Continuing my look at the films of Jean-Luc Godard (from the 1960s, at least), I turn to four films from 1964 to 1966 his eighth through 11th features. They mostly dealt with his themes prostitution and consumerism, and how they were the same thing.
A Married Woman, from 1964, is Jean-Luc Godard’s eighth feature. It begins with two sets of hands playing against a white background. The female pair belongs to Charlotte, Macha Méril, and the male to her lover, Bernard Noël. She is, as the title suggests, married to someone else, and asks him if he will marry her if she gets a divorce. The film ends with those hands disappearing off the screen.
The scene is something like that of the opening of Contempt, as we see her a series of parts–no shots of her as a whole. Hands, feet, eyes, belly button (this when talking about if she will bear him a child). It’s very sexy, but also suggests that she is not a complete person without a man.
Charlotte is married to Pierre (Phillipe Leroy) and has a step-son. She is concerned that he has hired private detectives to spy on her (she was caught once, and he thinks the affair is over). As she goes about her day, she and we are inundated with images from fashion magazines. Godard would go on to use this theme throughout the ’60s–he seemed to be obsessed with ads for bras. Indeed, one funny scene has Charlotte using an article to figure out if she has perfectly shaped breasts. It seems that perfection is an equilateral triangle from the base of the neck to each nipple.
Later she will find out she is pregnant but is not sure which man is the father. Needless to say this was pretty scandalous for 1964, even in France. The censorship board banned it, as they said it suggested all married woman were adulterous.
Also per usual for Godard, there are many references that can be explored. The lover is an actor who is performing in Racine’s Berenice, and the two meet at a movie theater playing Night and Fog, the holocaust film. This is not the only time that subject pops up, as Pierre and a friend are watching the Auschwitz trials. Linking an affair by a bourgeois woman and the holocaust left me scratching my head.
A Married Woman is provocative while at the same time seeming light, an interesting balancing act. It was followed by the outlier of the bunch, Alphaville. As usual with Godard, the concept is more interesting than the execution. He mashes two genres: film noir and science fiction. Eddie Constantine, an actor who was a star in Europe playing a secret agent called Lemmy Caution, plays that role here, trapped in the manner of American noir heroes: hard-boiled, a cigarette frequently dangling from his lip, wearing a fedora and trench coat. It’s as if a director had used Humphrey Bogart to play Philip Marlowe in a sci-fi film.
But the sci-fi angle is oblique. Alphaville is a city run by a computer, who speaks in a croaking voice that sounds as if it’s on a respirator (I wonder if George Lucas remembered this when he created Darth Vader?). Emotions and original thought have been eliminated, along with poetry and art. Citizens are not to ask “why?” but only say “because.” Those who express emotions, such as weeping for a dead wife, are considered illogical and executed (shot standing on a diving board, their bodies retrieved by synchronized swimmers).
Constantine comes from the “outer countries,” where love and conscience are still allowed. Though there is no love in Alphaville, there is sex. When he checks into his hotel, he is escorted by a “Level 3 Seductress,” who offers to share a bath with him. I’ll admit that feature would get me to a hotel chain.
The plot is a little fuzzy–Godard was never much interested in plot–but it appears Constantine was looking for a scientist (Akim Tamiroff, looking very out of shape) and then to dispose of the creator of the computer, Professor Von Braun (a nod to rocket science Werner Von Braun). The latter’s picture is on the walls everywhere, like a Big Brother (there are several connections with 1984) and his daughter, Anna Karina, both assists and bedevils Constantine. He, of course, falls in love with her, even though she does not know what the word “love” means.
Though science fiction, the film is set in the present (1965 is when the film was released), as Constantine refers to himself as a veteran of Guadalcanal. There are no futuristic sets–it was all shot in Paris, though some of the buildings were modern architecture, full of cube shapes and glass. The photography is the chiaroscuro of noir–we even get the old swinging, naked light bulb effect.
Alphaville can be enjoyed in a meta way, seeing where Godard got his ideas (there are references to Borges and Celine, and other writers), plus the amusing use of cliches from private eye films. Constantine has a showdown with the computer, in a precursor to HAL 9000–Constantine trips it up with a poetic riddle.
Even though this film is weird (there are frequent jump cuts, and insertion of random images, along with scientific formul’s such as E=MC2) Alphaville is the most accessible Godard film I’ve seen. If you’ve never seen a Godard, this might be a good place to start.
I think my favorite among all Godard films is 1965’s Pierrot le Fou, because it is laugh-out-loud funny. It is certainly not a traditional film, but it makes a certain sense, and has a ridiculously absurd ending. It also shows off the beauty of Anna Karina.
Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a recently laid off television executive, who is bored with his life. He goes to a party with his wife, and the babysitter is a woman (Karina) whom he had been in affair with some years earlier. The party scene is hilarious. Shot with color filters, the characters speak in ad copy, whether about shampoo or cars. Some of the women are topless.
Belmondo decides to take up with Karina, who is apparently being chased by spies. Her apartment is stockpiled with guns, and there is a corpse on the bed. The two take off, pursued by the law, and find a temporary idyll on the French Riviera, but Karina becomes bored and there is a suitcase full of money involved.
Pierrot le Fou (Karina calls Belmondo Pierrot, who was a sad clown, and every time she does he corrects her–“My name is Ferdinand”) sort of reminds one of Monty Python, with over the top images and a breaking off the fourth wall (it only happens once, when Karina asks who Belmondo is talking to–“the audience,” he says, and Karina looks at the camera, as if just noticing she’s in a movie). The title literally means “Pierrot the Madman,” and the film’s anarchic style is very winning.
Godard does have some serious things to say, but in a comic manner. The two fugitives meet some American sailors and decide to put on a play for them, which they call the “Vietnam War.” The American sailors hoot like demented sadists (this would begin Godard’s disdain for America, which would surface in the late ’60s). He did still admire American filmmakers, though, giving Samuel Fuller a cameo.
The ending has Belmondo, after Karina steals all his money and runs off with another man, wrapping dynamite around his head and lighting it. He changes his mind, but too late! Boom!
Finally is 1966’s Masculin Feminin. I saw this film back in college and remember it being bubbly and pleasant, two words you don’t often associate with Godard. It stars Jean-Pierre Leaud as Paul, a 21-year-old who is both political and horny. He is in love with a singer (Chantal Goya), who is kind of vacuous, but because he, like everyone else around him, is inundated with commercialism (much of it American) he can’t help himself. In a title card near the end of the film, Godard states that the movie could have been called “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.”
Masculin Feminin (while of course that translates as “Masculine Feminine,” I prefer to think of it as “Boys and Girls,” which is nearer the mark) is made up of fifteen scenes. Paul talks with a friend at a cafe, he rides the subway (and sees racism in action), he watches Goya cutting a record, and in perhaps the most telling scene he interviews a young model who has been named “Miss 19.” He asks her questions like “Does socialism have a future?” while she smiles vacantly.
The film was banned in France for those under 18, which Godard claimed was who the movie was for. I think it may be the best film about the ’60s counterculture ever made, and doesn’t have one set of beads or a fringed vest. It name drops some of the icons of that decade, such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and even has a cameo by Brigitte Bardot, but instead of exploring what those those people mean, they are just symbols. What seems true to life is that a young man is concerned about the war in Yemen but also about getting laid.
It has some typical Godard touches, such as the title cards, which contain phrases that sound profound: “The mole has no consciousness, but it burrows through the earth in a specific direction.”