With A Married Woman, Jean-Luc Godard leeches a story of a bored, attractive, unfaithful housewife of much of its escapist luridness, favoring ennui over sex, symbols and signifiers over narrative. The film is remarkably chilly and precise even for the legendary director, providing a peek at where his career would head after his run of comparatively quasi-populist 1960s-era hallmarks. A Married Woman is exhilarating in its masterful suggestion of how fictional films could formally evolve, utilizing documentary and image and narrative fragmentation in fashions that have proven to be greatly influential.
The film’s first image is a resonant shot of a male arm grasping a female wrist. The intersection of the arms forms a right angle, suggesting the hammer and sickle associated with communist societies. Charlotte (Macha Méril) is introduced one body part at a time. After her arm, we see her stomach, her shapely legs, and eventually her face. Godard literally objectifies Charlotte, then, reducing her to detached portions. Charlotte is intensely tactile to us as a series of fleshy still lifes, as we can see her right down to her pores and feel the pleasure the male arm and hand take in touching and squeezing her.
Godard gradually grants Charlotte agency of being, though the same can’t be said of her lover, Robert (Bernard Noël), who’s faceless for most of the opening before existing, like her husband, Pierre (Philippe Leroy), as a foil for the remainder of the running time. The implication of this schematic, virtuosic framing is pointed: Godard parodies our sexual obsession with a certain kind of bored bourgeoisie woman, deliberately fashioning poses that resemble advertisements that pray on our fantasies, though enjoying her nevertheless, while suggesting that Robert could be any man. Godard might also be parodying his own aesthetic, self-digesting it, riffing on his searing, ticklish artiness, and perhaps on the fact that we’ve already been to this territory many times before with him.
There are few things that Godard likes to do more, in his 1960s-era cinema, than cordon two privileged, good-looking lovers off in a stylish room together and have them pontificate on high- and low-brow culture in a postmodern manner that suggests the detonation of culture. Interspersed with these digressions are thoughts on love that are so banal they’re either meant to be ironic, to be taken with a straight face, or, most interestingly, both.
A Married Woman finds Godard at a fascinating crossroads. He seems to distrust the intoxication of his earlier films at this juncture, the way they pointed toward an intellectualized pop culture that served to ultimately enhance the pleasures of pop for self-conscious eggheads who took the director to be to cinema what Bob Dylan was for music near the same time in history: a paradoxically populist rebel. The purplish lushness of Contempt is nowhere to be found in A Married Woman, which is shot in a gritty black and white and composed of hard angular imagery. Godard’s Marxist leanings are more explicit in this film than at any point before, as that angularity is intended as an alienating effect meant to explicate the film’s messages. Yet the filmmaker still gets off on pop culture, affluence, beautiful women, and a certain je nais se quoi of the wandering French male who indulges all those things.
This unresolved element of his sensibility is most evident in one of the film’s best scenes. Charlotte looks at a fashion magazine while Sylvie Vartan’s “Quand le Film Est Trist” plays on the soundtrack, the filmmaker turning a potentially simple placeholder between bigger moments into a major sequence onto itself. Charlotte gazes at pictures of lingerie, as the song gives the extended sequence a cheeky bounce. Godard resents the way society tells women to contort themselves for a man’s pleasure, as this sequence connects to the bald objectification of the opening scene, and to a male character’s observation that women spend more time considering how to please men than themselves. Yet the lingerie scene is also sexy, reveling in an attractive woman’s casual time-killing as an act of voyeurism, turning a taken-for-granted action (flipping through a catalogue) into a revealing glimpse into how we’re encouraged to spy on one another for the sake of envy and titillation, fueling commercialism, which extends to the titillation of A Married Woman.
Godard’s didacticism threatens to get the better of him. (As is usually the case in his work, the filmmaker’s ideological messages are nowhere near as revelatory as his dense, discordant, found-object-laden aesthetic.) A moment in which Charlotte is revealed to barely understand the significance of Auschwitz is obvious and cruel as staged, scoring points on the ignorance of the masses (especially women) to historic atrocity. A long, potentially ironic sermon on the strength of intellectualism is powerful on its own oratorical terms, but cumulatively threatens to beat a dead thematic horse.
A Married Woman is haunting less for its social critiques than for the way Godard puts us in Charlotte’s head space. He offers few expository details about her, yet we suspect by the end of the film that we know Charlotte, as she’s vividly defined by her reactions to objects like the lingerie magazine, or to the way men touch her. Even when Charlotte’s face is so separated from other elements within a scene as to purposefully evoke the Kuleshov effect, we feel her. Godard captures the tragedy of the suggestion that we’re nothing more or less than the sum of our consumptions, which collectively establish our personality, or, to use a postmodern term, our “brand.”
The image boasts a pleasing sense of granularity, which is aesthetically as well as thematically important to a film so concerned with how outward textures inform inward reactions. The blacks are rich and well-differentiated, and the whites are sharp and occasionally glaring, though the latter is intentional. Textural detail is superb, which is also important to a film this preoccupied with the ideological power of media manipulation. The skin of these actors is so vividly palatable as to be exultant. The LPCM soundtrack deftly balances Godard’s characteristically dense sonic compositions. The intentionally shrill shriek of planes flying overheard contrasts sharply with the soothing rat-a-tat of people walking up and down streets or pacing rooms or stirring in bed. The mix has a precision and clarity that’s particularly impressive for a restoration of a film that was shot so quickly and on the fly.
The separate interviews with fashion designer Agnès B., Godard scholar Antoine de Baecque, and actress Macha Méril, all shot in 2010, elaborate on different aspects of A Married Woman’s cultural legacy. Agnès B. offers astute observations about the general importance of Godard’s work to France at the time, particularly in light of the capitalist tensions that would soon lead to the civil unrest in 1968. Her best insight is her confession that she "feels like she’s right next to Godard in the editing room" when she’s watching his films, which cuts to the heart of the filmmaker’s exhilaratingly immersive techniques. De Baecque further examines the social tensions in France at the time, between modernists and traditionalists, left and right, and men and women, positing A Married Woman as the film that cemented Godard as a hero to the left after the ambiguous politics of his earlier work. Méril provides the best and most personal interview, weaving discussions of aesthetics and politics together with her feelings about Godard personally, whom she suspects was never capable of fully loving a woman. Méri’s most memorable sentiment is her assertion that "too much aesthetic kills the aesthetic" when describing how the filmmaker would discard shots that were too beautiful. Godard’s taste for unruliness and roughness enliven his obsession with symmetry and theory. These interviews are short, running about 70 minutes in total, but they’re relatively dense in context, anecdote, and self-examination. One’s left wanting more, but these supplements show how much can be offered in a slim edition, if the distracting puff-piece fat is omitted. Two theatrical trailers round out the package.
One of Godard’s most arresting and personal early visions served as a pivotal act of brokering his own legend, while anticipating the more controversial, formally arresting work that would follow his 1960s-era period.