For me, Godard is easily the greatest living filmmaker; the most radical and revolutionary, one of the few director's whose work is so defiant, unique and idiosyncratic that he can go without credit on some of his greatest films - Weekend (1967) and Hélas pour moi (1993) to name just two - and yet, the work is always distinctive, exciting and immediately identifiable. Une femme est une femme (1961) was Godard's first film in colour and also his first in cinema scope, and he uses both of these devises to the fullest of their capabilities. As a result, it is one of the most important films of his career, sowing the seeds of creativity that would give way to later films like Le Mepris (1963), Pierrot le fou (1965) and La Chinoise (1967), and in the process creating a unique and entertaining film that rewards repeated viewings, whilst simultaneously remaining true to the filmmaker's progressive, cinematic intent. Like much of Godard's earlier work, the preoccupations here are almost entirely referential. He's still trying to revolutionise the format somewhat - playing with codes and conventions, simplifying character and narrative to an almost ironic degree and creating the drama from an accumulation of scenes - but there is also something more playful going on alongside a genuine love of cinema that is all too often overshadowed by the cynicism in his more recent work, such as Slow Motion (1980) and the underrated In Praise of Love (2001).
At first glance, the story of Une femme est une femme would seem to be incredibly sweet; a play on relationship difficulties and notions of love, honour and friendship wrapped up in the eternal battle of the sexes in a way that makes for great, light-hearted farce. However, on closer inspection, the giddy production design and typically imaginative use of mise-en-scene seem to be presenting a number of abstractions that draw our eye away from the deeper themes behind the film and the characters that are introduced. Like Jean Pierre Jeunet's Amélie (2001), the colourful format and child-like games being played by both character and filmmaker alike seem to be hiding darker notions that point towards ideas of loneliness, emasculation and dissatisfaction. With this in mind, we must ask ourselves if Godard's playful references and elements of sardonic pastiche are intended to be seen as something chic, or are they instead more in tune with the escapism presented by a film like Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark (2000), in which musical sequences and the air of American melodrama is used as an exit point for the hopelessness of the central character.
With this interpretation it is important to look at the character of Angela, a strip-club artist in a tempestuous relationship with the cold and chauvinistic Emile. Angela delights in playing games with Emile and with the audience as well; acting out her existence as if trapped between the continually juxtaposing worlds of the sitcom and the Hollywood musical as a desperate attempt to derive a simple sense of pleasure from a life that seems entirely joyless. She believes her relationship with Emile can be salvaged by the birth of a child, but when Emile seems unwilling and unaccommodating she turns to his best friend Alfred and begins yet another duplicitous game between the two. This throws something of a shadow over the character of Angela, her name itself creating an ironic juxtaposition as she plays the two men off against each other in an attempt to get what she wants. These issues would appear in subsequent Godard films, from Vivre sa vie (1962) to Slow Motion, with the depiction of women as performers, and indeed, women as prostitutes, seemingly allowing themselves to be put-upon in an attempt to get what they really want. Unsurprisingly, these are serious themes and issues with real dramatic weight that could, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, have been used to mine a path of social-realist melodrama. Godard is more shrewd than that and presents the film as a carefree farce that is continually undercut by the distancing and distracting use of both audio and visual experimentation.
Despite the darker and more despairing thematic issues presented by the script, the tone of the film and the central performance from Anna Karina as Angela is undoubtedly bubbly, with its vibrant conversations, imaginative use of role playing and blithe musical interludes. However, the film is still reliant on Godard's iconic use of early deconstructive elements, with jarring and dissonant bursts of music, random jump cuts, provocative inter-titles filled with sardonic wit and devious puns, and the appropriation of numerous genre characteristics and stylistic cross-references to offset the story at its most basic level. Regardless of such personal interpretations, the film works just as well if taken at face value, with the boundless energy and imagination of Godard and his crew, the playful references to Truffaut and the relationship between the burgeoning French New Wave and its roots in Hollywood B-pictures, and the fantastic performances from Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Without question, Une femme est une femme could be seen as Godard's first true masterpiece. It is funny, witty, clever and insightful - filled with imaginative vignettes and the infectious sense of joie de vivre that only great film-making can present - whilst beneath the surface we find all manner of hidden depths and avenues of interpretation that remind us of the filmmaker's particular sense of genius. Regardless of your interpretation, the final moments of Une femme est une femme, with that devilish last line, visual pun and wink to the camera is a masterstroke from Godard; one that works within the context of the film as a frothy attempt at jovial farce, whilst simultaneously reinforcing the darker side of Angela's character and the empty life that she leads. As the character herself proclaims halfway through; "I don't know if this is comedy or tragedy... but it is a masterpiece".
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