A Musical Neorealism : Jean-Luc Godard’s Une femme est une femme

If I analyse myself today, I see that I always wanted, primarily, to make a film of research under the form of spectacle.  (Jean-Luc Godard)

I like to say that there are two kinds of cinema, there is Flaherty and there is Eisenstein. That is to say, there is documentary realism and there is theatre, but ultimately, at the highest level, they are one and the same. What I mean is that through documentary realism one arrives at the structure of theatre, and through theatrical imagination and fiction one arrives at the reality of life. (Jean-Luc Godard)

Wearing a brilliant blue dress trimmed with white fur and matching bow atop her coiffed hair, a young woman dances gaily in the streets of Paris. But this is no An American in Paris (1951). Gone are the spectacular production-designed sets. Instead we are on location in a Parisian back alleyway, a dreary streetscape littered with trashcans, rusted-out barred doors and piles of rubble. Strasbourg Saint-Denis in winter, as cinematographer Raoul Coutard remarked, “is not really gay and colourful” (Bergala 2006: 89). Neither, despite her extravagant costume and gestures, is this comedienne a Leslie Caron or a Cyd Charisse. In this shot of Angéla (Anna Karina), the setting jars dramatically with the figure in the foreground, capturing the contradiction upon which the whole film is predicated: musical neorealism.

Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris

In a 1962 interview Godard remarked: “I thought of the subject [of Une femme est une femme] while thinking about a musical neo-realism. It is an absolute contradiction, but it is precisely that which interests me in the film” (Bergala 1998: 224). Godard’s comment is significant for three reasons. First, it demonstrates his deliberate attempt not only to bring together stylistic aspects of the musical and neorealism, but more importantly to found a genre.[1] Second, Godard’s remark highlights his interest in contradiction, which forms an important part of his filmmaking; as Nicole Brenez has remarked: “At the core of [Godard’s] enterprise, we find a spirit of contradiction and contestatory energy which have never dimmed” (Rouge). Finally, Godard’s comment is significant in that “un néo-réalisme musical” is often translated as ‘a neorealist musical’ (as opposed to ‘a musical neorealism’) and then used to situate Une femme est une femme within the framework of a musical-comedy genre. By relegating neorealism to the adjective ‘neorealist’, emphasis is implicitly shifted to the noun, ‘musical’, while the descriptor ‘neo-realist’ is largely ignored, except where substituted for words to the effect of ‘not quite’, as in Une femme est une femme is ‘not quite’ a musical.[2]

To locate the neo-realist elements in Une femme est une femme an understanding of Godard’s conceptualisation of neorealism in 1960 is needed. Neorealism is generally understood within the “familiar, compactly circumscribed definition … as the film culture of the Resistance and the Liberation” (Steimatsky xii-xiii). This can be narrowly periodised from 1945 with Roberto Rossellini’s Roma città aperta to the end of that decade when production resumed in the Cinecittà studios (Steimatsky xii-xiii). Bordwell and Thompson relegate Italian neorealism to the period 1942-1951 (485), and similarly, Simona Monticelli claims neorealism pertains to “a cluster of films made between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s” (455).  However, in her book Italian Locations: Reinhabiting the Past in Postwar Cinema, Noa Steimatsky proposes to expand our understanding of neorealism and offer “a preliminary opening of the principle prospects, and of some obscure corners, in view of and sometimes against established limits” (xii). This broadening of the term neorealism proves useful for an understanding of Godard’s relationship to, and use of, neorealism in Une femme est une femme.

Even Roma città aperta, a founding film of neorealism, contains elements heterogenous to the style.  Sidney Gottlieb argues that Rossellini’s film does not wholly conform to some of the particulars and generalities ascribed to neorealism by comparing the film against a set of “rules governing neorealist practice” set down by Millicent Marcus. These rules include:

Location shooting, lengthy takes, unobtrusive editing, natural lighting, a predominance of medium and long shots, respect for the continuity of time and space, use of contemporary true-to-life subjects, an uncontrived, open-ended plot, working-class protagonists, a non-professional cast, dialogue in the vernacular, active viewer involvement, and implied social criticism (Gottlieb 39).

For Gottlieb, Roma città aperta is interesting not in the way it conforms to these central tenets but in the way it works against them: it was shot partially on location but also used carefully designed sets; it uses both natural and artificial or expressionistic lighting; close-ups punctuate the medium and long shots typical of neorealism; and long and continuous takes are interrupted with swipes. Gottlieb argues that the neorealism of Roma città aperta is “dynamic, a process rather than a prescription, a complex negotiation among often contradictory or centrifugal forces and occasionally unexpected elements rather than a precise blueprint” (40). This highlights the difficulty defining neorealism and provides an overview of Rossellini’s neorealism, important for an understanding of Godard’s conceptualisation of the mode. Simona Monticelli claims the term’s uncertain origin further complicates its definition:

the word cannot be traced back to the consciously thought out and publicly circulated manifesto of a movement. On the contrary, the term ‘Neo-Realism’ is a descriptive category which has evolved through critical discourse (456).

