2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle
Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967
A film that is more essay than cinema? A film that could be referred to by any outsider to confirm the stereotype of Continental cinema as a litany of smoking, pontificating, posing, and smoking; of studied indifference and existential angst. (Yes, I put smoking twice).
An essay: everyone speaks with the same voice. This is the voice of Jean Luc-Godard himself, whispering a worried narration (perhaps annoying, this whispering, like a politicised fly buzzing and fretting in your ear as the film plays); the "I" of the title. Every character speaks in this voice, with these very same concerns and contributing to a homogenous viewpoint; they stop in their everyday routines to tell us, the audience, a thought or biographical sentence about themselves, without emotion, perhaps wanly; but mostly they are lost in introversion and existential reflection. Existence, objects, consumerism, detachment, female faces, globalisation, war, famine, fashion, and naturally: sex. People talk to one another as if in mid-seminar, relating to one another and the world around them only as concepts, themes, objects. Others sit in cafes reading random quote from a mountain of novels as if in mid-performance art.
Paris: the "her" of the title, the city being built up even as Godard narrates his concerns and characters reflect his insights. Buildings. Constructions. Erections. Civilisation. Prostitution. Parisian.
"An article which appeared in the Le Nouvel Observateur relates to a deep-rooted idea of mine. The idea that in order to live in Parisian society today, one is forced, on whatever level, on whatever scale, to commit an act of prostitution in one way or another, or to live according to the laws that govern prostitution." (dvd booklet, pg. 46)
Non. We do not truly learn anything of Paris. We do not learn from this essay what it truly means to "prostitute" oneself. We do not learn what it is to be a wage slave, trapped in one or two jobs just to feed the children. We do not feel the humiliation of a secretary having to literally "give" herself to her boss in order to keep her job. We do not see a scenario in which a man is so consumed by work that he loses all connection to his family. That kind of thing. The kind of "prostitution" on display here is closer to a dalliance, a detached flirtation with the idea of the apparent oldest profession in the world defining everyday bourgeois existance.
Pose: gorgeous French female portraits and profiles glamorise the screen. Women light up a cigarette, because they want to, and they air their existential ruminations to camera. Dour, smoking, very ’60s, disaffected, continentally bored. Marina Vlady is Juliette Jeanson, a housewife who defines herself in one word: indifference. A housewife that turns to prostitution. A housewife who, when putting her kids to bed, suddenly stops for the audience - as her son bounces on the bed full of life, to reflect - "What does it mean to know something?" Which brings us to:
Humour: unintentional? Formal? Deliberate and satirical? The young son (young enough that you think he might only have just managed to get beyond "Le Petit Prince") tells his mother of a dream he has had about twins that merge into one person, which has a preposterous punch line: "And then I realised that these two people were North and South Vietnam being united." His later recital of his homework about friendship and whether it is or is not possible between boys and girls is equally deadpan and hilarious.
And then there is the gratuitous moment of a woman having her bath interrupted by a gas meter reader who just wanders in. Pure farce. Or the apparent "crèche" run by an old man who keeps reminding the amorous couples in the adjacent rooms that they have only a few minutes left.
Or the visit to the hotel by Juliette and her friend for a bit of naughtiness with a journalist running from the experience of Vietnam, a scene that offers two choice moments: first: Juliette - in a moment of disconnected reflection as the girls undress and get to work for the journalist - sits by a lamp, says to herself and the audience, "Paris is a mysterious city," and poignantly turns the lamp on "…asphyxiating…" and off "… natural…" and on and off; and the man says, "Why doesn’t she come over?" as if oblivious to her moment of artiness, to the fact that she is breaking through the wall between actress, character and audience. And Second: the journalist - wearing a T-shirt with an American flag on it (!!) - has the women walking back and forth undressed with Pan-Am and T.W.A. flight bags over their heads. Absurdism to puncture the veneer of suffocating consumersim and circumstantial and literal prostitution, non? C’est comedie!!
Despite the loose-limbed New Wave feel, there is no accommodation of the trivial, of the simply pleasurable, of the inconsequential to mitigate this dissertation on Paris and prostitution 1967, and therefore unintentional humour may seep in. The 10 year-old says "Mummy, what is language?", to which she answers, "Language is the house that man lives in." Yes. Yes that is how such inter-generational conversations between such characters go. The austerity and the very un-likeliness combined is amusing.
Essay and pose: There is no story, no emotional core, no real bracing neo-realism, just nice clean imagery, sharp alluring colours, and a wonderful, bright ‘60s feel. This is not Bergman, whose metaphysical and existential concerns are merged near-seamlessly within story and characters. This is not even Goddard’s "Le Petit Soldat" (1963), a polemic married to a fragmented but recognisable story. Here, there is only Godard, rejecting narrative, spoken from whispers on the one hand and attractive women on the other. Aside from the compelling portraits of pretty faces, there are wonderful moments where the size and unknowability of the cosmos and, indeed, of the unknowable itself, are captured in close-ups of a swirling coffee, or a burning cigarette. Then there is the bustle of urban life distilled in the busy editing of the garage sequence. A sketchpad of contemporary angst in a nice, bold modern binding, complete with funny doodles. Composition and colours are often resonant of comic book panels (see Drew Morton).
Let me end with a confession. Let me ask what is the truth of my opinion about "Two or Three Things I know About Her…", how has it imprinted itself upon my privileged, lofty, detached judgment? Let me say that I am amused. I don’t necessarily find it profound, but it is entertaining as a cinematic dissertation. But I am more a Francois Truffaut kind of man.