Here’s something special, a Godard movie about people as much as concepts, and the dialogue doesn’t sound as if it belongs in cartoon bubbles. Jean-Luc Godard turns his intellect to the subject of relationships and reveals a lot about himself. It’s a beautiful show too — with the incredible Macha Méril visually cut up for study piece by piece.
A Married Woman
Entertainment One / Cohen Film Collection
1964 / B&W / 1:37 full frame / 95 min. / Un Femme Marieacute;e / Street Date May 24, 2016 / 39.98
Starring Bernard Noël, Macha Méril, Philippe Leroy, Roger Leenhardt.
Cinematography Raoul Coutard
Film Editor Andrée Choty, Françoise Collin, Agnès Guillemot, Gérard Pollicand.
Written and Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Imagine that — a Jean-Luc Godard film not primarily organized around destructing film language. By 1964 Godard had taken apart the conventions of film editing and structure. He’d plumbed new depths in genre autopsies and blended moving pictures and the written word into a curious kind of poetry. He’d captured the lightness of youth and freedom and expressed his contempt for the film establishment that wished to co-opt him. But in A Married Woman he directs his attention to the modern French ideal in womanhood, to express his ideas about male-female relationships.
The opinionated Godard actually shows a bit of open-mindedness here; either that or his leading lady is too powerful to suppress. The director has been called a misogynist. He loves women but he doesn’t feel that they’re his intellectual equals. He also doesn’t trust them. He’s a little more forgiving as regards his two male characters. One is supposed to be more reasonable than the other but in truth they’re both possessive and insecure. Godard’s leading lady, the perfectly enchanting Macha Méril, jealously guards her freedom. She seems able to keep both men under her spell, on her terms.
Charlotte (Macha Méril) is seen with her lover Robert (Bernard Noël), an actor. They spend long Paris afternoons making love and talking. Robert tries to pin down Charlotte about her plans for the future: will she leave her husband for him? Charlotte doesn’t tell Robert very much, and substitutes mysterious neutral smiles in place of direct answers. She’s not leading him on, but she is trying to retain personal control. Robert knows he’s not in the drivers’ set. Charlotte is free for him only because her husband is out of town. Robert also knows that he cannot control Charlotte — she goes for a nude walk on the roof, to his surprise.
Charlotte then picks up her young son Nicolas (Chris Tophe) and greets her husband Pierre (Philippe Leroy) at an airfield. He’s a pilot, and has just flown the famous writer and filmmaker Roger Leenhardt (himself) back from observing an Auschwitz trial in Germany. Both men remark on the trial over dinner; Charlotte has to be reminded that Auschwitz is ‘that Nazi thing.’ Charlotte has no interest in history or the past and is proud that she tries to live in the present. Her main interests seem to be clothing, fashion and consumer products. She also insists on playing ‘immature’ with Pierre, countering his seriousness by disobeying his requests and teasing him.
Much of A Married Woman departs from the catch-as-catch can improvised look of some of Godard’s films. Large sections of the movie are beautiful close-ups of parts of Macha Méril’s body, as she lies on beds, is undressed, embraces her men, touches hands with them. These aren’t the erotic exercises in the movies by people like Resnais, where we can’t tell what part of the body we are looking at. We know exactly that we’re seeing a knee, a thigh, or a full midsection. The angles aren’t fancy, the graphics are direct but never rigid. Is Godard ‘examining the evidence’ to determine what makes Macha Méril so attractive? Women are highly aware that men obsess over women’s bodies, even as the men try to deny it. But it’s not right to simply say that these shots are objectifying the actress, cutting her into meat sections in a butcher’s chart. Godard seems to be applying his intellect to the problem of attraction and desire. No matter what the men say they want, the first thing on their agenda is to possess this body.
Charlotte’s two men are attractive, reasonably thoughtful and aware that she seems intent on manipulating them. Robert is happy to meet her in hotels when possible, and Pierre seems oblivious to the notion that she might have a lover. He had Charlotte followed once but now seems content to trust her, or to stay in denial. If there’s a conflict in this it doesn’t rise and make A Married Woman into a conventional story. The film more expresses a state of being.
Godard knows that a story isn’t necessary, that we’ll be happy to follow Macha Méril anywhere. He doesn’t have to pepper the film with ‘signs and meaning’ typography, because Paris shopping venues, clothing catalogues and fashion magazines are packed with the glamorous ads for clothing that Charlotte dotes on. Giant images of women loom behind Charlotte in the stores; the close-ups of bras come with inane sales slogans, and the images match Godard’s close-ups of things like Charlotte’s bra fastener. Godard doesn’t exactly call Charlotte shallow, but he does seem to ask if she’s really not much more than a composite of her desires, a pleasant new Consumer Product. Charlotte follows instructions in a magazine to find out if she has ‘the perfect breasts.’
