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Godard's Musical

The Castro Theater revives 1961's 'A Woman Is a Woman'

By Richard von Busack

EVEN THE MOST CHARMING WOMAN--and they don't come much more charming than Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman Is a Woman (Une Femme est une Femme)--tends to lose her appeal when she's begging a man to impregnate her. "Men forgive me for being so cruel / that's because I'm beautiful," sings Angela (Karina) during a stint at her afternoon job at the Zodiac Club near Strasbourg St. Denis in Paris. And in closeup, in Francoscope widescreen, with the halves of her face blasted with aquamarine and deep red lights, Karina is adorable. But by the end of the film, there's a lot to forgive.

The deal is that Karina has pettishly decided that she wants a baby right now, and her boyfriend (Jean-Claude Brialy) won't come across, so she decides to ask a man who's been keeping an eye on her to supply some seed. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays the Zodiac's stage-door Johnny; his name is Alfred Lubitsch (after Godard's two favorites, Ernst Lubitsch and Alfred Hitchcock). The three try to achieve a civilized balance while the dispute is resolved, but ultimately the woman wins--as we men always grump that they do.

Certainly, Godard's 1961 film, currently being revived at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, is a breakthrough. It's a tribute to the late 1950s MGM American musical, with its silliness, chicness and wide-open space.

Godard's tribute is playful in a way that the big musical pastiches of today like Chicago and Moulin Rouge are not. And yet it's not fully a musical. We hear explosive bursts of Michel Legrand's music that stop abruptly, as if someone had pulled the needle off a record. We see frozen posed dances, as if the characters were images trapped in lobby cards. The actors crack jokes at the camera--a revolutionary gesture, according to intellectuals of the time, who didn't remember Bob Hope.

On the soundtrack Godard makes a smart comment, describing secondhand experience: "It's like being the man who saw the man who saw the man who saw the bear."

Godard directs A Woman Is a Woman just like that; it's like a fourth-hand copy, in which only the outlines are really visible. He cracks it, breaking it down into its parts, sucking back rainbow colors in a reverse prism, to get to the primary-colored essences. Godard tosses off sequences that directors from the 1960s looted--Richard Lester in his Beatles movies, and the Monty Python troupe everywhere, not to mention the bicycle riding in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Watching early Godard makes your fingers itch to get your hands on a camera.

On the soundtrack Godard makes a smart comment, describing secondhand experience: "It's like being the man who saw the man who saw the man who saw the bear."

The datedness of Karina's pettish ways may make for a kind of high-class retro, an alternative to Renée Zellweger doing Doris Day. But A Woman Is a Woman is just as minor as it's lovely. It feels like it's barely able to stretch its wafer-thin plot to the end, and Karina's childishness is less cute than coy. Underneath its superficial assurance that love conquers all, Godard's discontent with women is brewing here, ready to form itself into the bleak, angry and sorrowing film Contempt.

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Web extra to the May 15-21, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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