Une femme est une femme/
A Woman Is a Woman (1961)

[3983 words]

Une femme est une femme is an anti-musical, in which all the conventions of the genre are subverted: the actors fail to perform professionally as singers or dancers, the scenes take place in real, noisy bistros, a dreary newsagents and a cramped apartment rather than sumptuous sets (though filmed on set). Even Paris looks overcrowded rather than picturesque. 

The music/sounds we hear ranges across snatches of classics, radio commentary, and a full-length (but off-screen) version of Charles Aznavour's bilious though sly "Tu te laisse aller" ("You let yourself go"). The filming, unusually for a musical, is documentary-style. The disruption of conventional style is the film's hallmark, to the point of irritation for some viewers all of the time and probably for all viewers some of the time.

The least popular of Godard's pre-1968 films, it has been dismissed by the director himself as "a dumb film, without energy" -- "un film niais, sans vigueur". Godard is not always a reliable critic of his own movies, usually because he has moved so far beyond his position at the time of making the film. A woman is a woman (certainly a dumb title for the 21st century) received two prizes from the Berlin Film Festival that year (one for Anna Karina as a newcomer), and after four feature films Godard described it in 1962 as "the film I like best".

Godard later revised his opinion, but others have put it high on their list of essential Godard films." Une Femme est Une Femme is one of the few absolutely necessary films in Godard's canon. It describes lyrically the sentiments, that when later contrasted with method, will yield his politics." -- James Monaco (1976:118) .

I think the director is more right than wrong in his dismissal of his third full-length film and seventh film in toto. In fact, even when he liked it he suggested "sick children are those one likes the best".

Leonard Maltin's Review , which misdates the film and reverses the role of the two main male characters, describes it as "occasionally spirited, but mostly a self-indulgent trifle". In fact, its indulgence is of Anna Karina, who had little experience at the time and almost no talent for song or dance and little evident ability at acting in French. 

A 20-year-old appearing in her third film, she first met Godard when he was interviewing (or rather, taciturnly viewing) actresses for a secondary role in A Bout de souffle . A year later she received a telegram offering her the starring part in his second film. She was the girlfriend in Le Petit Soldat (1960). 

Paul Gégauff , an actor who was a major background figure in the French New Wave, reported: "He fell in love with Anna Karina in silence." Anna Karina said she would have loved to be in a musical comedy. Une femme est une femme is the result (though he has also said he wrote the scenario before A bout de souffle) .

Godard's later dismissal of the picture may be partly a device to avoid awkward questions. In earlier interviews he describes it as "really my first film" ( mon vrai premier film ). He says Philippe de Broca in fact directed a version first from the outline published in Cahiers du Cinéma in August 1959 (this was Les Yeux d'Amour ). Of his effort, he says: "Of all the films I've made, this stayed closest to its script."

It is also his only film to be made in a commercial studio. In explanation of his declaration in 1962 that "it's the film I like most", Godard remembers it for his "discovery of color and live sound". His previous films were in black-and-white and post-dubbed (the standard method). "I also discovered Scope [widescreen] with Une femme est une femme , " he adds.

Nevertheless, the product -- despite its frenetic switches of tone and experimentation -- can seem remarkably unengaging 30 years after its first appearance. 

His most sympathetic critic, Susan Sontag, does not deal with it at any length in her February 1968 review of his career to that date. The wilful indulgence of 'cute' ideas, a constant tic of Godard's, does not wear well, though one man's tic is another's experimentalism. 

It would be wrong to dismiss it as a complete failure, however, and viewers new to Godard have been able to enjoy it even in the 21st century. If anything, its faults make it easier to see how imaginatively Godard uses cinema techniques that remarkably presage those used by Website designers. And Sontag sympathetically notes that Godard's revolution was to subvert the notion that cinema should be entertaining: the irritation he provokes may be deliberate, a device to avoid being 'charming' (as he was in A bout de souffle ). 

