Godard: Amateur or Incendiary?

Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman) is a 1961 film directed by Jean-Luc Godard about a woman who blackmails her partner into having a baby together by threatening to sleep with other men. Putting the narrative into words seems a great departure from the film that I experienced. It was my introductory Godard film, and it really set the tone for what’s to come in the class. I have heard of Godard and his films before, but I never got around to watching any of them. Having viewed one of them for myself, I understand now where the frustration of Godard’s viewers come from. I believe it comes from an inability to comprehend what was just seen—as if the work and the artist didn’t want to be understood.

As a consumer of Hollywood cinema, I initially approached the film as I would a mainstream one. I paid close attention to the nuances in the scenes, contemplated on the conversations shared by the characters, rationalized the peculiarities of the film like the random sound cuts and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall. I even attempted taking down notes which, by the end of the movie, was filled with question marks mostly due to confusion. Because the film was putting me in some sort of a block, I referred to Steiner’s essay to identify the nature of my difficulties.

Although the movie is from an entirely different generation, I encountered just a few contingent difficulties—e.g., who Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, and Bob Fosse were. The film did pose, however, multiple modal, tactical, and ontological difficulties. These came from unfamiliar, sometimes jarring elements of counter-cinema outlined by Peter Wollen in “Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent d’Est” that I observed in the film.

The segments of the plot shown in the film barely made sense, and only a few parts appeared coherent. Some scenes seemed irrelevant and out of context given the simple premise of the movie. The characters’ actions and motives had me scratching my head throughout the 84 minutes running time. For instance, we have no idea why Angela, the female lead, wants a child in the first place. Her relationship with the Emile, her boyfriend, is also very peculiar. The scenes depicting them collecting books from the shelves and using their titles to communicate with each other is one of many Angela-Emile scenes that contributed to my confusion. I also recall a part where they were acting as if they were rehearsing the scene that was actually being filmed and the audience was then witnessing. These “shortcomings” seemed like mistakes an amateur would make.

All these quirks of the film came to me as a strangeness I couldn’t shake off. The techniques Godard employed were foreign to me, and I wouldn’t know what to make of them since I’m not equipped with the proper faculties to do so. As for the entirety of the film, I didn’t understand what it was trying to tell me, and it seemed reluctant to reveal itself. It has an undercurrent of feminism and women empowerment which is very progressive at the time, but I don’t want to attribute just that to the film. The emplotment of the narrative is certainly unique, and I want to know the reasoning behind it.

Given the difficulties I encountered with the film, it initially wasn’t a very enjoyable viewing experience, and I honestly felt frustrated immediately after. We never enjoy what we don’t understand, anyway. However, having gained some knowledge on the nature of counter-cinema (of which Godard was a pioneer), I am now beginning to understand what the film is trying to say. What I realize is that Godard and his contemporaries sought to depart from the glamour, artificiality, and uniformity of Hollywood cinema, and create something that mirrored reality a little better: messy, complex, unpredictable. It also brings to fore the artistry of the film’s creators instead of simply immersing the audience in its fabricated world. Godard has created something that totally deviates from our expectations of what a film should be, and his work invites us to reject the standard mass-produced cinema has created in assessing films. Art need not be pleasurable all the time. Sometimes, art is made to challenge, to provoke, to destroy. And boy does Godard challenge.

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