Having improvised a feature debut with unprecedented artistic freedom and making a hit of it, and having made a follow-up which nearly ruined his filmmaking career in France, Godard moved straight on to Une Femme est une femme (released here as A Woman is a Woman), which may be seen as an uneasy synthesis of his previous two films as well as marking a further innovation in Godard’s cinema.
Une Femme est une femme was sold as an extravagant musical comedy in the Lubitsch mode, but it was a film that arguably challenged its audience much more than À bout de soufflé and Le Petit Soldat. Angela (Anna Karina) works in a strip club and is married to Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy). She decides that she wants a baby, but Emile is not interested, and insists that they get married first. In the ensuing argument, Angela announced that she will find someone else to give her a baby if her husband won’t. This declaration threatens to ruin their marriage, which is further complicated by the appearance of Emile’s best friend, Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who is more than happy to help Angela out.
A synopsis of the film may sound like the plot of a risqué musical comedy – indeed something that Lubitsch, named during the opening credits, might have made. However, Godard’s intentions seem to be more serious than that, even if the loud Hollywood musical score suggests different. The film begins with a challenging confusion of sound. Angela walks into a café, goes to the jukebox and puts on a record. As she leaves, she winks slyly at the camera. However, when she steps out of the café and onto the busy street, there is near total silence – no score and not even the sound of traffic and pedestrians, only the sound of Angela’s footsteps. The next shot has direct sound – engines, horns, shouting. We cut to a high angle shot and there is silence again and then the shrill opening bars of a sentimental score. These sudden juxtapositions in sound are jarring, bewildering, even irritating, and they will continue throughout the film, but they can be seen to serve a purpose.
Angela states early in the film that she wants to be in a musical – to move from talk and drama suddenly into an exuberant musical number and vice versa – and the film does play as a film that wants to be a musical, but has real life to contend with. The soundtrack then may represent a battle between the drudgery of the real and the emotions of the Hollywood film. Indeed, the first instance, when Angela leaves the music of the café for the silence of the street, feels foreboding and sad – something is lost. However, after this shot and the following shot with raw city sounds, we return to hope (and possibly inside the character’s mind) – the sound elevating the raw footage to something magical. These shots, right at the front of the film, makes it clear that the film is about the opposition between fiction and reality, music and silence, our dreams and our lives.
The seediness of real life and the innocence of the musical is brought out further inside the strip club. When Angela performs, Godard separates her singing from the other noises in the scene. We hear her sing in close-up, her voice as if in a vacuum, sounding young and vulnerable (despite even the sleazy lyrics). Between verses, Godard cuts in Angela’s point of view – seedy characters and the dingy club floor – and removes the sound, creating a distancing effect that further emphasises Angela’s vulnerability and the disparity between her honest performance and the shady setting. Then, of course, the music suddenly kicks in and it blares her out. When she sings again, the background noise again disappears. Godard was to perfect this disassociated POV shot (where we see a disparity between what the character feels and what they and others see) in much more powerful effect in his next film, but it is nonetheless a powerful moment here.
Much of the rest of the film has a looser, sillier tone than these two sadder, darker early moments. While the film is never entirely comic, it is of a lighter tone and one will eventually get the impression that Godard achieved what he was trying to do much more effectively in miniature (the two scenes discussed above) than in the rest of Une Femme est une femme. The film does revel in Karina’s performance, which got her a prize in the Berlin Film Festival, in a way that recalls Bruno trying to capture a beautiful and real image of Veronica through artifice in Le Petit Soldat. The film ends happily, with Angela and Emile reconciled, though it is hard to be convinced, knowing that Hollywood levity rarely wins out when faced with a much darker reality.
Une Femme est une femme was a box office failure, and much of the blame can be placed on Godard’s tinkering with the sound design. While it does offer several fantastic moments, it is overall a challenging and slightly confounding film. It would mark the first time Godard would film a marriage (the long sequence in Angela and Emile’s apartment detailing the ups and downs of a disagreement would be repeated in Le Mepris and La Femme mariée) and it is also possible to read an autobiographical exploration of Godard’s relationship with Karina in this film, given that Emile acts like an intellectual to Karina’s performer. As it is though, it is a slightly dated musical-without-the-musical-numbers but one that is certainly not without interest.
After Godard made Une Femme est une femme, he found himself without an idea, a situation that would be repeated several times in his career. However, what he came up with next would end up being another one of his best films – Vivre sa vie.