A Married Woman

Not surprisingly the freshest movie in town this week is the one directed by the eternally youthful Jean-Luc Godard. A Married Woman (1964), showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in a new digital restoration, finds the writer-director (then 33) so enraptured with filmmaking that he has to try out a different technique in practically every scene. Godard shoots one scene at an angle perpendicular to the action; processes the negative of the image in another, so that whites appear as blacks, and vice versa; ventures into the realm of cinema verite, incorporating interviews with members of the cast and with another filmmaker (documentarian Roger Leenhardt); and executes ambitious long takes and Eisenstein-worthy montages. The film is almost as stuffed with ideas as Godard’s recent Goodbye to Language (which played at the Siskel earlier this year), and it even covers some of the same intellectual territory. A Married Woman‘s critical portrait of consumer culture still stings, which makes it one of the most relevant of Godard’s 60s films, along with My Life to Live and Two or Three Things I Know About Her.

Like those other two films, A Married Woman uses a slender story as the canvas for social observations and cinematic poetry. The title character, Charlotte (Macha Meril) is a young housewife who lives in a well-decorated home in a modern Paris suburb. Godard introduces her in the apartment of her lover—an actor who performs in a traveling theater company—and then follows her during a couple days as she reunites with her husband, a successful pilot, and returns to her lover to break off the affair. She makes her decisions blithely, not considering their impact on the men in her life. The root of the problem, Godard suggests, is that she has as little sense of the past as she does of the future. When her husband introduces his houseguest (Leenhardt), who says he just attended the Nuremberg trials of former Nazis, Charlotte confesses that she’d forgotten who Hitler was before she was prompted.

Charlotte has an explanation for her blitheness. In a scene that breaks the fourth wall, she tells the audience that she prefers to concentrate on the present rather than the past or future because it offers more amusement and doesn’t require her to think as much. For Godard, Charlotte represents the triumph of consumer ideology over cultural memory. He illustrates this spiritual crisis in scenes where characters go from speaking in intimate terms to the language of advertisements. The effect can be comic, as conveyed in an early scene in the lover’s apartment when the characters interrupt a discussion of their sex life to explain how Charlotte’s brassiere was designed with aviation technology. It can also be quietly tragic. There’s a scene in the heroine’s home where she and her husband describe all of the modern conveniences in their building—the accoutrements sound like cover-ups for a lack of domestic happiness.

A Married Woman returns to the subject of brassieres in an expressive montage set in a cafe. As two young women discuss their apprehensions about having sex, Godard presents images of brassiere ads—it’s as though the characters’ thoughts have been infiltrated by advertisements. In his critical biography of Godard, Everything Is Cinema, Richard Brody quotes the director as having said, “Certain forms of advertising are going so far as to become people’s own thoughts . . . People’s existence is no more than the reflection of what they see, their freedom is a prefabricated thought.”

And yet the sequence, as it plays out, is stunning—a wave of cinematic invention that combines sounds and images in head-spinning ways. A Married Woman is full of such sequences, which speak to Godard’s sense of the beautiful. What keeps the film from feeling too cynical (as is often the case in the director’s work) are the allusions to classical beauty—Godard sees in various artistic models and traditions an antidote to the forced amnesia of consumer culture. The film is scored in large part to Beethoven’s late string quartets, and the actor makes reference to Racine and Molière (whom the actor quotes, saying “theater prevents sin by purifying love”). And then there’s the cubist-like beauty of the opening and closing sequences, which present Charlotte and the actor after they’ve made love. Godard cuts between shots of dissociated body parts (hands, stomachs, hair, et cetera) while playing the lovers’ discourse on the soundtrack. Boldly sensual, these moments offset Godard’s theme of dehumanization and add another layer to the dense portrait of contemporary life.