permission by Godard to laugh at situations that, otherwise, we might feel are quite mundane.
Godard also uses cinematic techniques to comment upon cinema itself, most strikingly within the film’s lighting. The colours, textures and lighting we witness in A Woman is a Woman might be collectively described as realist pop art, or even modernist pop art. The colours and style of the film “pop”, with bold colours representing each character and setting. Angela is mostly seen wearing bright red, while Emile wears blue, and for Alfred, (Belmondo) greens and browns. These strong colour representations harbour the feeling of theatre costumes, as another unnatural, but noticeable construction of artificiality, only, one that, through such bright and distinctive colours, Godard wants audiences to notice, and draw questions from. Supporting this is the way in which Godard uses directional artificial light, and unnatural lens flares in the film, particularly during the sequences at the club, at which, Angela strips for a living. Artificial lamps and spotlights shine directly into the camera’s lens as characters walk past them, creating small and large flares of light, which almost appear as brush strokes of colour over the film’s very celluloid. We might expect a director of a film to notice such things, and move the lights from shining directly into a camera, for the effect creates a break of continuity in a film since human eyes do not perceive an overflow of light as a camera does. But here, Godard doesn’t want continuity; Godard is not attempting to create an emotional and impactful story of which we as an audience can lose ourselves in. Instead, Godard is challenging us, he is forcing us to notice the colours of the film, to notice the lights, and to realise that we are seeing this world through a technologically constructed camera, of which, has become our eyes, and is deciding for us how we view this world. Godard, powerfully through the aesthetic look of A Woman is a Woman, invites us to reflect on film’s very form, in asking us, what is being shown, by what, and to what extent do we/should we believe in it?
A Woman is a Woman holds many sequences that play with cinematic camera techniques, particularly that of the moving camera. Godard chooses to mix strong influences associated with theatre production and visible construction, with influences specific to cinema, such as deep focus, and long camera takes. This creates a formalist viewpoint, from a realist point of view. Godard himself admits that he “deliberately shot (the film) in a manner that was the opposite from what it should have been. By going fast, by rushing things over … it’s almost automatic writing.” (Godard, 1972, p.29) Audiences, in viewing A Woman is a Woman, are witnessing a pastiche of theatre, within a parody of cinema. Godard over emphasises his drifting camera movements, and draws attention to the type of wide lens he uses, making us feel as though this film is very comfortable living within the world of cinema. But, to counterbalance this, Godard also draws attention to the staged positions of his characters, and keeps the image flat on many occasions, creating a feeling often associated with watching a stage production from a static audience viewpoint. For example, during an early extended sequence of Emile and Angela talking in their studio apartment, the camera flows from room to room, following each character as they move, in very wide shots, thereby emphasising the space around them, and opening the space up for flow of movement. However, the room is very enclosed, and the characters feel very filling within their surrounding space. So again, the cinematic technique that Godard employs feels off-kilter and unnatural in conjunction with the stage he uses it in, allowing us to question and take note of it. Later, while Emile threatens to call for Alfred out of the apartment window, the action of the film suddenly pauses, Angela and Emile become static, and the camera pans back and forth between them, like a mentally charged tennis match. As the camera pans, an internal and unspoken narration appears on-screen in the form of text, telling us what the characters are thinking, and where they are heading. Here, Godard seems to be reaching even further to make us notice, not only the style of the film, but this time, its content. While this camera movement occurs, an almost fish-eye lens is attached to the camera, creating a distorted 3D blur, which pushes forward the centre of the frame, and pushes back the sides. We are not only witnessing a typical camera movement, but are being made to notice how objects are moving within and passed the camera’s frame, and how the world is being perceived through and by this movement, allowing us to actively question film’s form, and consider its technique.
A key stylistic element of A Woman is a Woman is the fact that it holds no key stylistic element. The film is instead, a blending of many smaller styles associated with cinema, and in particular, musicals. With his first feature, Breathless, Godard deconstructed the Hollywood gangster picture. Here, he does the same for Hollywood musicals, while at the same time, building our expectations back up, only, in the wrong order. The film presents itself as a musical, and seemingly in love with musicals, however, Godard points out to us that this world doesn’t quite know how to be a musical, so instead, imitates them the best it can. Godard himself even often refers to the film as “the idea of a musical”, but what makes musicals musical? The music. Of which, A Woman is a Woman has little, apart from one song sung by Angela in a rundown strip club, and even then, the actual “music” cuts out whenever she opens her mouth to sing. The way her song is performed and captured by the camera, in big close-ups and grand wide shots, Angela seems like, in her head, she is performing to millions of people, desperate to catch a glimpse of her, on a gigantic stage. When in actual fact, she performs in a gloomy and empty strip club, filled only with a few half distracted older men. Angela’s mind-set in this scene reflects the mind-set of the film itself, while its style believes that its content is grand, important, and wide sweeping, we start to forget that, in actual fact, nothing much is happening at all. We are truly witnessing a “musical-of-the-mundane”. In reflection to this, the film’s background music is like a sharp knife, cutting and splicing the very edits of the film, and drawing extra attention to them. During one segment, while Angela is alone in her apartment, a friend calls to her from outside the window. The film cuts between the exterior and interior locations, breaking up a piece of music playing in Angela’s apartment, with the busy sound of the street, displaying them to us within the same scene, but creating distorting and jarring tonal and rhythmical shifts between them. As James Monaco writes about the film and its sound “If the most obvious aspect of a Musical is its music, Godard will separate that element from the rest … to focus our attention on the film rather than the action in it” (Monaco, 1976, p.119). The same could be said for the music that plays during our introduction to Angela, as she walks down a busy street, the film’s soundtrack is almost muted, we cut to another angle, and suddenly, we hear every noise that surrounds her. We then cut again to hear a big and dramatic orchestral piece, as Angela enters a bookstore. While presenting us with these scenes, Godard is pointing out the fact that, the only reason we are jarred by this combination of elements, is because other films are constructed, other films are subtly mapped out, and lie to us through form. But, while Godard does everything he can to point out these elements, we are made conscious of them as elements, as smaller bits that make something larger, as stuff.
In conclusion, “stuff” is exactly what Geoffrey Nowell-Smith suggests that Godard is intentionally drawing our attention to, “that the film is ‘stuff’ and that what lies behind the magical illusion of cinema is a set of choices by the film-maker about how to put stuff together” (Nowell-Smith, 2008, p.191-192). Using A Woman is a Woman as a tool, Godard challenges the very form of cinema, and our expectations of it, but in doing so, invites us to challenge and explore cinematic form with him.
Godard, J, L. (1972) “A Movie Is a Movie”, Focus On Godard, Ed Royal S. Brown, London: Prentice Hall.
Lacker, B. “Godard’s Ironic Erotics in Une Femme Est Une Femme”, PDF at http://www.nyu.edu/cas/ewp/lackergodard05.pdf (Accessed: 25th March, 2015)
Monaco, J. (1976) “Godard Women and the Outsider”, The New Wave, New York: Oxford University Press.
Nowell-Smith, G. (2008) Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960’s, New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.