Une Femme Mariée, a seldom seen masterwork from Jean-Luc Godard’s most fecund era, may inspire more verbal hesitation than any of the films that preceded it in the director’s oeuvre. Though the plot recycles, and sharpens, elements of male ambiguity and maternal anxiety from the earlier and messier-titled A Woman Is a Woman, the film’s explicitly anti-textual construction is far less gimmicky. There are no pockets of mannered, cult-inspiring cuteness like the moment of silence or mad Louvre dash in Band of Outsiders; the only comparable affectation, wherein the titular female, Charlotte (Macha Méril), imitates a blinking Volkswagen with her fingers and eyeballs, is soberly dismissed by her husband. And while the characters are informed, at least subcutaneously, by cinematic experience (Roger Leenhardt stops in for a dinner party, and at another point Charlotte claims that it’s best to slouch back in a car’s passenger seat because it mimics the most rewarding posture at the movie theater), they reside in an antiseptic, chic universe evolved from the primordial soup of flashy brassiere ads.
Even the structure of the movie emulates the vague, oneiric eroticism of 30-second perfume spots; inversing the jump cuts that Breathless championed, Femme Mariée is a series of blackouts (i.e. fade-to-black and fade-ins that divide what would otherwise be individual scenes into multiple, lonely snippets) interspersed with occasional title cards meant to organize the raw sensory data of the film’s conversational exchanges. The subtitle of the movie, which reads like a placard accompanying a historical exhibit, offers a dramatic apology for the approach—“fragments of a film shot in 1964, in black and white”—though we’d be foolish to assume that the finished product was conceived in any other fashion than the fractured one we see. This is evident in the sequences that open and close the film, the compartmentalized presentation of which is integral to the gentle satire: Inane pillow talk soundtracks static shots of overlapping masculine/feminine body parts—arms, midriffs, and hypnotic legs. As with department store mannequins, the bodies on the screen are to be intermittently admired as they model an oblique ideal for our benefit; it’s fitting, then, that the sexual monotony of these scenes is eventually broken by an enigmatic voiceover whispering postmodern slogans and subliminal consumer commands.
Charlotte is Godard’s mannequin of the quintessential modern woman: Expensively but not ornately dressed, with a face that expresses both innocence and lewdness simultaneously, and fitfully bi-amorous despite being married (to a humdrum pilot played with avuncular aplomb by Phillippe Leroy) and having a young son from a previous connubial relationship. Most of the plot summary blurbs are bound to fixate on Charlotte’s third-act pregnancy and indecisiveness toward the potential sires, or her trivial obsession with fashion; she diligently, if effortlessly, follows trends, and even measures her bust line to ensure that it agrees with the contemporary view of bosom beauty. The filmic result of these intertwined concepts, however, is hardly the condescending satire that their juxtaposition would suggest, neither is it an aesthete handbook to appreciating shallowness—though one scene depicting a poolside photo shoot features solarized footage, a dated technique that’s essentially the definition of misconceived surface distortion.
Godard’s irony is far more socially baroque; it’s as though he intends to prove that haute couture is as valid a state of mind as any other. There are, of course, flaws to viewing the world as a glossy photograph: In a jarringly comic conversation, Charlotte reveals a distanced apathy to the brutal truths of Nazi death camps, seemingly not because of insensitivity, but because genocide isn’t likely to produce the next fab perfume or miniskirt. Even here, however, the protagonist remains sympathetic; her shrugging off the Holocaust is no more useless than the surrounding blabber of intellectual attempts to determine how humanity could stray so acutely from compassion. Charlotte is a character who dominates her own chosen sphere, at least in her own mind, and Godard repeatedly depicts the manner in which fashion culture aids rather than hinders womanly development.
As Charlotte deliberates the identity of her next baby’s father, she cautiously interviews both her husband and her joie-de-vivre actor lover: Their awkward responses are slickly pieced together like subtle infomercials, with punched-in close-ups of hirsute anatomies (stomach, shoulders, arms) challenging the typical “male gaze.” And in the film’s muted climax, Charlotte eavesdrops on a pair of homely high school females contemplating the imminent loss of their virginity. Godard cuts immediately to an open magazine littered with bra promotions—the shamanic objects of the age, bolstering breasts for confidence that sustains even after the garment is discarded in the bedroom.
If Breathless was a cheap comic book of sorts, composed of hard angles with images stepping all over one another’s toes in a frenzied rush for superiority, Femme Mariée is a sleek catalog: smooth but opaque, with every edge snugly rounded and beveled, and the price of every object tastefully included as a caption. You could read it, but you’d get more pleasure from absent-mindedly perusing, wetting your lips at the thought of applying Charlotte’s romance games to your own love life, and lingering on oddly familiar images that seem plucked from your brain’s wardrobe of kinesthetic reveries.