A Woman Is a Woman (1961)

illustration by Dani Manning

…Lights! Camera! Action! “Redeviens la petite fille / Qui m’a donné tant de bonheur,” croons Charles Aznavour while Angéla—white coat, black gloves, and bouffant—strides down the street with a red umbrella, closes it, enters a little café, and orders a coffee. She leans against the bar. A man next to her orders a coffee. She goes to the jukebox, puts a coin in, presses a button, goes back to the bar, glances over at the man, and asks the barista the time. It’s 5:30. She gasps, sips her coffee—“It’s too hot. Gotta run.” Before she leaves, she turns to the camera and winks. Then, we see her from across the street, her red umbrella and tights. She passes a little bookshop, turns around, and walks in. She picks up a book, then a magazine. A saxophone plays. Across the room, she catches the eyes of Émile, and smiles beatifically.

But this is no meet cute. We are in the world of Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman [Une femme est une femme, 1961], and Angéla (Anna Karina) and Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy) are already in a relationship. Moreover, the book Angéla has just put back is one on childbearing, and as she catches Émile’s eye, the sax cuts out. It’s a foreshadowing of the film’s central conflict: Angéla wants a baby, and Émile, who wants to save his energy for an upcoming bicycle race, does not. Émile holds up a fairytale, Sleeping Beauty—not to Angéla, but to two children—yet, like Angéla, the kids are in the mood for something “plus sexy.”

Why does Angéla want a baby? The film never really explains. At work—Angéla is a stripper at a cabaret—she tousles the hair of a coworker’s little boy, but the interaction is cursory. She and Émile live together, but they are not married, and there are no injunctions from parents for grandchildren—in fact, there are no parents at all. Eggs and their attendant anxieties abound, but Angéla is hardly of an age to be crying about dropped eggs—according to Godard, she is only 24 or 25.

What we are led to believe is that Angéla is suffering from a caprice: a whim, a sudden wish, a passing fancy. You know, the sort women have. “Like many women, she might suddenly have wanted to go to Marseille, to have an expensive new dress, or a chocolate éclair or something,” Jean-Luc Godard says in commentary for the film, “a sudden yearning which she would rather die than leave unsatisfied. Which is silly. But there it is: a woman is a woman.”

A woman is a woman, i.e., irrational, moody, buffeted by the winds of whim. A creature so absurd as to be definable only in terms of a tautology. “Always asking for the impossible,” Émile says when Angéla sees a postcard in the bookshop and starts crying because she can’t “be both yellow animals at the same time.” Yet, all in all, the film is on Angéla’s side. It takes her desires seriously. Besides wanting a baby, she wants to be in a musical, á la Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly. From Angéla’s caprices, capers and capriccios ensue.

Capers: Angéla and Émile argue, and Angéla declares that she’ll sleep with the first guy she meets. Émile says he’ll call up his friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who just so happens to be in the street below their balcony, and also just so happens to be in love with Angéla. Misunderstandings lead to misfires—Angéla does end up sleeping with Alfred, and Émile has a dalliance with a sex worker—but in the end, our lovers return to one another, reconcile, and finally get it on so as to give the baby a chance at having Émile as papa. Along the way, Angéla has her very own musical number, “La chanson d’Angéla”; tries out, with Alfred, a tableaux of comédie musicale poses; and, with great charm, sings and dances by herself in front of mirrors, imbuing the film with zest and mischief. 

Capriccios: in the world of music, very loosely defined (after all, we are not dealing with a film overzealous in its definitions) as a lively, whimsical, humorous composition, free and improvisational in form and structure. Pay attention to the music in this movie, or don’t—it will force you to pay attention, anyway. Unlike your typical Classical Hollywood film score, which tends to trot obediently along with the narrative—evoking environments and emotions, underpinning events, revealing psychology; swelling at moments of intensity or stepping back when needed—Michel Legrand’s score has a mind of its own. It is chaotic, insouciant, funny. It brings together baroque, opera, and jazz, harpsichord and electric guitar; it stops and starts sometimes at random; it exaggerates emotions or takes the liberty to mock and mimic characters.