This is an important insight which has not been followed up by many later critics, who have tended to fall into exasperation rather than seeing that the frustration they felt was more than probably willed by a relentless experimenter who is determined to keep his audiences on their toes and (permanently if not constantly) interested. Susan Sontag speaks of the results as "something harmonious, plastically and ethically engaging, and emotionally tonic."

The story can be simply summarized: Angéla Recamier (Godard still loves to play these sort of games, referring to French classicism and pre-revolutionary 18th-century life to point up the disconnection from present day) decides she wants to have a child with her lover Emile ([a nod to Rousseau?] played by Jean-Claude Brialy). On the day when a calculator tells her conception is most likely, Emile does not want to have a child. 

As a result of a light-hearted suggestion that she find someone else to give her the baby, she goes to their friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Emile decides that they might as well have the baby after all, and they make love immediately to ensure that any child could be his. "Tu es infame" [You're a sly one], he says. "No," she replied, "je suis une femme" [I am a woman], for once making a joke in French.

The crass sexism, nearly 40 years later, is more obviously ironic, though the Aznavour diatribe ballad should have tipped off anyone wanting to check out the film for political correctness. The subject of Une femme est une femme ," Godard said later, "like my two other films, shows how a character resolves a certain situation. But I conceived this subject within the framework of a neo-realist musical. This is an absolute contradiction , but that is precisely what interested me in the film."

What you do see is a "musical" of a very unusual kind filmed with neo-realist techniques, so that the realism bounces off the fantasy with sometimes amusing effects. A lover's quarrel is intercut with stirring 'operatic' music between each riposte. Framed by a doorway when the couple start to argue, Karina reminds her husband they should bow through the audience before they start their 'act'. She walks through a "clothes-changing device" at the night club that transforms her stage dress into her street clothes and raincoat. 

It's hard to imagine silly British comedies like Richard Lester's The Knack (1965), The Bed Sitting Room (1969), his Beatle films, or Jim Jarmusch's po-faced farces without the freedom to mix moods and styles that Godard gave them with this film. The early French crime film director Louis Feuillade, whose Arsène Lupin series was particularly praised by the directors of the Nouvelle Vague (see below), mixed deliberately fantastic plots with realistic décors, as Susan Sontag has noted.

For sheer inventiveness, look at the way Godard runs titles across the screen during a pan around the Recamier's apartment. A pan right from Brialy standing at an open window has titles in the convention fashion. The film then pans left again (unexpectedly). He puts a first phrase on the right of the screen ("she loves him"), then the phrase to before it the left of it ("because"), and so on, ending with Brialy in the same position as before and then climbing out of the window. This is sheer exuberance at the things you can do with film. It works but I can't remember seeing titles used this way before this film or after. 

Even in 1967 the opening credits could be described as "sparkling". They include a reference to René Clair's 14 Juillet (the French national holiday of 14 July). The holiday mood is set immediately but also the knowing references to other films. There's a nod to Tirer sur le pianiste/Shoot the Pianist , François Truffaut's film that may have inspired Godard with its mix of styles (he rated it as one of the best films of 1960). 

Karina talks about longing to be in a musical as Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly, "with choreography by Michael Kidd" according to the summary but in fact "with choreography by Bob Fosse" in the film (perhaps Godard decided in favour of real rather than fantastic film history). It's worth remembering that Godard said of Jacques Tati: "With him, French neo-realism was born" and suggested that with Mon Oncle (1975) Tati perhaps established himself as the best comic French director.

Among the jokes: the calculating wheel used by Angéla to determine the best time to have a baby is one used by Catholics as an alternative to the "rhythm method" to determine when it was safest to have sex without the risk of conceiving. She puts her faith in the device because it is "scientific".

