Godard gets heartfelt
By Michael Roberts
"I don't think you should feel about a film. You should feel about a woman, not a movie. You can't kiss a movie." ~ Jean-Luc Godard
I don’t know about you but when I think of Godard and the first phase of his work from 1960 to 1965 I think of words like anarchic, fun, subversive, challenging, difficult, frivolous et al… but maybe above all, intellectual. After all here was a man deconstructing what he considered to be a moribund medium, and remaking it in his own image. To discover here, a Godard emotionally connected, serious and heartfelt?! (Who knew?) and where's the postmodernist irony in that?! Godard had used romance and romantic tropes before, especially in the haunting score for Le Mépris by Georges Delerue, but the savage subtext of disintegration and decay was more delineated in Le Mépris than it is with Une femme mariée, where ambiguity rules and there are no black and white answers.
This rarely seen gem from 1964 is a fantastic depiction of a woman’s dilemma that could easily have descended into melodrama in lesser hands, but comes off as art of a high calibre indeed. The style of the opening echoes Alain Renais’ masterpiece Hiroshima Mon Amour, and the spare black and white mis en scene recalls Bresson and Bergman. Godard himself said, "seeing Hiroshima gave one the impression of watching a film that would have been quite inconceivable in terms of what one was already familiar with in the cinema", he also said of Renais' masterpiece, "All was permitted, I said to myself, there had already been Bresson, we had just had Hiroshima, a certain kind of cinema had just ended, well, then, let's put the final period to it, let's show that anything goes".
From the start we see a meeting of lovers, just hands and arms across a bed. The only extra piece of information he gives us via a ring is she is married. Even though she’s wearing nothing, when the male lover says "take it off", it forces us to recognise his discomfort with it i.e. she’s not married to him. The indications are it’s an unhappy marriage and she’ll leave it for love, our assumptions are challenged when we meet hubby and discover the connection is strong and not easily severed.
Within this melodrama Godard layers his usual riffs on consumerism, Americanism, capitalism and cinema-ism. His muse this time is not his usual star and wife at the time, Anna Karina, but a close facsimile in Macha Meril, the perfect superficial but cool ‘60s girl. She agonises over fashion magazine dictates of the perfect breast measurements for a woman, and avoids talk of politics with her husbands business associate. She may be a bored middle class housewife, but she is the centre of her own soap-opera script universe. She takes inventory of her husband's flaws or her lovers good points as if she’s deciding on a new dress. Godard sprinkles her travels with incessant shots of advertising hoardings aimed at her demographic, as if she’s unable to escape the ubiquity of commercial demands. Everything is a product to be pitched at, even her desire it seems.
Raoul Coutard shoots in gorgeous black and white and it is as if we are witnessing a film of a photographic exhibition at times, the framing is so still and deliberate. Interestingly Coutard started his career as a photojournalist. Godard unveils the action with a minimum of fuss, giving Charlotte (Meril) a limited circuit to travel while getting to grips with her dilemma. She seems to have all the mythical ‘60s freedom women were starting to demand in a fast changing world, and Godard has great fun in showing what’s on offer to the modern woman, only to have her undone by her biology, falling prey to the oldest imperative, procreate or perish. Instantly she has to reassess her worth in light of the pregnancy and it changes how she views both her husband and her lover.
Une femme mariée: Suite de fragments d'un film tourné en 1964, to give the film its full title, was Godard's follow up to his charming and entertaining crime film spin on Jules et Jim, in Bande à part. With that film coming after Le Mépris the period represents the closest thing to mainstream or commercial success that Godard enjoyed, when the palette of the public was able to enjoy the spicy servings he offered. Godard moved on to the detective 'future noir' of Alphaville, before hitting the psychedelic riot that was Pierrot le fou, before his tastes and that of his audience started to part company.
Of course with Godard there are no easy answers, just a fascinating journey with a question mark ending. Une femme mariée may stand as an atypical work in the Godard canon, but its assured style and artistic heart mark it as the work of a master. Marvellous.