2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER
2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle : France 1966 : Jean-Luc Godard : 95 mins
Intrigued by the title? Understandable, especially if you’ve also seen the poster featuring the seductive French-Russian actress Marina Vlady in a somewhat alluring pose. But the film’s first on-screen title soon reveals that the word ‘Her’ (elle) refers not to a woman, but to a decidedly less seductively alluring thing, which just happens to be ‘feminine’ in the French language: the administrative region of Paris, as defined by a mid-sixties shake-up of local government. And Godard is also defining some terrain – he immediately establishes that we’ve entered into his cinematic zone, a zone of intellectual cleverness, with the man himself acting as our unseen, not-entirely-trustworthy guide, whispering at our shoulders throughout.
But as this is a film all about questioning and undermining authority – specifically cinematic authority – why should we just meekly swallow what Godard serves up? We can’t even be sure that it’s even his voice doing the narration at all – it’s such an infuriatingly low whisper. Likewise, why should we believe what it says, or what is proclaimed by the many chapter-headings and titles. Yes, the film is kind of about the Parisian region, but it’s just as much about Vlady’s character, Julie Johnson, a chic, bored, middle-class housewife who dabbles in ‘prostitution.’
If this makes 2 or 3 Things sound like Belle de Jour, my apologies – Godard doesn’t waste his time on anything so bourgeois or predictable as ‘plot.’ Instead, he takes Julie/Vlady (they’re interchangeable) as the focus for a fragmentary series of cinematic experiments and philosophical/political skits, designed to deconstruct the syntax not only of movies (“fifty frames later.”), but of the whole concept of ‘narrative’ itself, while also taking some opportunistic digs at US foreign policy and their involvement in Vietnam. As the repeated shots of building sites indicates, this is very much a film as work-in-progress, carried off with the technical assurance of a director confident enough to leave all his rough edges showing.
Godard is, in fact, one of the very few directors capable of doing whatever he likes with a movie camera – but when he’s in this kind of didactic mode, a little goes a very long way. Much of what he’s saying here could be handled in a ten minute short. Stretched to feature length, it can be very tough going, with many scenes of talk talk talk. There’s a borderline-unbearable scene set in a caf, featuring two long highbrow, semi-improvised conversations, which ends up feeling like an ostentatious exercise in tedium. Is Godard defying us to walk out? To fall asleep? To scream at the projectionist? To rip the seats in fury?
The ideas remain interesting (“language is the house within which man lives”) but the execution often feels dated – the film is much more vivid as something to think about than as an actual movie designed to be watched. A lot of it must have seemed very cutting edge to mid-sixties audiences, but it’s a mark of Godard’s influence that so much now feels distinctly over-familiar. That said, there are plenty of resonant touches, especially the sharper examples of his wit (“If you can’t afford LSD, try colour TV.”) There’s a sketch straight from Monty Python, in which a bathing woman (nude chicks are a recurrent feature in the work of this shameless lech of a great director) is visited by a meter reader who charges her for the electricity she’s been using.
Elsewhere, Godard’s philosophical and social analysis lacks real punch, floating as it does free of any real narrative structure. Chic girls shop for sweaters in boutiques, spouting aphorisms (“our thoughts are not the substance of reality, but its shadow”) as they peruse the YSL racks. Vlady intones her subconscious thoughts and neuroses (“to define myself in one word: indifference”) stranded among the soulless geometry of Corbusian banlieue flats. We’re told “It’s impossible to imagine the city of the future” – but Tarkovsky managed exactly that in Solaris by incorporating shots of downtown Osaka.
Nevertheless, Godard does manage to present a Paris unlike any we’ve seen before in the movies. The Arc de Triomphe is a speck in the distance – and are those the twin spires of Sacre Coeur poking up over a distant rooftop? Like Argento’s subtly futuristic Rome from Tenebrae, Godard’s Paris seems to contain very few old buildings, and he concentrates instead on the faceless suburbs being used as an engine of social change, propelling the hapless citoyens towards an uncertain new millennium.
2 or 3 Things is undeniably uneven, and demands concentration. But it is worth it, and one of Godard’s jeux d’esprit justifies the price of admission of its own. He shows Julie visiting her husband at the garage where he works – in the background are some nondescript trees. But in the right hands, who’s to say these leaves don’t say at least as much about this ‘character’ than, say, Faulkner’s wild palms in the novella of the same name. So far, so good – and so pretentious. But then Godard ends the scene with a casual aside of stunning poetry: “Both, on this October evening, trembled slightly.”