The ideas succeed each other with any apparent concern for whether they are good or bad (which is a regular complaint against Godard's production). A terrorist-hunting policeman sees Brialy reading the Communist Party newspaper and says: "You read L'Humanité . Bravo, continue." In the street a newsboy cries: " Figaro Littéraire! "(this turns out to be a song from an ad).  Brialy rides around the tiny white apartment on his bike.

After Brialy tells Karina he is not talking to her any more, they exchange insults through the titles of books and scribbled messages on book covers in their apartment. It's a (arguably) neat idea (picked up by Sontag as evidence of Godard's continual literariness) but it would have been funnier if standard works had been used.

Likewise, in the first scene between Brialy and Karina, the "musical" elements are funny (bombastic music intercuts the dopey dialogue just like real opera), but Brialy is wearing a hat, overcoat and scarf in the newsagents where we see him serving two children ("Don't you have something more sexy?" [than Sleeping Beauty ] the boy asks). 

All the mixed messages seem to be there solely to enable Brialy to deliver the plot line "You always want the impossible" to Karina, who is seen looking at a book about having a baby (on a shelf marked Arts and Letters next to a cinema magazine) and then says, when he asks her why she is crying (which Karina shows no sign of doing): she would like to be "both the tiny animals at the same time" on a postcard of what looks like a whale and its offspring.

In another scene, also highlighted by Sontag, Karina tosses an omelette, goes out to answer the phone, and dashes back to the kitchen to catch the omelette before it lands. 

More down-to-earth farce makes its appearance when a couple of 'blind' beggars challenged by Belmondo apologize for importuning him, lift up their spectacles and explain that they did not recognize him because they cannot see a thing with their dark glasses. This could have come out of the Marx Brothers or the British Goon Show. It was certainly rare to see such silliness on screen in French films of the time.

The "sparkling" opening titles (see end of review*) begin over the sound of a ?director/conductor calling people to their places, an assemblage of names and ideas that succeed each other like pieces of a jigsaw being dealt out to Godard to play with, then moving to photos of the principal players and the title over a scene which is the opening for the film with the voice over of a woman calling: "Lights, camera, action!". At the time, its originality was in the sure touch with which the opening credits, title and first scene were linked together[c.f. Bergman's The Silence a few years later].

Godard shows an off-hand mastery of cinema techniques, but in this early film fails to use them to full effect. The first scene turns out to be as irrelevant as any in a Hollywood thriller: a Paris café where Karina orders a coffee, asks the time, and runs away saying she is late on hearing it is 5.30. It seems there only to provide shots of Karina walking through the Paris streets.

Throughout the movie, for example, the décors are as bright as a musical of Stanley Donen's. The primary colors (red for Karina, blue for Brialy, yellow-white for the apartment walls in one scene) prefigure Godard's schematic color-choices for the more 'serious' La Chinoise (1967). However, in another major scene Karina is in bright blue (Belmondo is continually in brown). 

The colours are not there just to give the scenes an easy vivacity, however. His commentary to a disk of the film suggests that "two eyes blue: Giraudoux" and "A red umbrella: Aragon". Later in the commentary he reports: "Angela gallops to the Napoleon. Blue coat, white fur, red beret, for her the [national anthem's] jour de gloire has arrived." 

But little is really made of this element: he suggests that Belmondo is like Paula Illery in 14 July , hopelessly in love. The clues for the viewer are scarce.

Anna Karina is a stripper but this decision apparently carries no social message, unlike the dogmatic use of prostitution in later films (Godard described her as an actress, however, suggesting it exemplified his interest in things theatrical and insists that she "believes in her art") (from the song she performs, she does not appear very good).

He also explains that in the critical scene after Karina tells Belmondo she will lower the shades on the apartment if she is coming down to join him, we see the shades go up and down, then finally remain up. 

Godard's scenario says that Karina puts down the shades to tell Belmondo she is joining him, but Brialy comes home, asks why it is so dark and pulls up the shades. "Paul [Alfred] makes several false starts. Finally Paul forces Josette [Angéla] to leave the shades up, and Paul believes that Josette is reconciled with Emile, while it is exactly the opposite." 

