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.
Aside from some gray flickering in a scene or two, Raoul Coutard's imagery bursts with color and soft-edged, subversive beauty. The monaural sound adequately amplifies Godard's strategic use of whispering, the clamor of construction noise, and stretches of silence.
The archival assets are a pair of French TV excerpts preceding the film's release, the first a profile of Marina Vlady in which she discusses how Godard spoke to her through an earphone during takes, feeding her lines or asking her questions. Glimpsed on the set being asked by the director how she knows her eyes are not her knees, Vlady sighs, "You're playing with words," but in interview footage she credits him with enabling actors to perform "without a mask." The second clip, from a current-events forum, finds Godard discussing the burgeoning prostitution in Greater Paris with a government official whose duty is to forecast trends. The filmmaker declares that the city and its booming suburbs are "being reorganized into one big brothel" of discontented laborers; the bureaucrat bristles, then sighs that economically-pressured sex work is "part of the price to pay" for following the American growth model. In a recent interview, theater director Andre Bourseiller describes his friendship with the auteur in the '60s, from his children's roles in 2 or 3 Things to Godard's May 1968 break with him for being a state-funded "bigwig" among artists.
Adrian Martin's scholarly commentary track identifies 2 or 3 Things as a transitional film from Godard's nouvelle vague period to a politically radicalized aesthetic, noting the influence of sociology, phenomenology, and pop art on the film's collagist style. Martin also categorizes it as Godard's first of many cinematic essays that have dominated the last 40 years of his oeuvre. In her critical essay, Amy Taubin champions the film as its maker's greatest, praising its Warholian use of consumer packages as totems and "the uncanny coherence of its fragmented structure." The booklet also contains the anonymous published letter of a housewife-prostitute that spurred Godard's choice of subject. Rounding out the generous single disc are a video concordance of the film's myriad quotations and references, from Flaubert to Ray Bradbury, and the original trailer-with a silent soundtrack, its title cards add to the multiple meanings of the titular Her: "The Cruelty of Neocapitalism," "The Physics of Love," "The Vietnam War."
"If you can't afford LSD, buy a color TV," or perhaps use both to dive into this heady Godardian brew.