It was not until the late 1940s that the term really began to acquire wide critical currency (Monticelli 457). According to Monticelli, André Bazin’s views on neorealism in particular were highly influential in developing a definition of neorealism (457). As a critic working under Bazin at Cahiers du cinéma we can assume that Godard was aware of these debates around neorealism.

Monticelli also cites Cesare Zavattini, screenwriter for de Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (1948) and Sciuscià (1946), as an important theorist of neorealism (458). Interestingly, Godard remarked that from the outset producer Carlo Ponti saw Une femme est une femme as a film in the mode of Zavattini (Bergala 2006: 80). Moreover, in the early 1970s Zavattini ‘baptised’ Godard as a neorealist” (Steimatsky 181).

In the 1952 manifesto-styled ‘Some Ideas on the Cinema’, Zavattini writes:

Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are (217).

Zavattini emphasises too the contrast between neorealism and Hollywood cinema: “the American position is the antithesis of our own: while we are interested in the reality around us and want to know it directly, reality in American films is unnaturally filtered, ‘purified’, and comes out at one or two removes” (218). We see an example of this “unnaturally filtered” reality in Une femme est une femme when Godard uses colour filters to saturate Angéla in red, green, blue and purple during her song-and-dance routine at the Zodiac Club. In this scene the brilliant colours contrast sharply with the grey tones of the available lighting of the location scenes. However, any inclination to associate available lighting with neorealism, and colour filters with Hollywood and the musical genre, is made problematic when we recall that even Roma città aperta uses artificial and expressionist lighting. Moreover, Godard is highly reflexive in his use of this colour filter technique: the saturation of colours is not seamlessly woven into the fabric of the film, as though it had magically appeared. Rather, Godard shows us the very mechanism that creates this effect: he films the colour filter apparatus just as he films Raoul Coutard filming Francesca Vanini (Giorgia Moll) in the opening of Le mépris.

Angéla’s musical number is often cited as the scene by which the musical genre lays claim to the film; however the scene is in fact a piece of meticulously crafted realism. It is the perfect example of the kind of dialectical reversal that Godard frequently employs in his films; that is, what appears to be the musical number in the film, that which gives the musical genre a claim on the film for many critics, is actually, at the level of mise en scène, the most neo-realistic.

Zavattini claimed the neorealist filmmaker could find enough material contained within a single situation for an entire film:

In most films, the adventures of two people looking for somewhere to live, for a house, would be shown externally in a few moments of action, but for us it could provide the scenario for a whole film, and we would explore all its echoes, all its implications (219).

The plot of Une femme est une femme, which, it was once said, can be neatly summed up in one line – ‘A young woman wants a baby’ – has often been criticised for being too thin and simplistic. Jonathan Rosenbaum goes as far as calling it “dopey” (1). Yet Godard’s plot follows Zavattini’s prescription à la lettre: using one situation to explore all its echoes and implications. Indeed, Godard praised the French neorealist film Une simple histoire (Marcel Hanoun 1959) which makes no pretence of its simplicity of storyline (Bergala 1998: 190-191). In April 1959, Godard wrote a review of Hanoun’s film which tells the story of the increasingly desperate attempt of a provincial woman (Micheline Bezançon) to find work and eke out a living for herself and her young daughter in Paris. While recognising that Hanoun is visibly influenced by Robert Bresson, Godard associates Une simple histoire with the theories of Bazin and Zavattini. For Godard, Hanoun’s film resembles Storia di Caterina [Story of Catherine], a sketch from Amore in città [Love in the City] (Francesco Maselli 1953), based upon a scenario by Zavattini. Godard writes:

Like the Italian film, Une simple histoire tells a true story. It is of little importance, though it causes grief to some, that it is an actress who here plays the principal role, while in Zavattini it was the real heroine who played her own role. Due to the sole fact that this role was re-played, put differently that her real personage became a role, the Catherine of Zavattini automatically became, even unconsciously, an actress (Bergala 1998: 190).

We can see from the review that this kind of cinema, a French neorealism influenced by Zavattini, appealed to Godard. Also noteworthy is Godard’s view on the use of actors instead of non-professionals, which is in contrast to Zavattini’s view expounded in ‘Some Ideas on Cinema’:

It is evident that, with neorealism, the actor-as a person fictitiously lending his own flesh to another-has no more right to exist than the ‘story’. In neorealism, as I intend it, everyone must be his own actor. To want one person to play another implies the calculated plot, the fable, and not ‘things happening’ (227).