On film all this is completely without explanation, and the Karina-Brialy argument in fact takes place on the stairs rather than in the apartment, as if Godard could not make up his mind whether to use the farce element or not, or thought it did not matter. 

It's a tribute to the profusion of his ideas that he can simply toss some away, but unfortunately here it gives the impression that he does not care what the audience knows.

The style, I would argue, reflects Godard's dilemma with traditional story-telling forms. A bout de souffle (1959) and Le petit soldat (1960) would not be conventional narratives by anyone else's standards but they do have a framework that could be described in the usual terms: 'the portrait of a petty gangster who runs afoul of a girl who can't make up her mind' or 'An Algerian right-wing assassin tries to win freedom for himself and his nationalist girlfriend by carrying out a killing, only to discover that the woman has already been murdered'. Raymond Durgnat, who does not like most of Godard's films, says the first two fiction movies "are perhaps Godard's best because, jump cuts apart, they are completely traditional in their conception, construction and dialogue. Indeed, they are models of their kind."

In later films Godard has tended to reject this kind of filming. For example, he has said that though he admires William Faukner's Wild Palms , if he received a commission to film it he would intersplice a reel from one of his films with a reel from another, imitating the structure rather than the story. Much has been made in Godard's work of the distinction between the two French pioneers of film-making: "the spectacle side, Meliès, and the Lumière side, which is that of exploration [documentary]" as Godard has said, quoting Truffaut.

In the first extended treatment in English of Godard's work, Richard Roud noted that "A director like Feuillade, consciously or unconsciously, derived much of the strength of his melodramatic fiction films from his use of naked filmed reality. [...] But Godard seems more alive than most directors to these contradictions [between visual versus narrative, fiction versus documentary, and perhaps most important, reality versus abstraction]." 

The other pole of reference, Roud suggests, is Hegel: "Like Hegel," says Roud, "he has decided that truth and beauty lie, not in either alternative, nor yet in a synthesis of the two, but rather in a conscious exploitation of these seeming contradictions. (Angela is seen carrying a copy of Hegel's Aesthetics , remember).

Godard himself said in 1962: "I think that I start [...] from the documentary to give it the truth of fiction. [...] What also interests me is the theatrical side. [...] If I analyze myself today, I see that I have always wanted, at bottom, to make a documentary [ film de recherche ] in the form of a spectacle." 

Godard, of course, made his first film as a documentary and was first involved professionally in film-making as an actor (in a Jacques Rivette short). Sontag, again, does best at yoking these two aspects together: "The streak of movie-educated fantasy that runs through Godard's work is always qualified by the ideal of documentary truth."

However, it is a very strange kind of documentary: one that allows Belmondo to note in an early aside to the spectator when given the brushoff by Karina: "She leaves". Godard is not only reprising Belmondo's direct address to the audience in A Bout de souffle . Nor is he simply undercutting normal narrative expectations from realistic films (Shakespeare's plays for an earlier time are full of asides to the public). 

He is also incorporating yet another style of discourse/narration into his range. Something similar can be seen in his frequent use of "chapter headings", intertitles, actors' asides and bad lines, interviews and dialogues on philosophical/literary themes, theatrical "numbers" within the films, and the varieties of narrative voice he tries, even to using himself as an actor (and usually a buffoon version of his character). 

Sontag is one of the few critics who seem to have understood Godard's use of literary allusion and quotation in this same vein: "The spectator is almost bound to be misled if he regards these texts simply, either as opinions or characters in the film or as samples of some unified point of view advocated by the film which presumably is dear to the director."

Ian Cameron has also mapped the development of Godard's approach to filming very well: "Already in A Bout de souffle he was making a film as an assemblage of fragments, in this case composed of footage which he thought was good, arranged in a simple narrative order. In his later films, the fragments are very much more disparate in nature, making the assemblage method more apparent, and the order of the fragments often becomes quite complex." 

