A title card at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman (Une Femme Mariée, 1964) states “Fragments of a film shot in 1964.” This jokey, self-conscious and somewhat self-deprecating acknowledgement is more than just Godard being Godard. (He would similarly include declarations such as “A film found on the scrapheap” and “A film lost in the cosmos” at the start of his 1968 masterwork, Weekend.) The fragmentary nature of A Married Woman is indeed vital and thoroughly evident in terms of the film’s disjointed narrative and its repeated visual motif of imagery divided and presented as solitary portions of an undeveloped entity. Further, such an abstract arrangement is itself symbolically illustrative of the film’s analytical and thematic concerns, which focus on the dissection of feminine identity during a capricious period in modern French history.
Titled The Married Woman in 1964, Godard’s eighth feature debuted to considerable acclaim at that year’s Venice Film Festival. Censors, however, were less thrilled. The film was rebuked for its sexuality and the depiction of an illicit romance, but more specifically, the powers that be felt that “The” suggested a national adulterous norm, so the more singular “A” was assigned. Even with this alteration, and a few cuts here and there (including a topless bathing scene shot by Jacques Rozier), A Married Woman was fleshy enough to screen on soft porn circuits in certain countries, a now strange but somehow fitting outcome for a film so preoccupied by the commodification of the body.
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As its title clearly indicates — with either an “A” or “The” — the primary subject of A Married Woman is the role and representation of a wife. And this starts, quite literally, with her body. A series of varying sized close-ups map the physical terrain of Charlotte (Macha Méril) and her lover, Robert (Bernard Noël) — their hands, knees, stomachs, arms, etc. Over this tactile survey, the two talk of their love, film and their own sensual preferences (the attraction of Italian actresses not shaving their armpits, for example). It is nearly eight minutes into A Married Woman before there is a full shot of a person, which happens to be Méril sitting naked on a bed. Recalling Brigitte Bardot’s colorful nude introduction in Godard’s Contempt (1963), Charlotte pointedly discusses and questions the importance (and worth) of certain body parts, establishing what will be her primary preoccupation, as well as a generic partitioning of a female’s physical expectations and the challenges to those values.
In this opening sequence, fades to black break up strict temporal continuity. Reflecting the film’s piecemeal construction, Godard revels in A Married Woman’s obstructions, as puzzle pieces only gradually assemble into anything resembling a solidified whole. Even then, there is no traditional story to be had. Instead, there is a probing examination of Charlotte as she faces the romantic conflicts that arise from her affair with Robert and her troubled relationship with Pierre (Philippe Leroy), her husband. Charlotte’s personal confusion is only exacerbated by a wider social condition, one that leaves women dependent upon, and dictated by, their male counterparts. Robert callously remarks, “Women only live for men but do nothing for them,” stressing the insinuation that a dutiful wife or lover functions solely at the behest of the man in her life. Such a notion is even seen in records that instruct women how to strip and belly dance for their husband, as if a wife were there to entertain and amuse like a salable product.
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Critic John Bragin has noted A Married Woman’s “transmutation of the dramatic into the graphic,” something realized by Godard in the form of media saturation via posters, magazines and newspapers. And according to preeminent Godard scholar Colin MacCabe, “The female body has become industrialised [sic]; a woman must buy the means to paint on (make-up) and sculpt (underwear/clothes) a look of femininity, a look which is the guarantee of visibility in a sexist society for each individual woman.” There is, then, the recurrent visual refrain of one’s physical and material production, with Charlotte learning the techniques for applying a veneer of sorts, a fabricated guise that allows for the necessary appearance of an idealized contemporary woman. With the repeated full-screen placement of lingerie advertisements and Charlotte’s interest in improvements to her outward appearance, physicality and sexuality in A Married Woman are assembled from a clash between reality and the ideal. Though Charlotte will continually debate ways to enhance her body or to measure it by marketable standards, she is confident enough, or maybe naive enough, to go out onto the rooftop only in her underwear. Upon doing so, though, Robert is quick to call her back in, chiding her for such audacity. It is clear that women are expected to appear a certain way for the man in their life, but it is obviously for he and he alone.
Within this critical framework, there is also a dehumanizing process underway in A Married Woman, one instigated by capitalist and sexist exploitation. For example, look at the insertions of body parts and advertisements: the imagery is erotic but clinical, natural but manufactured, exposing only concentrated elements of a total formation. Godard is operating in a “sociological vein,” as Antoine de Baecque puts it, where the filmmaker approaches sexuality and consumerist society in provocative yet objectively scientific detail; Méril herself likened the process to an “animal observed under a microscope.” The objectivity is particularly important, though, considering the journalistic inquiry of Two or Three Things I Know About Her… (1967). Godard, at least at this point in his career, has no great interest in moralizing. Charlotte’s infidelity and indecision are presented more as social corollaries rather than traits of a clichéd treacherous woman (though she does voice a cultural contradiction when she notes, “Men always accept from themselves what they don’t accept from women”).