Godard predominately used professional actors in the early 1960s. Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Claude Brialy and Anna Karina were all established actors to varying degrees before they starred in Une femme est une femme. It was only after Karina had achieved moderate fame in Michel Delville’s Ce soir ou jamais (1961) that Godard asked her to star in Une femme est une femme (Bergala 2006: 85). Bergala claims Godard only offered Karina the role at the last moment originally envisaging the more ‘established’ Brigitte Bardot for the role (Bergala 2006: 84).

An emphasis on daily life was equally important for Zavattini, who believed only cinema had the “innate capacity for showing things … as they happen day by day-in what we might call their ‘dailiness’, their longest and truest duration” (220).  Une femme est une femme follows twenty-four hours in the life of three Parisians. We not only see them at their place of work, we also see them at work: Emile (Brialy) in the newsstand serving customers, Alfred (Belmondo) handing out parking fines and Angéla performing at the Zodiac Club. There are also scenes in the couple’s apartment displaying the whole gamut of domestic life: we see Angéla and Émile eat, talk, argue, play, read (l’Humanité, Marie Claire and l’Equipe), listen to the radio, brush their teeth, and perform their nightly rituals (including the minute detail of dusting off their feet before climbing into bed). We also see Angéla cooking and cleaning (albeit rather clumsily) and taking a shower (which involves a little home handiwork), actions which would likely be absent in more plot-driven films. There is an entire scene in which Angéla, having arrived home from work, potters about her apartment (she looks in the mirror, fixes her hair, does some light housework, checks on the roast for dinner) before taking a home fertility test, the only action in this sequence which is directly relevant to the plot. All other action in this sequence seems superfluous, yet it allows Angéla to be shown in her ‘dailiness’. Of particular note here is ‘Point 5’ of Zavattini’s manifesto:

A woman is going to buy a pair of shoes. Upon this elementary situation it is possible to build a film. All we have to do is to discover and then show all the elements that go to create this adventure, in all their banal ‘dailiness’, and it will become worthy of attention, it will even become ‘spectacular’. But it will become spectacular not through its exceptional, but through its normal qualities; it will astonish us by showing so many things that happen every day under our eyes, things we have never noticed before. The result would not be easy to achieve. It would require an intensity of human vision both from the creator of the film and from the audience. The question is: how to give human life its historical importance at every minute (221).

Moreover, according to Zavattini, showing ordinary people undertaking quotidian tasks allows the audience to recognise themselves in the people on the screen (222). Zavattini is against ‘exceptional’ characters:

The time has come to tell the audience that they are the true protagonists of life. The result will be a constant appeal to the responsibility and dignity of every human being. Otherwise the frequent habit of identifying oneself with fictional characters will become very dangerous. We must identify ourselves with what we are (222).

In an interview with Jean Collet in 1964 Godard remarked: “Une femme est une femme almost had as a title On est comme on est [you are what you are or one is what one is]” (44). Angéla, Emile and Alfred are by no means ‘exceptional personages’. However Godard does engage with the idea of spectators identifying with fictional characters. Angéla’s announcement that she is sad because she “would like to be in a musical” suggests her identification with the heroines of Hollywood musicals has left her feeling alienated in her present situation which hardly resembles the Technicolor settings of a Bob Fosse-choreographed musical.

Despite dismissing Une femme est une femme as ‘lightweight’, Alistair Whyte still locates elements in the film (the documentary-style of filming the inhabitants of Strasbourg Saint-Denis, the strippers who ‘prostitute’ themselves) which “take on greater sociological significance in the light of [Godard’s] later development” (11). Showing social conditions is significant in Godard’s cinema and becomes more apparent in later films: in Vivre sa vie (1962) Godard recomposes images and reads aloud from Marcel Sacotte’s sociological study on prostitution; in Masculin féminin (1966) sociologist Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) conducts interviews and surveys throughout the film; and Une femme mariée (1964) and Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (1967), which both follow twenty-four hours in the life of a Parisienne, contain sociological elements. In Une femme mariée Godard provides close-ups of advertisements from Elle magazine which Charlotte (Macha Méril) is leafing through, offering a catalogue of women’s undergarments of the period.

When Godard films Charlotte dashing about Paris shopping in the new department stores he is engaging directly with the position of women in consumer society. This engagement is already evident in Une femme est une femme: when Angéla compliments a colleague on her necklace the latter remarks she “bought it at the Galeries Lafayette”. Communicating through advertising and commodities reaches its apex in the party scene in Pierrot le fou (1965) when entire conversations are composed of endless advertising slogans. Godard also shows us lengthy exchanges between Juliette (Marina Vlady) and shop assistants in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle. Speaking of this film in 1967, Godard said it allowed him to explore his theory that

to live in Parisian society today , one is forced, to whatever level it may be, to whatever echelon it may be, to prostitute oneself in one way or another, or even to live according to the laws which recall those of prostitution (Bergala 1998: 296).