Cameron also notes that Une femme est une femme is the last of Godard's films to show his earlier insouciance with fragments, having served its purpose. In a jokey sentence, Godard in this film describes an author would obviously like to have said of all productions: Karina says that it doesn't matter whether this is a comedy or a tragedy, because it is in any case a masterpiece. In any case, it refers back to a question by Belmondo when Brialy asks him to give Karina a baby ("Is this a comedy or a tragedy?") and Brialy's answer ("You never know with a woman").

Sontag underlines the improvisatory air Godard gives to all his films, and notes that ideas -- despite all the literary quotations and references -- are not developed systematically, just as narratives and plot developments are sliced up or left obscure. "The audience is presented with a narrative line that is partly erased or effaced ( the structural equivalent of the jump cut)". 

In this fragmentary style, conventional realism can be accepted or rejected at any moment of the film: as Sontag underlines, few of Godard's characters can naturalistically have the literary preoccupations and interests shown in his films (philosophy in his prostitute's tale Vivre sa vie , action hero Lemmy Caution's literary allusions in Alphaville , for example).

But one should note some recurring preoccupations of Godard (all found in Une femme est une femme ): the shaggy dog story (usually humorous), books, documentary shots (of urban scenes, the countryside), the philosophy of authenticity, the use of professional actors, improvization, dissociative sound, American popular culture (musicals, thrillers and screwball comedies).

However, the variety of these interests overwhelms the narrative that does exist in Une femme est une femme . Our expectations are not just regularly thwarted, they are regularly re-aroused by conventional plot elements that in fact have little relevance to Godard's real interests. And it's easy to overlook just how knowledgeable Godard is about cinema or how much he obviously has thought about issues of theatricality and presentation. 

In contrast to Welles and photographer Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane , Godard built ceilings into the sets of the only film he made in a studio simply to prevent technicians from lighting from above. His aim was to flatten lighting towards realism rather than astonish through bravura naturalism. 

He also went into the film knowing that "musical comedy is dead. [...] Even for Americans, there would be no sense in remaking Singin' in the Rain . " So what kind of film could be made with this knowledge? A film impregnated with "nostalgia for the musical." 

The self-conscious awareness of being filmed is something that preoccupied Dziga Vertov, the Russian film director whose name the Maoists joined by Godard took for their group in May 1968. Richard Roud has also given another reading to Godard's improvisatory style: an obsession with capturing the passing moment, in the "the everyday into an artistic creation through the power of abstraction". Several of his co-workers have attested to his determination to use real sound and whatever took place once filming started

The most extended critical account of Une femme est une femme , by Edgardo Cozarinsky, observes: "I am not even sure if it is a very good film. But somehow I don't care. [...] The only way to come to terms with the film, as with all of Godard's output, is to appreciate the range of meaning not imprisoned in the work but alluded to, pointed at, juggled with, even contradicted. This is, in a way, a conditional art, self-questioning, investigating the sensibility of the 'sixties on more levels than journalism, the plastic arts or social anthropology have dared to tread."

Cozarinsky gives more weight to the film than perhaps it deserves. But it is an accurate description of the most interesting elements to be found in Godard's later and better films (at least until 1968, the period the French know as Les Années Karina /The Karina Years).

After 15 feature films, Pauline Kael summed up: "At thirty-seven, he is in something of the position in the world of film that James Joyce was at a considerably later age in the world of literature; that is, he has paralyzed other filmmakers by shaking their confidence (as Joyce did to writers), without ever reaching a large public. [...] It's possible to hate half or two-thirds of what Godard does -- or find it incomprehensible -- and still be shattered by his brilliance. Again like Joyce, Godard seems to be a great but terminal figure."

