Jean-Luc Godard

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Tom Milne

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Godard has always been two or three years ahead of his time. All the same, one wasn't quite prepared for the way everything else (from [Antonioni's] The Red Desert downwards) began to look rather old-fashioned and strained as soon as Une Femme Mariée [The Married Woman] appeared on the scene. Comparisons are impossible, of course: The Red Desert is in its own way just as remarkable a film. It is simply that Godard has realised—and found a technique for dealing with his realisation—that modern life is so complex, and human relationships so intangibly tangled, that fully rounded and polished artistic statements with all the ends tucked neatly out of sight are no longer possible….

Godard's sub-title ["Fragments of a Film Made in 1964"] refers to the collage effect of the film, which moves freely between fragments—scenes, bits of scenes, bits of bits of scenes, a printed page, a word, half a word. But at the same time (one must never expect single strands from Godard), it is a film about fragmentation. The film opens with a disembodied hand sliding slowly forward across a white sheet; and it ends with the same hand (Charlotte's) slowly withdrawing, leaving blankness, nothing.

The scenes of love-making which open and close the film are composed entirely of human fragments—a hand, a leg, a head, a trunk. The effect is extraordinary, as though the world had split into separate pieces, separating people from one another. This feeling of dislocation is carried through the whole film…. (p. 107)

The anguish which runs through the film, implicitly in Charlotte's behaviour, explicitly in Godard's direction, comes from this separateness: Charlotte senses her solitude, senses the ultimate impossibility of human relations. Unlike Giuliana [in The Red Desert], it doesn't make her behave insanely, it just governs her life like an invisible hand pushing her relentlessly along. When she and Robert (her lover) part at the end, full of hopes and promises to return to each other and get married, Charlotte knows that it is all over, not so much because there is any reason for the affair to end, as because there seems to be no reason for it not to. It would be wrong to suggest that this feeling of almost cosmic disintegration dominates the film in any explicit sense…. Charlotte is living her life happily and unthinkingly in the present tense, with the menace no more than a background which one has got so used to that one no longer notices it: a radio blaring its grotesquely inflated list of road casualties to an empty room, a voice mentioning Auschwitz and evoking only puzzlement ("Auschwitz?… oh yes … thalidomide …"). (pp. 107, 109)

Une Femme Mariée operates on various levels, and works on all of them. At bottom, it is the eternal triangle, almost classically exposed. Charlotte has a lover, Robert; she has a husband, Pierre, with whom she still enjoys physical passion; she is pregnant, but doesn't know which of them is the father, and is afraid. But unlike Truffaut's La Peau Douce, which was a case history, Godard's hymn to la peau douce is a sociological document. Charlotte is not a woman, but Woman. What Godard is after in his portrait is that mysterious, anonymous being assailed on all sides by the shrill voices of advertisements, advising her to dress, paint and otherwise distort herself towards some nebulous ideal of sameness and sinfulness….

Une Femme Mariée is a film of the outside, totally unconcerned with ethics or morals….

[Charlotte is not soulless]; it is simply that in her life, and the routine which surrounds...

(This entire section contains 1496 words.)

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her, the outlets are blocked. Godard, in fact, makes it quite clear that, ultimately, Nana, Odile … and Charlotte are of the same species, though their particular contexts in life draw the soul from Nana, the emotion from Odile, and the body from Charlotte. But they converge at a point: "on est coupable" ["we are guilty"]….

To describe the film in terms of concentration camps and dislocated, fragmented worlds, may make it sound portentous, which is the last thing of which Une Femme Mariée can be accused. In the first place, it is too sure-footedly relaxed to allow portentousness. In the second, it is consistently and caustically funny. (p. 109)

Charlotte's crack about spectators in the cinema ["I'm very comfortable like this. And anyway, it's the ideal position for the spectator in the cinema."], delivered while hunched down comfortably in the front seat of Robert's car, almost disappearing from sight, is the metaphorical equivalent of Godard's easy, informal approach to filmmaking. A film is enjoyable to make, and made to be enjoyed. The surface texture of the film, already broken up by interviews, digressions, cut-ins of street signs, book titles and so forth, is also studded with puns and gags, both visual and verbal….

With Godard an image can be, at one and the same time, a private joke, a public gag, a clue, an imaginative link, or a serious statement. When he uses the Hitchcock poster, for instance, it is a) a hommage to one of his favourite directors; b) a wry comment on the fact that Hitchcock is one of the few directors grand enough in France to warrant having his face on cinema posters; c) a legitimate means of underlining the minatory aspect of the film; and d) it serves as quotation marks to the thriller parody which runs through the film…. Fascination with the vérité of cinéma and the cinéma of vérité is one of the constants of Godard's work, and determines the rigorous yet tangential attitude of his camera, at one moment probing for the truth behind the façade, at the next leaping away to show that it is all façade anyway….

Une Femme Mariée is focused steadily on three faces: the husband, grave and puzzled, haunted by memories of what Charlotte once was to him; the lover, serene and untroubled, content with her presence; and Charlotte, presenting the same candid, troubled gaze to both, uncertain as to the difference, if any, in her feelings for them. Godard fixes these images on the screen and invites us to see what lies behind them; at the same time, by inviting his characters to step out of character (in the interviews, for instance), he invites us to take another look at the façade. We are reminded not only that this is "truth twenty-four times a second," but that it is perhaps as true a truth as any….

Parenthetically: this is Godard's most subtle ending to date. His love of flamboyantly theatrical dénouements is satisfied, but this time it happens at double remove: by proxy, as it were, and also off-stage. (p. 110)

The subtlety of the ending is matched by a new clarity and assurance throughout. The whole film is organised with astounding precision, so that its patchwork elements are like the spokes of a wheel, leading outwards from the hub and also providing support for the frame. The hub, of course, is Charlotte, while the frame is her circular voyage between husband and lover; and the whole superstructure of the film dovetails into an analysis of the cul-de-sac of her existence.

Charlotte is haunted by doubts as to whether her chance of true happiness lies with husband or lover: in his ruthless analysis, Godard demonstrates that there is no difference in kind, only in procedure. "Love," says the song which Charlotte sings, "is of infinite sadness. It vanishes like the day." (pp. 110-11)

Even if love is transient, however, it is of infinite tenderness, as the second verse of Charlotte's song affirms: "Like the day, it returns." The corollary to the lover who grows like the husband, is the husband who becomes like the lover and so closes the vicious circle….

Godard is the most open-ended of artists. He doesn't make problem pictures of the sort which deal with a controversial subject and come up with an answer. He assumes that the controversy is embedded in life, and maybe isn't even controversial. Le Petit Soldat refused to tackle the Algerian "problem", and yet, as Godard says, the film now stands as "witness to an epoch" and its complex moral repercussions. In Une Femme Mariée, Charlotte's questions to the doctor about contraception and sexual pleasure, and Robert's casual assertion of police corruption—both delivered as though the subjects were unexceptional and needed no apology or introduction—reveal far more about defensive attitudes, and also hurt more, than any amount of reasoned, documented attacks.

Nor does he start with an answer and work backwards in order to find the given data…. "Intelligence," in Roger Leenhardt's definition, "is to understand before asserting"; and what we are left with at the end of Une Femme Mariée is simply a closely and passionately documented question-mark. (p. 111)

Tom Milne, "Jean-Luc Godard, ou la raison ardente," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1965 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 34, No. 3, Summer, 1965, pp. 106-11.

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