A Woman Is a Woman ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

On paper, Une femme est une femme is a film I ought to hate. For one thing, I dislike musicals. A lot of the gags rely on gimmicks that, cumulatively, make the film too cute by half. And yet, I couldn't help but to laugh several times. Jean-Luc Godard's third feature film (and the second of his that I've seen) is clearly an ancestor things that I've enjoyed over the years, like Animaniacs, and it was on that level that it successfully engaged me.

There's the early scene in which a collector approaches Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo) about an unpaid hotel debt from 9 July. Alfred insists that the collector must be mistaken, because he keeps a diary of everything he does. The collector, rather than denouncing the validity of such a diary outright in lieu of his own records, gamely awaits as Alfred thumbs through his pages. Sure enough, there's a diary entry about leaving the hotel without paying the bill.

Now having the evidence in Alfred's own diary, the collector returns to the matter of the debt...which Alfred calmly and flatly denotes he's never going to pay. The two part ways, trading insults (including an unexpected, off-putting anti-Semitic use of "Jew!" as an invective from Alfred) and nothing more is ever said of the debt. Theoretically, that scene is our introduction to the nature of Alfred's character, but there's something about the non sequitar that makes it a perfect microcosm of the sense of humor that permeates the film.

Of course, it's Anna Karina's performance as Angéla that's the real attraction here. Within the first few minutes, Karina coyly breaks the fourth wall with a wink. Just like that, we know precisely what kind of film Une femme est une femme will be. If you're not instantly smitten with Karina at that moment, you may as well shut off the film and watch something else.

The gender politics here are particularly fascinating. Angéla and Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy) trade clichés about women's prerogative and predictable gender-bashing, all in the course of her pleading for a baby while making and serving dinner. Angéla expresses disdain for modern women who have suppressed their femininity to the point of trying to be men. On the surface, then, Une femme est une femme can read as outdated.

However, the underlying theme of the film is progressive. Angéla is, after all, a striptease dancer in a wholly unimpressive dive. At no point is this the focus of any moralizing. Émile resists having a baby, citing the need for more financial stability, but never once does he say anything about how pregnancy would be incompatible with Angéla's line of work (a practical point of consideration not without merit).

The film refrains entirely from poking fun at the idea of strippers being mothers. When we first follow Angéla into the Zodiac, we see children. Angéla mentions other women by name, and we can assume these are other dancers having babies. No shame is ever assigned to these women, nor are they suggested unsuitable. Even in 2013, sex workers are rarely portrayed in such a normative light.

After Angéla admits to having slept with Alfred, Émile doesn't berate her. He clearly becomes jealous and competitive, wanting to have sex immediately to at least cast suspicion about the paternity should she become pregnant, but there is no judgment or hypocrisy from him about the incident. Yes, he had sex with a prostitute at the same time that Angéla was with Alfred, but we're not given any reason to think that Émile lets it go because they're "even". Sex work without apology is simply part of the world for these characters.

Of course, the biggest issue is that Angéla wants to have a baby. She's not pressured into it. On the contrary; this is unmistakably her choice. If anything, it's the treatment of Émile that's suspect.

Even her frustration at women who refuse to cry in the name of modernity is an oft-repeated refrain from many feminists today, who are rightly put off by the idea that a woman "can't" exhibit certain behaviors because they're obsolete. Angéla cries. Not because she's programmed to be a certain way as a woman, but because that's simply who she is. Why should she apologize for crying, or for wanting to be a mother?

A lot of the film's humor is predicated on references to then-contemporary pop culture and to French history. I know just enough about both to feel alternately clever for getting some jokes, and ignorant for knowing I should have gotten others, but didn't. J. Hoberman's 2004 essay for The Criterion Collection concludes:

In the punning punch line, Brialy calls Karina shameless: “Tu es infâme!” Sweetly, she corrects him: “Non, je suis une femme.” A woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do.