Sontag, on the other hand, makes it clear why she thinks we ignore even his minor films at our peril: "One of the most modern aspects of Godard's artistry is that each of his films derives its final value from its place in a larger enterprise, a life work. Each film is, in some sense, a fragment -- which, because of the stylistic continuities of Godard's work, sheds light on others."

In the case of Une femme est une femme , it is easy to see the elements of Godard's style at work -- rapid cutting, unmatched shots, flash shots, the alternation of sunny takes with gray ones, the counterpoint of prefabricated images, discontinuous music, and their deliberate fragmentation of cinematic narrative (Sontag's phrase). 

Oddly enough, it is probably the exclusion of Godard's philosophical ideas (which enrage so many critics and viewers) that makes this film a minor movie in his canon. With nothing more to engage with than clichés about "woman" (and needing to take them at least half-seriously), the musical ends up very shallow, without even song-and-dance numbers for us to remember, even if it did inspire Jacques Demy to make Les parapluies de Cherbourg .

Finally, Godard's fundamental standards of professionalism are shown in his treatment of Karina. His demands on her dancing and musical talents at this stage are minmal, while the acting she is required to perform works through parody, "vamping" and mugging rather than creating a character, performance not imitation. 

He even keeps in a fluffed line and her question, though this has been interpreted as simply demolishing the barrier between the actress and the character she is playing. She still manages to be in virtually every scene without becoming obtrusive. And in later films Karina justified his confidence in her ability, putting on screen some of the most affecting performances of the decade.

Postscript: The film is often noted as running 84(Roud, p159/Douin, p129) or 85 minutes (Movie, p137). Collet, however, clocks it at 1h18min (p174) and this is the length of the version I saw. It is also sometimes dated as 1960, though Roud (p159) says it was filmed during November 1990-January 1961. In any case, mistrust the English subtitles, particularly with regard to the translation of the Aznavour song played on the jukebox and the song performed by Anna Karina.

* Titles sequence:

There was (green type)

once (green)[, i.e. once upon a time/one time]

Beauregard (producer)(red)

Eastmancolor (green)

Ponti (producer)(red)

Ran Chement Scope (green)

Godard (red)

Comedy (green)

French (green), together Comédie Française

Coutard (photographer) (red)

Musical (green)

Legrand (composer)(red)

Theatrical (green)

Evein (red)

Sentimental (green)


Opera (green)

Lubitsch (blue)

14 July (blue)

Cinema (red)

[Then the photos of the principals]

Brialy (white)

Karina (white)

Belmondo (white)

Une femme est Une femme (red)

She is seen with a red umbrella and white raincoat.


Cahiers du Cinéma No 138, December 1962, reprinted in Godard (1968) p284-322 and in Godard (1985) p26-65.

Elizabeth Cameron (1967) 'Filmography ∓ Bibliography', in Movie (1967).

Jean Collet (1963/1968) Jean-Luc Godard , Cinéma d'Aujourd'hui 18, Editions Seghers.

Jean-Luc Douin (1989/1994) Jean-Godard , Rivages, ISBN 2-86930-845-0.

J. Emerson (ed.) (1996)"Cinemania ‘96", Microsoft CD-ROM.

Jean-Luc Godard (1968) Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard , Editions Pierre Belfond. All the texts cited can also be found in Godard par Godard .

Jean-Luc Godard (1985) Godard par Godard: Les années Karina (1960-1967) , Flammarion. ISBN 2-08-081517-2.

Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie (1994) The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue , Indiana University Press.

Pauline Kael (1970) Going Steady , Bantam 1971.

Colin MacCabe (1980) Godard: Images, Sound, Politics , Macmillan.

Movie (1967) The Films of Jean-Luc Godard , Movie Paperbacks, Studio Vista.

Richard Roud (1967) Godard , Cinema 1 Series, Secker and Warburg/British Film Institute.

Susan Sontag (1976) Styles of Radical Will , Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Noonday ISBN 0-374-51364-3.