In the world of art, a capriccio is a landscape or architectural composition that combines elements of reality and fantasy. It reached its high point in the 1740s, when artists like Canaletto started to take liberties with scenes they had at first painted al reale. In contrast to strict mimesis or naturalistic invention, the capriccio had associations with wit and playfulness, the artificial and the bizarre. In Une femme est une femme, the fourth wall is broken often and with gusto. Characters can walk through magical doorways and emerge on the other side wearing entirely different outfits. Angéla’s friend Suzanne, when asked what book she’s been reading, mimes playing the piano and shooting a gun (Shoot the Piano Player), and we hear real piano music and gunshots. After Angéla and Émile argue on the phone, someone asks Émile if something is wrong and he replies, “She can go fry an egg”—the next shot, of course, is Angéla frying an egg. When Alfred calls a few minutes later, she tosses the egg up, runs out into the hallway to say hi, and runs back to catch—improbably—the egg as it descends.

Both aural and visual elements are evidence of how, in Godard’s words, “cinema usurps the role of our eyes [and ears] to present a world consonant with our dreams.” That is to say, cinema and Angéla collude to usurp reality and present a world consonant with Angéla’s dreams. But how consonant are dreams themselves? Not very, Godard shows. For Angéla and Godard are both lovers of contradiction.

First, Angéla. She desperately wants a baby, but she is laughably, often adorably childish. She laughs with Suzanne about despising humanity, which is alarming when you consider her desire to perpetuate it. She works as a stripper, but we never see her in anything less than her undergarments, and, rather than exude a more full-blown, voluptuous sexuality, she maintains the wholesome innocence of an ingénue. Thanks to Anna Karina’s big eyes and glorious expressiveness, she has the makings of a star, but she often falls back down to earth—dropping eggs, burning the dinner, having a strand of hair in her eye as she sings, wobbling a little as she poses. She wears bright colors and bold makeup, which lend her a certain degree of glamor, but this is, at the end of the day, not haute couture but the everyday garb of a young Parisian woman—she repeats outfits; her boyfriend thinks her plaid skirt doesn’t suit her. We always see her dressed in the colors of the French flag, yet—like Anna Karina—she is originally Danish; in order to marry, she has to get her birth certificate from Copenhagen, and her foreign accent makes her lose to Émile in a contest of who can best pronounce the letter “R.” She laments that lies and truth do not always look different from one another, but she has her own moments of dishonesty: after shutting the door behind Émile and Alfred, she says “I love you” to Alfred, too quietly for him to hear, but when asked to repeat herself replies, “I don’t love you.” Later, on the phone with Émile, she tells him, “No, I don’t forgive you,” before lowering the phone and smiling into the distance: “Yes, I forgive him.”

As for Godard, he is as at home in the world of dialectics as his heroine. He capriciously collides opposites, one suspects, for the sheer fun of it. Let’s look at these collisions more closely—or, rather, let’s let Godard look at them. “If I analyse myself today, I see that I always wanted…to make a film of research under the form of spectacle,” he says in an interview for Cahiers du Cinéma. In the same interview, he posits that there are directors who seek truth and directors who seek beauty, but that one can tunnel their way to beauty from the truth side, and vice versa. Documentary and fiction are where these two Keatsian poles are to be found. They are also to be found in Une femme est une femme, which is conceived of as “un néo-réalisme musical.” So, drawing up a table, we have research, truth, documentary, and neorealism on one side, and spectacle, beauty, fiction, and the musical on the other.

Godard’s is a dialectic that does not aim at synthesis. Instead, like male and female, opposites come together to create life, but they do not dissolve their own boundaries in doing so. In the gray grit and rubble-filled alleyways of Strasbourg-Saint-Denis in bleak November, Godard plops down Angéla—bright blue, smiling, beautiful, effervescent. When she sings her chanson, bright filters on the screen bathe her close-up in bold, striking hues, but we also see the machine responsible for these effects. We may be forgiven for thinking that the rubble and machine are reality, the Cyd Charisse imitation and color filters fantasy, but tunnel through one and you reach the other. 

It is in this way that artificiality brings real depths to the surface. Angéla is always performing, whether or not she’s at the cabaret. She has a knack for putting on a show in the most natural way. It’s often when she’s at her most performative that she’s most vulnerable. Alone in the apartment, still nursing the wounds of her argument with Émile, she reads aloud from a play, Alfred de Musset’s On ne badine pas avec l’amour [Don’t Trifle with Love]. Soon, she discards the text and speaks the lines from memory, emoting with increasing intensity as she walks around the apartment as though on a stage: “One is often deceived in love, often hurt, often unhappy. And when you reach the edge of the grave, you turn round to look back on your life and say, ‘I have suffered, I have sometimes been deceived, but I have loved.’” These words, written for a fictional character in a fictional context, become documentary: like an unflinching bit of neorealism, they capture the truth of Angéla’s inner landscape.

After she’s slept with Alfred, Angéla still has Émile on her mind. As she leaves Alfred’s apartment, she crosses herself for a brief moment in the street, as though this whole time God has been the audience to her faithlessness. Maybe God hasn’t, but Godard certainly has: the film jump-cuts to Angéla singing her chanson at the cabaret, her face in close-up and red filter again. As she looks into the camera, the song—originally flirty, coy, and shallow—accrues her heartache and turmoil: “I really can be very cruel.” 

On the other hand, what seems deep is simply skated over as surface. On the street, Angéla runs into Alfred, who is clearly into her, and rebuffs his attempts at conversation. “What’re you thinking?” he asks her. “Nothing,” she answers, before dragging in a rumpled Descartes for reinforcement: “I think I exist” [“Je pense que j’existe”]. This is no heady intellectualism—simply a witty diversion, and our heroine runs off. At the cabaret, just before she goes on, Angéla passes by a colleague reading L’esthétique de Hegel, bends down to peer at the pages, and listens as the woman unfurls the sentence “Creations of art are the forty days of nature’s glorious life.” She shrugs, laughs, and gets on with her show. The sentence resonates, but more for its sound, the atmosphere of ideas it evokes, than for any real significance. It’s as if these nods to philosophy are mere stylistic touches, little daubs of paint on an already busy canvas. 

But of course, for Godard, style is never mere style. “Where does cinema begin?” he asks in his commentary. “When form becomes style.” Style is “the reality which the mind claims for itself,” as well as “the definition of liberty given by Hegel…To create cinema, all one has to do is film free people. Like Émile and Angéla.” Especially Angéla. With her winks that begin and end the film, Angéla at once claims reality for herself and proclaims her own liberty. Of our trio, it is she who is most free. Not just in spirit—having at last gotten Émile to sleep with her, she has usurped reality in the interest of her dreams and so reaches the ultimate liberty: the liberty to define oneself. 

Throughout the film, as if in attempt to answer the tautology of the title, we get such original statements about women (mostly from a disgruntled Émile) as “Women are the cause of all suffering,” “I find a crying woman ugly,” “Women always act like victims,” and “All women to the stake.” After Émile and Angéla have done the deed and the lights are turned back on, Émile admits his defeat. “Angéla,” he says, “tu es infâme” [“You are horrid”]. But the accusation misfires. “Moi? Je ne suis pas un femme,” she mistakenly corrects, rejecting the masculine pronoun she thinks she hears. “Je suis une femme” [“I’m a woman”].

If Angéla is meant to define womanhood for us, what is the definition she comprises? Like the dames of screwball, she can be intelligent, difficult to keep up with, spontaneous, witty, intensely vital, but—alas, too relatably human—she so often descends into silent-era farce. She is a working girl, but her job, though uniquely feminine, lacks the politeness of the secretary or shopgirl; though liable to induce masculine anxieties in her boyfriend, it also lacks authority and does not seem to be accompanied by any long-term career ambitions on her part. She performs conventional domestic duties, but not always well, and, in a moment of frustration, abdicates, announcing, “I’m fed up with all of you…Do your own cooking.” In spite of her general lightness and frivolity, she’s not afraid to bare her heart; crying, she avows her distaste for “modern women” who quash their tears: “A woman who can’t cry is stupid.” Sexually learned and seductive, she nonetheless does not use these wiles for material gain; her childishness takes the edge off. She both accepts and stands in opposition to bourgeois values—she wants a baby, but marriage seems to be an afterthought, living as she does with Émile as though they are already married. In short, Angéla pulls together disparate threads of femininity; like wily Penelope, she weaves and unweaves them. If she comes across as silly or improbable, well, don’t we all?

While Angéla is busy proving that “a woman is always a woman,” Godard carries out his intention of proving that “cinema is always cinema.” He draws attention to the film as film through a riot of meta-filmic techniques. The ending’s pun and wink bring director and character into cheeky collusion. Both announce, insouciantly, “Je pense que j’existe,” and then run off. According to Hegel, such self-consciousness is how life exercises freedom. And art is how humans exercise their own self-consciousness concerning their freedom: art puts in front of us the truth of our spiritual freedom and allows us to enjoy it. This is why, I think, Une femme est une femme has always produced in me an unbridled joy. In its sheer freedom, it never ceases to delight.

Because Hegel was not a time traveler, he was unable to give cinema a place among his arts. However, he did give a very special place to poetry, dramatic poetry in particular. Poetry stands out as the best of all the arts because it gives the most concrete expression to the spirit’s freedom; it documents it. And drama comprises the best of poetry—like epic, it presents characters in a situation; like lyric, it gives voice to the subjective, to the free human will.

In the film, the characters often wonder whether they’re in a comedy or a tragedy, whether to laugh or cry. For Hegel, the distinction is that in tragedy, characters acting out of their own free will—and thus coming into conflict with one another—meet violent ends or destroy themselves, whereas in comedy, characters act in patently silly ways, or their means contradict their ends. Self-consciously, they can come to laugh at themselves, and this laugh raises them above their contradictions. Une femme est une femme is a film in which things could easily fall into ruin—after all, it is a misunderstanding in Romeo and Juliet that leads to the lovers’ tragic ending—but in the end, all wrongs, all misfires are laughed away. The laugh of comedy is, moreover, the laugh of letting go, of relinquishing one’s selfish motives. Thus, comedy, Hegel believes, takes art to its edge, where religion lies. Comedy is the ultimate aesthetic expression of freedom.

Godard, too, takes art to its edge. At that edge lies not religion but life. Cinema is the tunnel in between; you can start at either end—art or life—and burrow your way through to the other side.  “The cinema is interesting because it seizes life and the mortal side of life,” says Godard. It is “the only art which, as Cocteau says…‘films death at work.’” Why does Angéla want a baby? Because, in her supreme self-consciousness, she knows she is “death at work.” She sees old people passing in the street, and in the camera’s painfully neorealistic gaze, they are like people in a documentary. The Aznavour song that makes her lose her head and get into bed with Alfred is the voice of a husband reproaching his aging wife: “God, you have changed in five years / You let yourself go, you let yourself go.” Even her own song reproaches her: she declares to the camera—the one that captures her own aging in process—“Je suis / Très…belle,” knowing that physical beauty contains in it always the seeds of its own decay. And so she commits the error that invents cinema, “that of recording the image of man, and reproducing it by projecting it till the end of time.” It is an error of love: Angéla wants not only to reproduce her own image, but also that of Émile.

So perhaps the better question is not “Why does Angéla want a baby?” but “Why does Angéla love Émile?” The film provides no history of their relationship, nor any indication of where it will go. What we watch is not a couple finding their way towards one another, lit up with the passion and hope of first love. Instead, the camera gives us 24 hours or so of a man and a woman in the middle of things, with all the fights, frustrations, and foibles that entails. Why, indeed, does anybody love anybody? Such questions necessarily revert to tautology.

We may meet many unremarkable people in our life before that one sparkling person emerges, suddenly, like a caprice, taking our breath and our heart. So it is with film. When I first saw this movie, my first cinematic love, at the age of 12 or 13, Godard and Karina were still alive; today, they are dead. If directors have made the mistake of “believing that a strip of celluloid is less perishable than a block of stone or even memory,” who can blame viewers for doing the same? In art, as in life, love wishes to perpetuate its object. “From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,” knows Shakespeare. Like a caprice, love is inexplicable. We are surprised, we are delighted, and then we return, again and again.

For Une femme est une femme is a film that knows coziness. From the rich texture of its neon signs and book covers, to its easy referencing of directors Godard loves (Lubitsch) or is friends with (Truffaut, Demy), to the way we are made to follow the daily routines of Angéla and Émile—learning their workplaces, their haunts, their neighborhood, their little apartment with its domestic appurtenances—and are led to enter into their conflicts and desires, no matter how trivial, it draws us in. Though the films it references gesture to an undercurrent of darker possibilities (in Jules and Jim, a love triangle results in the tragic death of two of its members; in Lola, a stripper is abandoned by her lover and left to provide for their child on her own), these are blithely, jauntily passed by. The film winks at us.

As is often the case with an old lover or a spouse, one can’t help coming back, surrendering to the comfort, the intimacy, the silly little jokes. Novelty may get us in the door, like the streetwalker who beckons to a dejected Émile, but it’s to familiarity’s bed that we return night after night. A woman is a woman, cinema is cinema, and Godard is always Godard. Let other movies be grand, serious, overtly profound. “People usually admire that tower built by Eiffel,” says the cabaret announcer, before our heroine begins her performance. “But I’d rather take in Angéla, who’s an eyeful.”