Jean-Luc Godard’s third feature film, Une femme est une femme (1961), is a major departure from his previous films. Not only is it his first film shot in color and widescreen, but it is a mostly upbeat “musicial” starring his soon-to-be wife, Anna Karina, as a stripper at the Zodiac nightclub. In fact, it has been described as a love letter to Karina. I’m not sure how I feel about this, since the character she portrays is repeatedly described as fickle, silly and idiotic despite her obvious charms. The thin plot revolves around Angela’s desire to have a baby with her boyfriend Emile, played by Jean-Claude Brialy. When he refuses, she turns to his best friend Alfred, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, and after some hesitation, finally decides to sleep with him. Angela feels guilty afterward, but the film ends on a happy note when Emile concludes that the only way to fix the situation is to try to conceive a baby with Angela himself. The trivial plot, however, is merely a pretense for Godard’s innovative use of the musical soundtrack, lively editing, and technicolor. The film is also a love letter of sorts to Hollywood cinema à la Lubitsch and it is full of references to earlier films. Une femme est une femme is certainly Godard’s most complex film to date and it’s pop like elements foreshadow what is to come.
Godard’s second feature film, Le Petit soldat (1961), is both a reworking of and a depature from Breathless. On the one hand, it follows a male protagonist with a questionable past who is mixed up with a cast of dubious characters. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Veronica, a woman who is working for the enemy and who may or may not be ready to betray him at any moment. On the other hand, the tone of the film is considerably darker and the plot revolves around a political situation. Bruno, the main character, works for the French government in Geneva and is assigned with the task of assassinating a man working for the FLN, or the National Liberation Front in Algeria. Veronica essentially works for an Algerian terrorist group who captures Bruno and tortures him for information. Much has been said about Godard’s confused political viewpoint in the film, which seems to treat both sides with equal detachment. I think it is more significant that Le Petit soldat marks Godard’s first attempt to deal with contemporary politics and it is a sobering look at the situation in Algeria. In fact, it was censored by the French authorities upon completion and not released in France until 1963. Also significant, is the introduction of Anna Karina in Godard’s professional and personal life. The collaboration between Godard and Karina is one of the greatest in film history.
Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut’s Une histoire d’eau (1958) was a collaboration between two budding New Wave filmmakers. Truffaut shot the footage during an unusual flood in Paris and its environs, while Godard edited the material and added the female voiceover. The story is simple: a young girl tries to make her way to Paris, she hitches a ride with a handsome young man, diversions ensue, and they finally arrive in the city of lights. The editing is lively, especially towards the end, and the booming drums on the soundtrack interject themselves into the film in much the same way that the jazz music does in Breathless. The voiceover provides Godard’s first real attempt at literary allusion and the references are quick and difficult to unravel in one viewing.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about À bout de souffle (1960) that I haven’t said elsewhere, but during my most recent viewing of the film I did begin to take a different attitude towards Jean Seberg’s character of the quintessential American in Paris, Patricia Franchini. I always resisted the label of femme fatale in relation to Patricia because I felt sympathetic to her situation as a woman in love with a man whom she cannot connect with on a deeper level. I also thought I understood the “logic” of her decision to turn Michel in to the police and the agony that she feels after she realizes the fatal consequences of her actions. However, I began to see her as less of a victim and more of a player in the existential world of the film. In the end, Patricia does what she needs to in order to survive. We see this earlier in the film when she agrees to spend the night with her editor at the New York Herald Tribune in exchange for the chance to interview a famous novelist. Even though Michel is a murderer and a thug with no respect for the law, Patricia may in fact be the most complex and morally ambiguous character in the film.
Godard’s second short film, Charlotte et son Jules (1958), is essentially an early variation on the bedroom sequence in A bout de souffle. Charlotte, who is played by Anne Collette, pays a visit to her ex-lover Jules, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. As soon as she arrives, Jules begins to berate her for leaving him and flatters himself by saying that he knew she would come back to him. Jules’ rant continues for a good 10 minutes as he frantically moves about the room. Meanwhile, Charlotte takes it all in and steals the show by playfully eating an ice cream cone and mimicking Jules’ gestures behind his back. At the end, she tells him that she has only returned to pick up her toothbrush and she takes a bow before leaving the room. Jules’ is dumbfounded. Other than Collette’s charming performance and uncanny resemblance to Jean Seberg, I found the most interesting part of the film to be Jules’ comments on the unimportance of cinema in comparison to music and painting. I have to wonder if this was Godard’s true feelings at the time or whether he was making a case for the nouvelle vague that was about to wipe out the stale cinematic tradition in France and open the door for his first feature film.