Friday, August 28, 2009

Two or Three Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle) A Film by Jean-Luc Godard (1967)

Released in 1967, cushioned by the simultaneously produced Made in U.S.A and the subsequent La Chinoise, Jean Luc-Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her represents a crucial transition in his career, the moment when he most blatantly abandoned cinematic narrative tradition in favor of a more contemplative immediacy. From this point on his films steered ever closer to mere reflections of his own personal outlook at the time of their geneses, be it political or artistic. It's in no way a subtle transition; while Two or Three Things claims to tell a day-in-the-life story of a workaday housewife cum prostitute on the side, one can tell by Godard's literal interaction (some would say intrusion) with the film - he narrates the whole affair in a whispered dialect, sometimes even mocking his own "narrative" - that this is anything but the fun 60's genre riffs he became iconic for, even at their most unconventional. Two or Three Things is quite simply a collection of ideas and ruminations, all of which are, to some extent, responses to the newly instituted project of modernization under the idealistic government of Charles De Gaulle.

It is, of course, De Gaulle who set in motion a vast revamping of Parisian society in the late 60's, churning out high-rise apartments on the outskirts of Paris to accommodate for the transforming cultural center. Such a movement spawned intense economic hardship, forcing a populous of women, like Juliette (Marina Vlady) in the film, to take up prostitution as a complement to their low-income occupations. Godard cites hard proof of this phenomenon - an anonymous letter in response to an article on prostitution in the French newspaper "The Shooting Stars" - as the basis for the film, in which the woman wrote an intensely personal passage that was coincidentally also a scathing indictment of the social situation, lamenting, "that's the way of the world." The film is less specific to this end. Indeed, Juliette's acts of prostitution are never shown, only implied, and when she is in fact in the room with one of her many clients, Vlady spends most of the time talking to herself, beating around the bush so to speak, while Godard's camera dispassionately pirouettes around the room observing objects. Two or Three Things is more speculative, using the prostitution conceit as a mere passage through which to communicate about the larger concept of prostitution in a more metaphorical sense, the way in which every citizen "prostitutes" themselves in one manner or another in order to survive financially, and also the more slippery concept of the landscape itself as a prostitute through advertisement, language, architecture, and images.

Godard's not necessarily condemning the situation as much as he is simply reacting to it. He is not interested in passing judgments, but rather is excited by how the situation opens up possibilities for meditations on consumerism and anything that falls under that umbrella, such as the impossibility of communicating without language despite the stranglehold language frequently creates, the power of perception, the nature of objects and people, and the future. In an attempt to reach this wide philosophical plane, Godard creates a homogenized milieu where the cold cosmopolitan buildings, the people who inhabit the film, the omnipresent signs, household objects, and random foliage are all of equal importance. Furthermore, Julette's story is no more valid a subject than Godard's own interspersed voice-over, the other women Juliette encounters in her bouts of window-shopping, or the observant interludes of poetic imagery Godard presents. The tactics of narrative cinema - story, score, traditional aesthetics, even character - are completely eschewed. The central figure is equal parts Juliette and Marina Vlady, which Godard makes perfectly clear in the beginning when he directly addresses her as both, and her husband, who works translating radio talk, is profoundly astray from the attributes necessary to form a character: personality, goals, intuition, meaningful dialogue. The humans in the film are concepts, and rarely, despite their stylized performances, do they break free from that.

One can forgive Godard for this absence of character because he makes up for it by giving the rest of the film personality that is all its own. Two or Three Things is loosely divided into segments which begin with footnotes, basically close-up shots of magazine titles or slogans (some of many instances of mere wordy detritus in the film). In each segment, Godard obtusely expands on the distinctive footnotes, sometimes commenting on the action, purposely removing us from the action, or fiddling with it. In one memorable scene during a segment which purports to discuss the interaction of languages and images, he ruminates on the nature of using certain words or pictures to describe events by showing from several different perspectives Juliette's meeting of her husband at a car wash. As we watch this little red car scramble around the setting, not unlike the sped-up ploys of silent comedy, Godard is essentially asking us, "from which perspective is this event truer or more objective?" More famously, Godard zooms in on the swirl of a cup of black coffee in a cafe while musing on how things separate and come together again, while the bubbles do quite the same. The camera adamantly hangs on this image, an obvious detour and literal visual entrapment from the surrounding "story", just as it does shortly thereafter to the leaves on a tree and more repetitiously with panoramic shots of the modernizing landscape, the pervasive construction sites and tall gray buildings.

