“Why won’t you let me look at you?” he asks, while we do exactly that. There’s a hand with a ring on it. There’s a pair of legs, each bent, both crossed firmly across the frame. There’s a face—it belongs to Charlotte (Macha Meril), a married woman, seen here with her unmarried lover—and a pair of shoulders to support it. Director Jean-Luc Godard has composed the images separately, turning each segment into its own whole. He often fades out of individual shots even when they fade back into the same scene. Some have compared it to cubism. But it also recalls the experience of traveling around a sculpture, and seeing it from numerous positions (Beethoven string quartets intercede throughout, as though reverberating from a nearby courtyard). Next there’s a torso, as attractive as Aphrodite’s—Charlotte will later size her breasts up against those of the Venus de Milo. She’s nude throughout the entire scene, but she does keep that chest covered, with strategically placed hands and poses. That frustrates Robert, the unmarried man, more than once. Godard’s film is obsessed with busts, so the absence of Charlotte’s strikes you as deliberate. Another sculpture of the goddess of love, she maintains her modesty even at rest, and hides parts of herself forever.
The film is A Married Woman, and its onscreen subtitle provides more vital information: “fragments of a film shot in 1964, in black and white.” It goes on to study this living sculpture as she returns home to Paris with husband Pierre (Philippe Leroy), where she indulges his attractions while waiting for the next tryst with Robert (Bernard Noel). Meanwhile her inner life and sexual drive is shaped and invaded and manipulated by all comers: she’s married to a husband who rapes her (offscreen,) defined by foreign actions she’s unaware of (a discussion of the Auschwitz trials serves as a centerpiece,) clouded by the consistency of public advertising (more on that later,) and captivated by the dresses in each storefront (along with anything else that looks pretty and can be purchased.). Absurd flights of both reality and form ensue; for the former, there is a merger between the commercial broadcast and commercial aircraft industries, alongside news of nearly 2,000 dead per day in France via car accidents; for the latter, there are unsaid thoughts embedded in onscreen text, and reverse-printing effects that turn the color palette inside out. References to national culture abound throughout, from plays by Racine to films by Truffaut. Voices heard on the soundtrack seem to amalgamate the thoughts of the character, the filmmaker, and the audience—but come out in the form of digressions, like “Is there as much pain as rain?” Seven individual segments ensue once Charlotte is home (with titles like “Intelligence,” “Childhood,” and “Theatre and Love”), allowing characters to pontificate on subjects that cross between the physical, the psychological, and the philosophical. (“Pleasure and Science” begins with talk of conception, which leads to the question of whether or not physical pleasure increases the chances of conception, which in turn leads to the question of whether or not pleasure and love are the same thing.) Then Charlotte returns to Robert, so that film can end as it began—the sculpture having been circled entirely.
Of the 15 feature-length films that Godard directed in the first stage of his career, this is among the most rarely screened, alongside Les Carabiniers and Le Petit Soldat. That may be corrected in due time, as A Married Woman has recently been digitally restored and outfitted with cleaner subtitle translations (it’s currently touring movie theaters, and will be released on Blu-ray in late May.) It was hardly an obscurity, though; the film was celebrated in its native France upon its release. Godard had made it in a rush—the film was conceived and sold at Cannes in May of 1965, and then premiered on September 8 of the same year—and often had Meril improvising her dialogue. Her character, the married woman, is designed to be a dead ringer for Anna Karina (the lead actress in numerous other Godard films,) who was indeed married to Godard (and would work with him until 1967, though they divorced sometime in the interim,) and was indeed sleeping with other men prior to the making of this film. Quotes collected in Richard Brody’s text “Everything is Cinema” (one of the few English-language Godard books that dedicates significant space to the film in question) collectively suggest that the structural makeup of A Married Woman (an unfaithful wife exploring the way that a corrupt modern world has manipulated her into an amoral being) represented Godard wrestling with the very existence of her infidelity, and trying to come to terms with it (apparently willing to do so in fiction, if real life would not suffice.) If her infidelity was the despicable symptom, Godard decided to position the corporate-owned aspects of modern life as the disease (he also diagnoses himself via the film’s critique of territorial romance, once again deferring the cause to an outgrowth of commodity fetishism.) All that creates a political anomaly, when seen from America five decades later: his film is an anti-capitalist being, but characterized by a hyper-conservative moralism.
Charlotte’s first encounter with Robert comprises what used to be the first reel, back when this film was really exhibited on film. That’s the scene where they’re made into things—hands, feet, navels, ears, wedding rings. Charlotte’s husband does interrupt, in the form of jump cuts to the airplane he’s flying home on. Godard cuts to it in the center of their affair; it’s the trifling thought that interrupts the pleasure, if only for a moment. Godard never spares the husband from his pseudo-Marxist critique of our relationship with objects and objectification; Pierre’s interest in Charlotte sways between the overbearingly carnal and the violently possessive, depending on which way his dick is swinging. One long take has him literally chasing her down, in circles, until he finally has her pinned. She’s been using his Philips razor far too often, he complains, while she sits in the corner, framed by logos for Kleenex and Sony. Once again, she’s posed like a deity. In composing her body, Godard is always splitting the difference between magazine advertisements and religious art. When Pierre chases her around rooms—as he often does—she retains her studied poses. What’s clear is that this naif is being seen as an object. What’s not clear is who she belongs to.
Of course Pierre and Robert both think she belongs to them. Her eyes hide a distaste for everyone but herself, and a man’s ego can’t see past that surface. For them, she puts on the Aphrodite act. But for a trip to Printemps, she skips and leaps. For a brassiere advertisement, her eyes light up. Those initial poses for the camera may have been less abstract than they initially appeared—being the child of a department store catalog, they may have been engineered for herself. For Charlotte, development arrives unexpectedly, in her psyche and elsewhere. Godard’s form is continually linking the development of her mind and her body to the proliferation of purchased messages. Brand names hide in the mise-en-scene, magazine spreads take over the montage. And the desire of moneyed men lurks behind it all, telling a women what to wear, when they’re not telling her who to sleep with.
Godard would continue his interest in an omnipresent advertiser’s state in the years that followed: next with Alphaville, a dystopian sci-fi actioner wherein corporate-backed computers rule the world (Karina plays a character who literally cannot comprehend the meaning of love,) and then in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, another housewife profile, wherein branded products are granted more close-ups than human beings (in an early scene, said housewife interrupts news coming from Vietnam with a vocal reading of text from an apparel catalog.) A Married Woman is very much a forerunner to the latter film: both are semi-absurdist semi-satires that depict the psychological destruction of a seemingly-normal woman by consumerist culture, while digressing to also consider all the things that said consumerists ignore (culture, history, inner lives) in favor of buying new dishwashers or bras (or, in our case, new iPhone models.) The Married Woman even shares a visual metaphor with Two or Three Things, in the form of the cranes and workers clanging away, building a modern city behind our heroine’s head. Where we see an advertisement, Godard sees construction.
A MARRIED WOMAN. KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA. ONE KENDALL SQUARE AT 355 BINNEY ST., CAMBRIDGE. NOT RATED. OPENS 4.15.
ALPHAVILLE IS AVAILABLE FOR STREAMING RENTAL ON AMAZON, ITUNES, AND OTHER VOD OUTLETS.
TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER IS AVAILABLE FOR STREAMING VIA HULU PLUS.
GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, A GODARD-DIRECTED FILM THAT’S SORT OF ABOUT IPHONES, IS AVAILABLE FOR STREAMING RENTAL ON AMAZON, ITUNES, AND OTHER VOD OUTLETS.