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Forming a context for the scattered montage of disconnected images, A Married Woman is divided into three basic sections: the first with Charlotte and Robert in the opening hotel room, the second with Charlotte at home with Pierre, and the third, which finds Charlotte and Robert again meeting in a hotel. In A Married Woman’s midsection, Charlotte and Pierre echo many of the reflections shared in the first third of the picture, likewise speaking of love and its many complications. But things take a violent turn when Charlotte attempts to play one of Pierre’s records, only to be threatened with rape. What appears to be a playful chase ensues (though even that seems potentially hazardous), and the two ostensibly make amends, during which Charlotte calmly says there was no need to rape and slap her around, as if it were a common reaction. If this is modern marriage for Godard, it is easy to see why he generally avoided such an exhaustive depiction of matrimonial union prior to this film. By the time of Two or Three Things I Know About Her… and Weekend, there is little to no marital bliss to be found in Godard’s cinema (and this would remain the case through films like 1975’s Numéro deus, one of his most scathing looks at married life).
Fragmenting the plot further, Godard inserts seven chapters within this three-act assembly, the most prescient of which revolves around Robert, Charlotte, Pierre, their dinner guest Roger Leenhardt (the director playing himself) and housekeeper Madame Celine (Rita Maiden). These inclusions of varying length and subject matter are split from the progressive story of A Married Woman and essentially presented as interviews prompted by an unseen cue from Godard, who would literally speak into an earpiece to elicit a response from the actors, or a never heard question from an off-screen character. These tableaux, which in some ways recall Godard’s 1962 film Vivre sa vie and its printed divisions, are more thematic than descriptive, but they serve essentially the same function. The presence of the text fractures A Married Woman’s fictional flow and calls attention to the creative process, distancing the viewer and presenting discourse detached from the more salient narrative.
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So what does A Married Woman all add up to? For one thing, perhaps a sign of what was to come in Godard’s ever-evolving methodology. Returning to these “fragments of a film shot in 1964,” the year 1964 is itself important, for this was the middle of Godard’s first phase of filmmaking (and few directors have had so many distinct phases of filmmaking). Though with differing internal conflicts, and even with A Married Woman’s somewhat more austere, domesticated milieu, Charlotte is not so very different from Jean Seberg in Breathless (1960) or Anna Karina in her Godard performances. Charlotte also dashes about impulsively (rushing so much at one point that she trips and falls down, something that may or may not have been intentional) and muses to herself about assorted trivialities. By that same token, Godard remains formally dynamic. Shot with stalwart cinematographer Raoul Coutard, A Married Woman features trademark Godardian touches in terms of stylistic novelty. He switches to the camera negative for one scene and turns the camera on its side for another. Inventively making up for budgetary restraints, Godard uses a descending escalator to stand in for a crane shot, and, in a discerning compositional strategy, he stages a scene between Charlotte and Pierre from outside their home, looking in through two open doors, keeping a theatrical distance and panning back and forth to follow their movements. With A Married Woman, Godard dramatically employs another critical ingredient of his developing oeuvre, particularly as it concerns this fragmentation theme: visual insertions that take the form of paintings, sentences, individual words, neon signs or segments from a magazine or book, resulting in what Richard Roud calls a “splitting up of the shot, and then re-pasting in a kind of collage technique…” There are, for example, signs that read “Make up your mind!” (shown twice) and “Danger,” both audaciously commenting on Charlotte’s dilemma.
Absent from A Married Woman, however, are familiar New Wave personalities. There is no Karina, no Jean-Claude Brialy, no Jean-Paul Belmondo and no Jean-Pierre Léaud. Similarly, there is no score by Michel Legrand, Antoine Duhamel or Georges Delerue. But even more noticeably, and quite unusual for Godard and Coutard at the time, is the relative blandness of the imagery. Another title at the start of A Married Woman specifies that this is a film “in black … and white,” but its strikingly low-contrast range makes the film more gray than anything. While this may mirror the ethical middle-ground that Charlotte is struggling to sustain, in practical terms, it levels out the degree of detail and creates a barrenness and a bland lack of depth; the characters almost blend with the empty walls they are positioned against. The larger setting of A Married Woman is likewise basically irrelevant. Even when away from the interior dullness, which bears little definition or texture, the city of Paris itself appears incidental. It is not a vibrant atmosphere as in Breathless, nor does it express the urban seediness of Vivre sa vie or the techno-industrialization of Alphaville (1965). For all that A Married Woman propagates in terms of visual value, it does little to sell the City of Lights.
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By 1964, the generally spirited Nouvelle Vague mood of Breathless, A Woman Is a Woman, Contempt and Band of Outsiders (1964) had started to shift for Godard. There were already signs of a growing social consciousness in his investigative approach toward prostitution in Vivre sa vie, and 1963 saw him work through his idiosyncratic views on politics and war with Le Petit Soldat and Les Carabiniers. With A Married Woman, though, Godard appears fully devoted to topical bullet points through an essayistic structure, forgoing conventional narrative, character development or expedient pacing. His penchant for what could be considered pure entertainment would arguably remain for a few years after, but cultural critiques were nonetheless manifest in films like Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou (1965), and certainly by Two or Three Things I Know About Her…, there was no turning back for Jean-Luc Godard. A Married Women, more than any of his films to that point, is the work that lit the increasingly controversial spark.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.