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A Woman is a Woman: The Criterion Collection

Jean-Luc Godard famously claimed over forty years ago that his third feature, A Woman is a Woman (1961), is a neorealist musical, and the terminology has stuck to this day despite the director explicitly discounting this amusingly contradictory label in the same breath. "The film is not a musical," he later allowed. This last statement is closer to the truth, but doesn't fully cover the issue either, which is typical of the cagey nouveau wave veteran. Assessed amid his groundbreaking '60s output, it's at least accurate to note that this is Godard at his absolute cheeriest, owing to his not yet curdled romance with his leading lady, Anna Karina. If Godard ever made a "weightless" film, this is it. Experimenting with color alongside legendary cinematographer Raoul Coutard for the first time in his career, Godard is still building his complex visual vocabulary as he deconstructs the effervescent nature of the best romantic comedies. He's all over Lubitsch and Tashlin as he presents an oddly non-contentious love triangle involving cabaret performer Angela (Karina), her live-in lover Emile (*ahem*) Recamier (Jean-Claude Brialy) and Alfred (*sharp elbow to the ribs*) Lubitsch (Jean-Paul Belmondo). The sexual shenanigans, such as they are, hinge on Angela's desire to conceive a child, which is lent a particular urgency when she discovers, through a hokey "cycle day indicator," that she is smack-dab in the middle of her most fertile day. When Emile arrives home from an exhausting day of selling books with a yen for nothing more strenuous than listening to a football match, Angela turns to the willing Alfred for procreation duty. That's the conventional narrative upon which Godard adorns an endless succession of references not only to the musical and romantic comedy genres, but to his own thriving career as well. "Breathless is on TV tonight," notes Emile at one point, and the prospect of joining his cherished idols as prime television programming undoubtedly enthuses Godard. Indeed, A Woman is a Woman is the filmmaker's recognition of his own validation as an artist of international renown, but it's never too smug in its celebration, which is a miracle for the exceedingly self-satisfied Godard. Most surprisingly, it finds the director in an unusually generous mood, briefly sharing the spotlight with his Cahiers du Cinema cohort François Truffaut by including cameos from Jeanne Moreau and Marie Dubois. These were happier times. Even Godard's obligatory sequence depicting a protracted squabble between lovers is relatively chipper this time out, conducted silently by Karina and Brialy through an inventively select display of book titles. Mostly, though, the joy is in the resplendent visual and aural feast slaved over respectively by Coutard and composer Michel Legrand, whose score is playfully fragmented throughout, but lush and transporting when it needs to be. Coutard responds by capturing rich colors meant to suggest Visconti's Senso, while letting the interior lights of the studio cause lens flares, which at the time was considered imperfect and, thus, amateurish. Godard and Coutard also caught candid moments on the street by having his performers interact with oblivious bystanders, imbuing the already goofy production with a prankish spirit. By the time Godard closes the film with a shamelessly awful play on words, the whole work feels less like a carefully constructed dialectic than an epigrammatic lark. While Godard may have felt that this was his first true film, it's just too insubstantial and self-conscious to acquire any real profundity, and, frankly, that's fine. Godard would graduate to master level filmmaking two years later with his fifth feature, Contempt, and the joy would gradually bleed out of his art. Obviously, he was never meant for trifles, but, in this one unforgettable instance, he really did make a "neorealist musical," for only a happily contradictory label could describe such glorious nonsense. The Criterion Collection presents A Woman is a Woman in a beautiful anamorphic transfer with clean Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio. Extras include Godard's 1957 short film "Charlotte et Veronique ou Tous les garcons s'appellent Patrick" (19 min.), which was written by Eric Rohmer, and presages the tone of A Woman is a Woman. Also on board is "Qui etes-vous Anna Karina?" (13 min.), a television interview with the actress from 1966, a still gallery, a promotional audio recording, and a 24-page booklet featuring a critical essay by J. Hoberman and excerpts from a 1961 article detailing the making of this film. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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