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Apocalypse Now: Redux

There are 10 reasons not to miss Apocalypse Now: Redux at the theater —Richard Sharp (review...)

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Jean-Luc Godard changed cinema forever when his first feature, Breathless, was released in 1960. Using jump cuts and handheld cameras, he breathed human 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.

This spring Rialto Pictures oversaw a restoration of the film, which has finally made its way to Denver.

A Musical without Songs

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”

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.

Jean-Claude Brially 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.

Angela springs her decision on Emile, who is not up for a baby just now. He calls Angela crazy and tries very hard to parry her. 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.

Dialogue without a Script

This is the essence of the plot, and it’s deliberately sketchy. Using his own inscrutable technique, Godard invented scenes — left relatively unscripted — for the actors to play. He didn’t even tell them how they would fit into the movie.

For a musical score, the great French composer Michel Legrand adds punches and phrases between the lines of dialogue, turning the couples’ arguments into ad hoc compositions. Occasionally a character will sing a phrase from a song, but it’s never turned into a full-blown production number.

In fact, the only full song on the soundtrack comes from a jukebox at their favorite dive. The song is a French version of “You’ve Let Yourself Go,” a nightclub jazz number that is caustically funny and eventually touching. It’s the perfect fit for Godard’s black-comic tribute to musical romance.

Appreciation with Enjoyment

Godard’s movies 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 one of the more approachable and enjoyable of Godard’s films. Karina’s Angela feels like a real woman, not some screen goddess. And Godard’s chaotic style fits well with her lively, unpredictable personality.

Their couples’ bickering is incessant; it takes on 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 with the word Monster on the cover, then walks back into bed and shows her the word “Monster.” She gets the game and grabs a collection of books with appropriate titles and words, carrying their little fight into literary territory.

Godard also provides one of the funniest sex scenes ever “filmed”. It comes at the end when the couple has made up. She has slept with their friend Alfred, or at least she says she has. Emile decides he’d better do it too if he wants to be sure the baby will be his. Godard then shows us a screen of gigantic letters — bright colors on black — that read “After the deed is done, she turns on the light.”

A Medium with the Message

The restoration is hyped using a quote from the New York Times in 1964: “in dazzling color and Scope.” And indeed, for a 40 year old movie, A Woman is a Woman looks very good. But compared to a pristine print of a modern movie, it has some flaws. In some places, fields of black are blue. The print is also very grainy, which is at odds with the idea of “dazzling” color or a fantastic homage to the musical.

On the other hand, there is a certain immediacy to the look of the film. The wide-angle lens distorts the angles in the small apartment. Even the wide screen fails to contain the two leads sometimes. Godard uses jokey subtitles that occasionally take the place of dialogue. All these visual clues remind us that this is a filmed movie. It’s not a packaged blockbuster or home-video presentation, but actual, magical, physical film, recording people and places as they looked forty years ago. Godard doesn’t try to make the medium invisible in order to tell a story; he acknowledges the medium and includes it as part of his art.

If you just want to see the movie, you will be able rent it soon, but it won’t be the same magical experience as seeing it in a theater. Treat yourself to film and save the video rental for Godard’s recent movies, some of which were shot on video.