Shot as usual in wide Technicolor by Raoul Coutard utilizing vibrant primary colors, Two or Three Things often is more pleasing visually than it is intellectually. Godard's ramblings, while most of the time thoroughly interesting and provocative, sometimes come at such a rapid pace that they get lost in translation, leaving us to marvel at the sights. The film is just as fascinating when Godard's hands are removed somewhat from the material, as in an extensive scene towards the end, reminiscent of Richard Linklater's Slacker, that takes place at a café and lacks Juliette altogether. In long, static takes (this aesthetic, which pervades throughout Two or Three Things, is antithetical to the kinetic jump-cutting of Breathless), Godard shuffles between random conversations occurring at different tables in the room, all while the annoying racket of a pinball machine persists and two holy fools quote sporadically from a heaping pile of books. Godard is doing much the same as these two in Two or Three Things, letting his referential, speculative racket seep into the many excurses along the way, although his is far more invigorating, and provides both a fragmented snapshot of Paris under Gaullian rule and a daring precursor to his following essayistic films.


Drew McIntosh said...

Very nice review. I recently saw this for the first time on the newly released Criterion DVD and had a a very similar reaction to yours...though my exposure to Godard is limited at this point (something I'm working on), I feel safe saying that this is the most accomlished work of his I've seen yet. I was also recently bowled over by my viewing of Vivre sa vie...what a wonderful director.

Carson Lund said...

I too am somewhat new to Godard's work. Having only seen four of his films, I can't say 2 or 3 Things was anywhere near the most enjoyable, but I don't deny it's probably the most challenging. I agree though that from my limited exposure to Godard, he has definitely provoked my interest.

On a side note, how about that Criterion release? It's fantastic, from visual packaging to choice of special features - they never cease to impress me.

Thanks for commenting.

Jake said...

I've spent much of this year moving past my aversion to Breathless (which, after 4-5 viewings, finally settled into a healthy respect) into the rest of Godard's canon, or at least what I can get my hands on through licit and not-so-licit means. Surprisingly, he's become one of my favorite directors, though I shall need to see how he fares outside of his '60s gold run. Even more surprisingly, given how my main contention with Breathless was its pretentious asides, I've enjoyed him more as he moved into headier territory (Une femme mariée, Pierrot, La Chinoise).

2 or 3 Things is actually by some measure my favorite of his '60s work. Though not as fanciful as Band of Outsiders, or Pierrot (which is firmly ensconced in my no. 2 slot), it managed to entertain me even more because, to me, it's really no less Romantic than Pierrot, albeit approached with far more analytical a mind. Godard's sudden willingness to create a sort of visual democracy by inserting random shots because he sees no reason to omit them for the sake of something so narrowly focused as a narrative. The image of the sugar dissolving in the coffee and its bubbles coalescing and breaking off have stuck with me as much as any image I care to name. Hopefully, since this prefigured his shift into more experimental filmmaking, my enjoyment of it will make the transition into his post-Weekend era smoother.

Carson Lund said...

Jake, that's interesting that you have found that you prefer his post-60's work to Breathless yet find Breathless to contain irritating pretensions. If anything, I'd imagine it would be the other way around; to me, as Godard moves into headier territory, the films become increasingly stuffed with solipsistic concept art, and in some instances have the energy stifled out of them because of it. I'm not going to make sweeping generalizations and use the overused claim that his post-60's work is trash, especially since I haven't seen enough of it, but I can at least recognize a significantly different mode of working for Godard starting at Two or Three Things I Know About Her, which is a film that I love, at least on an intellectual level. The coffee cup shot is indeed transfixing, so much so so that Scorsese's abbreviated homage to it in Taxi Driver feels cheap by comparison.

Jake said...

I find my preference for his increasingly stuffy art a bit odd myself. I think that it's attributable to a strange empathy I feel with Godard, despite the cavernous discrepancy between his intellectual level and my own. As I move deeper into his filmography -- which, as I am not even out of his initial run yet, is not so deep at all -- I find his increasingly obtuse approach not to be the affectation of a pretentious asshole (which would go against his own rejection of the cinema for a decade under the belief that it was 'bourgeois') but instead to be the frustration of a man who had so many ideas that he could never get them all into the frame.

I have that same issue when I'm writing, or even when I'm speaking. Stuff tumbles around my head so quickly it's a miracle if I can commit it to a document of random thoughts on various subjects or on one of my sea of sticky notes. Despite all the grammatical errors that make it into my final articles -- I swear, I think I'm like a subconscious dick because I can proofread everyone but myself -- I go through multiple drafts of each post because I start to explain something and then I try to tackle it from the opposite angle, then the angle perpendicular to the two and before long I've got a nasty batch of word soup. As I said in my last comment, I think there's a romanticism in 2 or 3 Things that goes far beyond that of his earlier pictures because you can see his desperation to capture all that holds his attention. Though it's undoubtedly solipsistic in that it takes place entirely within the confines of Godard's headspace, the universality with which he approaches the images paradoxically struck me as his most involving and open film yet.