Hoberman's characterization of the final lines fails to properly explain how the line - which gives the film its title - pays off a joke set up much earlier. Jeffrey Gantz explained it more clearly:

Godard spoofs her “accented” French (only the French would cavil) and also the Franco-American “divide” (red-white-and-blue is everywhere, but whose flag is it?) when she’s talking to Alfred on the phone: he says, “What? I said, ‘Okay.’ Don’t you understand French?” Angéla-as-Karina even inspires the film’s celebrated conclusion. Émile says, “Angéla, tu es infâme”; she, deliberately (?) misunderstanding and attributing to him a grammatical mistake that no three-year-old would make, replies, “Non, je ne suis pas un femme. Je suis une femme.” Big wink at the camera. Fin.

I knew that Angéla being Danish and not French had to do with the moment, but I couldn't quite grasp what the moment was. If I had more clearly understood Émile's set-up line, I would have gotten the joke (my former French teachers would be happy to know I've retained some of their lessons). I'm glad that Gantz broke it down for me, even though I know that if you have to explain a joke, there is no joke.

It's worth noting that the Studio Canal print presently streaming on Netflix erroneously translates Émile's "Don't you understand French?" as "Don't you understand basic English?" That was, for obvious reasons, even funnier but it doesn't help the viewer who needs subtitles really grasp the nuance of the punny ending.

The Criterion Collection in general and even Jean-Luc Godard in particular enjoy reputations for cerebral stories, and it's nice to find a lighthearted gem like Une femme est une femme. It could have been an absolute slog for me, but I instead found it delightful.

How Une femme est une femme entered my Flickchart

Une femme est une femme > Anger Management --> #786
I got some chuckles out of Anger Management, but I have to admit that Une femme est une femme made me laugh despite it being a film that, on paper, I ought to have hated.

Une femme est une femme > Ben-Hur (1959) --> #393
I owe Ben-Hur another viewing, as it's been around twenty years by now, though the impressive scale remains vivid in my mind. This time, though, I'm going with Une femme est une femme for being a breath of fresh air.

Une femme est une femme < Titanic --> #393
Though Une femme est une femme is a lot of fun, Titanic is...well, frankly, it's an institution for movie watchers of my vintage. The recreation of the sinking that dominates the second half is truly compelling film-making.

Une femme est une femme > The Batman/Superman Movie: World's Finest --> #294
Even as a Bat-fan who really enjoyed the Dark Knight's team-up with the Man of Steel, I have to give the nod to Une femme est une femme for surprising me.

Une femme est une femme > Acting for the Camera --> #245
I loved Mallory Zeilstra's bold performance in Acting for the Camera, but there's something about Une femme est une femme that won me over in spite of all the ways it ought to have alienated me.

Une femme est une femme < Shadow of the Vampire --> #245
I got a kick out of both of these. Though Anna Karina is charming in Une femme est une femme, Willem Dafoe is hilarious in Shadow of the Vampire.

Une femme est une femme < Night of the Living Dead (1990) --> #245
This comes down to Anna Karina versus Pat Tallman, and while I was instantly smitten with the former, the latter's performance as Barbara remains a personal favorite.

Une femme est une femme < The Music Man (1962) --> #245
By all rights, I ought to hate both of these given my anti-musical sentiments, but I thoroughly enjoyed both. Une femme est une femme is the cleverer of the two, but I've always dug Robert Preston's performance as "Professor" Harold Hill.

Une femme est une femme < Mickey's Christmas Carol --> #245
Though Une femme est une femme is delightful and Anna Karina is radiant throughout, I've always loved Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and Mickey's Christmas Carol remains one of my favorite adaptations of it.

Une femme est une femme < Shattered --> #245
I was more surprised by how much I enjoyed Une femme est une femme, but Pierce Brosnan and Maria Bello are two of my favorite actors and they're both terrific in Shattered.

Une femme est une femme < Beetlejuice --> #245
I got a kick out of Une femme est une femme, but the other movie here is Beetlejuice. No shame in losing to that.

Une femme est une femme entered my Flickchart at #245/1571