Saturday, March 07, 2015

Criterion Thoughts—2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) ***

NR, 87 min.
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writers: Jean-Luc Godard, Catherine Vimenet (based on the articles “La Prostitution dans les grands ensembles”)
Starring: Marina Vlady, Roger Montsoret, Anny Duperey, Joseph Gehrard, Raoul Lévy, Jean Narboni

I’ll admit it. Even being the cineaste I am, there are some gaping holes in my cinematic experience. Jean-Luc Godard is one of them. I’m not completely unknowledgeable. I’ve seen “Breathless” and his strange and somewhat annoying version of science fiction “Alphaville”. I fear I reveal myself by declaring “Alphaville” annoying, but at times it is surely trying to be. So this will be a rather inexperienced look at a man who is seen as one of the masters of cinema.

To look at what Godard helped to create in the French New Wave movement with his masterpiece “Breathless” and to look at where he has come with movies like this one and much further down the line with “Film Socialisme”—unseen by me, but it was rather difficult to miss the emphatic critical consensus against it—you might think he hated the muted realism he helped to bring to cinema. And yet, he’s dedicated to the social spotlight he can bring to life with his images, however odd and unorthodox their delivery might be.

With “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her”, it seems to me Godard must be the most Brechtian of filmmakers. His films are very political in nature and they create a detachment for the audience with their insistence on informing us that we are watching a movie. “2 or 3 Things” even begins with references to Brecht and an introduction to its leading lady where the narrator—who certainly seems to be the voice of the director—instructs the audience on how she looks and what she will do. He’s telling us right from the start that she is a tool of the filmmaker and not an agent of free will.

And yet, free will seems to be a major subject of the movie. Juliette is a housewife in the suburbs of Paris, who must work as a prostitute to help make ends meet. She lives in a housing project with her family. Godard uses interstitial shots of road construction on the outlying suburbs of the City of Love to comment on the division of the classes. The people living in these projects are intellectuals with strong values and an idealism typical of late sixties counter culture, yet they’ve been demoted to second-class citizens through the economic trials of the time. All the while, this great city is ever expanding.

The narrator whispers all his dialogue, as if letting the audience in on a deep dark secret about the underbelly of this city that has always held a rosy exterior. Or perhaps he doesn’t wish to disturb this mistress that he loves. The narrator’s dialogue is often interrupted with shots of construction where the sound is deafening. Then Godard takes the sound out entirely, as if to ask the audience to observe and truly consider what is happening to the city. I couldn’t help but wonder how the movie played in Paris at the time of its release in 1967. Certainly the people portrayed here, who would’ve had a taste for existentialism and a commentary against the status quo, enjoyed it. But how did it play to the elite of the inner city? Many of whom were whisked into the French New Wave as it rolled in nearly a decade earlier. Were they offended at how Godard seemed to regard how many Parisians had helped create the class divide in the name of progress?

Godard doesn’t limit himself to the politics and social divide of Paris, however. He opens the movie with two men who appear to be monitoring radio transmissions from the U.S. war in Vietnam. These aren’t government men. They’re working class men, who appear to be listening merely as some sort of hobby. I make this assumption because they are never shown compiling the information they gather into some sort of protest movement. Perhaps he is commenting on the complacency and apathy among even Parisian intellectuals at the time. Later, he shows another couple of men randomly recording lines out of stacks of books in a local eatery. I’ll have to scratch my head a little longer to figure that out.

The central story, however, is Juliette’s, who is not portrayed as any sort of victim in her life as a daytime prostitute. The film presents a day in her life almost as a documentary. We see her take her daughter to a daycare—also strangely portrayed I think to show that the daycare worker has more than one line of work going as well. We see her shopping for a dress that she sets aside to pay for after her workday. We see her at the beauty shop. We see her in a drinking establishment that appears to be where she and other prostitutes get their customers. We see a very mundane sexual encounter with a young man that doesn’t really display any sex. Later she goes with a girlfriend to another job where an “American”—who is played by the quite obviously non-American Joseph Gehrard—films them doing strange things like walking back and forth with airline bags on their heads. This might be some sort of comment about how Americans are clueless when it comes to sexuality, even of the perverse nature. It is certainly a comment about the self-importance of Americans.

“2 or 3 Things I Know About Her” is most definitely a “difficult” film, as I’ve sometimes read non-traditional cinematic storytelling of this kind described. It does, however, expose and interesting aspect of European culture and society. Although, it is obvious construct—to the point of making the audience think about the construct itself—it is intriguing to watch. Juliette may be a tool of the filmmaker, but she is natural and realistic. As a Russian immigrant who has become a Parisian through marriage, she also provides an outsider’s look into a very structured societal system. I believe Godard was striving more to connect with the world outside Paris, as he seems to have written the Parisians themselves off as accepting the fate they’ve made themselves.

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