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Moulin Rouge

Ambitious, daring, energetic, and entertaining —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Jean-Luc Godard changed cinema forever with his first feature, Breathless, released in 1960. Using jump cuts and handheld cameras, he breathed life into what he thought had become a static medium. Two films and one year later, Godard released his first color film, an homage to the musical genre, called A Woman is a Woman.

Play Fighting

Godard’s tribute to the musical, "in dazzling color and Scope"
Godard’s tribute to the musical, "in dazzling color and Scope"
Criterion presents historical oddities along with Godard's "musical"
Criterion presents historical oddities along with Godard’s “musical”

Jean-Claude Brialy and Godard’s then-wife Anna Karina star as Emile and Angela. One day, out of the blue, Angela decides she wants a baby. She checks a fertility calculator and learns that today is the day. Emile is not up for a baby just now, and he tries very hard to parry her. But Angela threatens to conceive a child with someone else if Emile won’t do it. Their friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo) will do just fine, she says, only half joking.

A Woman is a Woman may be marketed as a musical, but it isn’t. People don’t sing or dance, at least not the way they do in musicals. But Godard captures the vibrant essence of musicals with rich vivid colors and a musical score that interacts with the dialogue of the protagonists. For the score, the great French composer Michel Legrand adds punches and phrases to the dialogue, turning the couples’ arguments into ad hoc compositions.

The couples’ bickering has a playful, childish tone that feels genuine. At times it’s a little cloying, but it’s funny and fun to watch. During a fight, Emile walks to the bookshelf and picks up a book, then walks back into bed and shows her the word “Monster” on the cover. She gets the game and grabs a collection of books with appropriate titles and words, carrying their little fight into literary territory.

Godard himself joins in the game. Using sound and editing he constantly — and conspicuously — breaks the rules of cinema. The music swells and crescendoes for Angela’s song (she dances at a strip club), but when she opens her mouth to sing, the record abruptly cuts out, leaving only her thin voice. Belmondo practically winks at the camera when he mentions that Breathless is on TV tonight. And the movie’s big lusty sex scene is simply a title card that reads “After the deed was done....” More so than in his other films, these defiant gestures are played for laughs. Godard has always broken the rules, but this time it’s out of sheer fun.

Picture and Sound

Criterion, as always, presents a fine DVD. The picture quality is not quite perfect (some scratch-like blemishes survive in a scene in the apartment, and some of the fields of black seem to have faded to blue — although perhaps that’s just a light in the lens). But the restoration by Rialto and the Criterion transfer are very good. If anything, the Criterion DVD is cleaner than the 35mm prints that toured the country, although the immediacy of the medium is lost on a television. (The transfer to video was supervised by director of photography Raoul Coutard.)

DVD Extras

Criterion includes several extra features, choosing the rare over the slick. There are very few modern insights into A Woman is a Woman on this DVD, but there are lots of historical oddities. Perhaps the most intriguing is an audio recording, originally released on record, that includes dialogue and music from A Woman is a Woman, along with the odd comment from Godard about his philosophy of cinema. Was this record sold to fans or given to critics? Criterion doesn’t say, noting only that it’s rare. While the audio plays, Criterion shows an English translation, cut together with an arbitrary slide show of polka dots.

There’s also a filmed interview with Anna Karina, made for French television in 1966. Historians and Godardophiles won’t find much information but may enjoy seeing Karina in her own excessive makeup and clothes.

There are also galleries of stills from the set of the A Woman is a Woman and of posters from various international releases and revivals of the film.

The most entertaining extra feature is a 20-minute film, the first Godard film to get produced (although it’s not literally his first film). Written by Eric Rohmer, the film is called Tous Les Garçons S’appellent Patrick (All the Boys are Called Patrick). Godard uses Brialy, (Emile inA Woman is a Woman) as a ladies’ man who picks up two girls on the same day. They happen to be roommates, and they don’t realize that their own “Patrick” is the same “Patrick” as the other’s.

The DVD includes a booklet with two essays. The first, by J. Hoberman of The Village Voice, reveals Godard’s early career in the early 1960s. The second is composed of interviews with Godard from 1961. Both offer a little insight into the mind of Godard, whose films are often unapproachable and difficult. Frankly, I don’t often like them, but that dislike also intrigues me. It’s not that I find them to be badly made, it’s that I don’t like what he deliberately chooses to do. And so I keep returning to films made by Godard as I wouldn’t for, say, Joel Schumacher.

But A Woman is a Woman is a good choice if you want to approach Godard. It has his trademark anti-movie style without seeming inscrutable. Karina’s Angela feels like a real woman, and Godard’s chaotic style fits well with her lively, unpredictable personality. The energy, joy, and playful love of cinema make A Woman is a Woman hard not to like.