In another more typical Godard strategy, the dialogue in a scene investigating a modern apartment is taken directly from a sales brochure. Even little Nicolas recites the soft sales copy as if it were normal conversation. Godard’s directness makes this kind of stunt work. It’s satire without all the ‘we’re so clever’ trimmings.
Charlotte compensates for her lack of depth by engaging in a secret personal life. Crossing town, she’ll use multiple taxis, to shake any private detective Pierre may have hired. I’d think that the switcheroo gag would itself be proof that she’s pulling a fast one, but it’s credible enough. Charlotte, Robert and Pierre seem to exist in a relationship where nobody really expects absolute fidelity from anybody else. I’d think that Charlotte’s sphinx-like non-reactions to direct questions would drive both men nuts. Godard isn’t criticizing her, just stating how things are. It’s obvious that both men will take Charlotte any way they can get her. What isn’t discussed but is probably an unspoken assumption is that neither man is necessarily faithful to her, either. It’s a cliché that the French can/could be like that and it’s not like this writer is an expert. But Pierre and Robert definitely seem like men who could be furious to discover Charlotte’s infidelity, even if they had women on the side. You know, it’s not the same thing!
Godard didn’t direct to please the masses, that’s for sure. Yet A Married Woman is one of his most enjoyable movies. Some seem insubstantial, or collage-based to the point that engagement requires more energy than I’m willing to give. A few years down the line, his Maoist pictures become more frustrating, and his later picture-poem video work is rough sledding with few rewards. Unless one surrenders all to the master, Goodbye to Language from a couple of years ago is all but intolerable, even in 3-D. A Married Woman is as much about people and relationships as it is an exercise in intellectually impressive Godardian cinema language. In other words, it has a better chance of connecting with a non-cinephile audience.
Enterainment One / The Cohen Collection’s Blu-ray of A Married Woman is a pristine transfer of a film that shows the great cameraman Raoul Coutard at his best. As so much of the movie is carefully designed — they must have spent days hovering over Charlotte, getting just the right angles — there’s less of the improvisation that to many viewers can look slapdash. The image is always gorgeous, as the apartments are flooded with ambient light (I bet some skylights are involved) and those Paris back streets are a time machine to a past we American homebodies can only dream about. The sound is good as well. Godard doesn’t employ his endistancing (off-putting?) habits of using rough audio tracks, to remind us that we’re watching a movie. When Charlotte’s maid tells a story about her sex life, it’s likely that the director is feeding the actress one line after another, and she’s tossing them back at him fresh because they are fresh, she’s never heard them before. If this is indeed the case, Godard’s prompts are invisibly removed with the insertion of audio presence. What? Standard Hollywood technique?
This time around Cohen’s extras are exemplary. Things start off a bit slowly with a 20-minute chat with agnès b., a fashion designer and film producer. She talks about Godard in generalities and tosses a lot of praise his way. Critic Antoine de Baecque weighs in with a great deal of background and information about the film. Godard cooked up the show in less than four months, we are told, to fulfill a promise to a particular film festival.
Even better is a long but thoroughly fascinating piece with the star Macha Méril, from 2010. She’s delightful. We get the whole story of how she was cast (Godard’s first pick was Stefania Sandrelli); Ms. Méril tells us that she knew she was being cast for her looks and appeal and didn’t let on that she was an intellectual with opinions of her own. Her thoughts and ideas about the experience, and her decoding of Godard’s intentions, methods, style of direction, attitudes toward women, are priceless. She loves the movie because she’s at the center of everything and because she thinks it a worthy classic. About halfway through Ms. Méril gives us her philosophy of women’s freedom in a way that seems far more healthy than a militant manifesto. She strikes us as the real deal, from her evaluation of her looks to her ideas about what freedom means to women. What an adventuress — her attitude toward her body on camera is a philosophy of its own.
A reissue trailer is also present. A Married Woman is a great discovery for this latecomer to the Godard fold. Here’s hoping for a new Blu-ray of a restored Alphaville, sooner than later.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A Married Woman
Supplements: from 2010 interview-talks with French fashion designer and film producer agnès b.; scholar Antoine de Baecque and star Macha Méril; 2015 re-release trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 8, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson