The dualities that abound in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her are ubiquitous at whatever starting point one chooses: the early shots that identify its protagonist as its Franco-Russian star, Marina Vlady, and from a different angle as her character, the bored housewife and part-time prostitute Juliette Janson; the presence of Godard behind the camera and as its confessional soundtrack voice, speaking in a constant whisper; and its near-simultaneous production history, in the Parisian summer of 1966, with the director’s more familiar crime-movie riff Made in U.S.A. While Godard’s formal trappings and thematic concerns in 2 or 3 Things are often familiar (literary and cultural references, the primacy and boundaries of language, the powerful reach of American imperialism and commerce, brief phrases on title cards, young women speaking slowly and ponderously), here he seems, in an explicit way that never quite resurfaced in his Maoism-obsessed period that immediately followed, to strive for transcendence. If his hushed narration seems to flatly bemoan modern life as “living inside a giant comic strip,” he senses ultimate freedom through people achieving interconnectivity, and by giving the objects that clutter their world a useful, properly proportionate meaning.
While cinematographer Raoul Coutard often provides eye-popping widescreen primary-hued images, it’s the banal settings of kitchens dotted with bright packages or shop racks of candy-colored dresses that are the stuff of the decorative shots. Otherwise, the Cinemascope frame is likely to be filled with Juliette or one of her trick-turning friends waxing epistemological in close-up monologues (“Where is the truth? What is an object?”), or connecting montages of cranes engaged in the construction of superhighways and the housing projects that have created the exurban habitat of Juliette, her friend Marianne (Anny Duperey), and their confreres caught between desire and modernity. Inspired by a magazine article about high-rise dwellers picking up working-class men to maintain their comfortable lifestyles, 2 or 3 Things scarcely judges their adopted vocation as being any more of a symptom of the women’s alienation and rudderlessness than their smoking of Winstons or flipping through fashion pages. (The sex work certainly doesn’t have the baroquely perverse weight of Catherine Deneuve’s erotic adventures in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, though Godard applies his own brand of deadpan wit, envisioning an apartment brothel decorated with travel posters and providing daycare to the streetwalkers’ bawling children.) Similarly, while LBJ’s Vietnam folly is excoriated, it’s integrated into domestic or sexual scenes, with Julie’s husband Robert (Roger Montsoret) reporting on new presidential aggression toward Peking and Moscow from his ham radio set, or a war correspondent (Raoul Lévy) with a U.S. flag on his T-shirt scoffing that Johnson could buy 20,000 hookers for the cost of one Viet Cong corpse—as he enjoys a threesome with Juliette and Marianne, airline bags over their heads for his peculiar comfort.
The film’s most renowned set piece finds the universe in a swirling cup of espresso, Godard filling the screen with brown bubbles resembling galactic storms as his voice laments miscommunication while hoping for “the advent of consciousness.” On a par with it are a car-washing at Robert’s garage, with the whispered voiceover suggesting alternative characters and settings as the focus of the scene, presenting editing as an existential choice but also as a metaphor for political and moral decisions; and a lengthy sequence near the end, where three pairs of café patrons play rhetorical, inquisitive games while a pinball machine bangs musically under their dialogue. “People never really talk in a movie,” one character suggests, but Godard’s famously do, at least about their fates in engaging the world philosophically. Does Juliette achieve a brief, fleeting transcendence, described as a pre-tryst moment in which “I was the world, and the world was me”? As the conscience/god of 2 or 3 Things, Godard seems to hesitantly allow it, but ends by asserting the colossus of America-bred consumption: “Thanks to Esso, I’ve forgotten it all,” he intones before, in a silent tableau, detergent and cigarette boxes stand like cemetery markers.