Thursday, May 28, 2020

Classic Movie Review: A Married Woman (1964)

A Married Woman (1964) 
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring: Macha Méril (Charlotte), Bernard Noël (Robert, the Lover), Philippe Leroy (Pierre, the Husband), Christophe Bourseiller (Nicolas), Roger Leenhardt (Self), Margareth Clémenti (Girl in Swimming Pool), Véronique Duval (Girl in Swimming Pool), Rita Maiden (Madame Celine), Georges Liron (The Physician).
The two films Jean-Luc Godard made right before and right after A Married Woman (1964) were Contempt and Band of Outsiders before and Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou right after. All four of those are celebrated, acknowledged masterworks by Godard – but somehow this film made right in the middle of them all is usually completely overlooked, and not listed among Godard’s greats. That’s really a shame, because it’s the type of Godard film that I miss – a film that is both able to understand its main character, make her a fully realized character, and critique her and the society around her, that produced her. Godard even has some sympathy for her. Godard even has some sympathy for her – something he will lose in just a few years. While A Married Woman may not quite be at the level of some of Godard’ best 1960s output – it certainly deserves a better reputation that it has.
Godard was right not to cast his then wife – Anna Karina – in the lead role of Charlotte, instead opting for Macha Méril instead. Karina, a terrific actress would have been wrong for this part as a bored housewife – who doesn’t realize how bored she is. Meril is perfect in the role though – spending her morning with her lover, Robert (Bernard Noel) before returning to her husband, Pierre (Philippe Leroy). She seems to be sleepwalking through all interactions with both men – they talk and talk and talk, and if they don’t quite seem to like her, they do at least have an interest in continuing their relationship. But Charlotte has little of interest to add to the conversation. She lives in a bubble of consumerism – told by magazines how to look and act, what to buy, etc. The best scene in the film – the most famous one – is when Charlotte sits alone reading a magazine, the ads taking up the entire screen, as she eavesdrops on a couple of teenage girls, talking about their own initiation into this hetero-normative worldview that Charlotte is an expert in. She’s an expert in nothing else – unable to contribute to a conversation about Auschwitz, because she has no idea what it is.
Perhaps the reason why A Married Woman isn’t as well-regarded as some of his other films of this period is because it can be read as casual, condescending misogyny. Godard didn’t want to name the film A Married Woman, but rather The Married Woman – thus extending his feelings that the bourgeoisie, middle class women are all empty headed, consumerist, who know nothing else but how to consume. It is only when Charlotte finds out she is pregnant – and doesn’t know how the father is – that she engages anything approaching self-introspection – trying to figure out which man she should be with; which man she loves. She isn’t even really able to defend herself against her abusive husband – weakly telling him at one point “you didn’t need to beat and rape me”. And yet, as we see in the first shot of the movie, of her hand, that ring suggests some kind of ownership – that Charlotte isn’t her own person anymore, but property. Amazingly for Godard though – since two years later, he would dismiss the younger generation as “the youth of Marx and Coca-Cola” in Masculin Feminin, he clearly feels some sympathy for Charlotte. He doesn’t like the way she is, doesn’t approve of it – but also sees it as the deliberate byproduct of a patriarchal society – one that wants women to be like Charlotte, pliant consumers, obedient wives, sexual objects, etc. I could see how dismissing the giant swatch of women in one swoop could be read as misogyny – and it isn’t like this is the only film from this period where you could credibly accuse Godard of the same – but I think Godard does make Charlotte both sympathetic and specific – she is a real character, not just a stand-in that Godard can use to make his political points. This is the Godard that I miss – the one that can make incisive, damning political points – but also tell a story, with a real character at its core at the same time.

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