For Godard prostitution is a crucial metaphor for explaining contemporary society, and one he already employs in Une femme est une femme: as a stripper, Angéla sells her body on the market. One could imagine her easily slipping into prostitution should her situation suddenly change, not unlike the way her friend Suzanne (Marie Dubois) turns to stripping after losing her job at the Simca factory. Moreover, Angéla’s neighbour, who works as a prostitute from her apartment, functions as an ever-present reminder of where Angéla may be headed. Just as James Monaco suggests a narrative continuation from Veronica (Anna Karina) of Le petit soldat to Angéla (116), it is possible to read Vivre sa vie as a narrative continuation of Une femme est une femme. Vivre sa vie, made immediately after Une femme est une femme and also starring Karina, follows the story of Nana, a Parisian shop girl who turns to prostitution after she is unable to find work as an actress.

Nana on the Boulevards: Angéla in five year’s time?

In Une femme est une femme, there is an exchange between Angéla and Suzanne which has marked sociological dimensions. Apart from the initial shots establishing the exchange, there are thirty-two apparently random shots of people on the streets. The camera moves independently of the conversation (the audio track for the sequence) composing a sociological portrait of Strasbourg Saint-Denis in 1960.

These images are reminiscent of Agnès Varda’s short film L’opéra mouffe (1958), a portrait of the residents of the Parisian slum area and market around Rue Mouffetard in the 5e arrondissement.

Varda’s L’Opéra Mouffe.

In fact, Godard directly references Varda’s film when he inserts two shots from L’opéra mouffe into his own mise en scène in Une femme est une femme.

Although Une femme est une femme was Godard’s first studio film, it was originally intended to be shot on location. Godard insisted that the reconstructed apartment would have, unlike normal studio sets, ceilings throughout and immovable and non-detachable doors and partitions. Thus the crew encountered all of the constraints of location shooting compounded by the fragile materials of the studio set (Bergala 2006: 88). Angéla and Émile’s apartment is in direct contrast to the “architecturally intangible” set of Don Lockwood’s Hollywood villa in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the archetypical example of the musical comedy set, which Alain Masson describes as follows: “It is a theatrical set, a dance set. In a musical comedy, however, we would not expect anything else. More interestingly, it is alterable and extensible” (1).


Une femme est une femme exhibits many features which align it with neorealism. These include: location shooting and realistically constructed sets; working-class setting; reflexive use of cinematic technique; simple plot explored in all its implications; emphasis on daily life and attention to quotidian detail; no ‘exceptional personages’; foregrounding of social conditions (prostitution, consumer society, work); and documentary-styled sequences. Taken together, these features push the film away from the standard reading of it as a musical comedy and tips the scale back to Godard’s intention of the film as ‘a musical neorealism’. Further, these elements form the basis of Godard’s particular use of neorealism which he would develop in his own way.


By 1960 neorealism was evolving, resulting in the emergence of what can be described as a second wave of neorealism. From the 1940s through to the 1960s, Zavattini used neorealism “to describe a range of practices, much wider than the urgent post-war thematic-historical scope of the neorealist core” (Steimatsky xxvi). As early as the 1940s, neorealism was already moving beyond the original conception of the mode. For one thing, neorealism no longer rejected “psychological exploration” (Zavattini 227). This psychological aspect is taken up more particularly in the second wave of neorealism.  Antonioni, like Rossellini and Fellini before him, extended the neorealist concern with the visible world to include the subjective difficulties of mental alienation, although the exterior documentation of material conditions remained important (Shiel 98). In 1958, Antonioni pointed to a mutation occurring within the mode of neorealism when he remarked: “Am I a neorealist director? I really couldn’t say. And is neorealism over? Not exactly. It is more correct to say that neorealism is evolving” (Brunette 18). Antonioni’s work “differed from the late 1940s films of Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica, De Santis and others not in being not neorealist but in terms of its neorealism which Antonioni liked to describe as ‘interior neorealism’” (Shiel 98). The evolution of the mode was thus characterised by a shift from exterior to more interior concerns. This second wave of neorealism continued to be concerned with the interrogation of post-war reconstruction in Italy. However, the emphasis shifted from more immediate material conditions to what Antonioni considered “a fundamental spiritual lack at the heart of capitalism which no abundance of material goods could ever address” (Shiel 104). For Shiel, this is evident in Antonioni’s films L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962) which all highlight the filmmaker’s “concerns with visual and thematic ambiguity and metaphysical alienation” (103-104).

Godard is as equally concerned with questions of alienation as he is with those of social conditions. Indeed, as Jean-André Fieschi remarks “Godard is the filmmaker par excellence on the difficulty of being” (Mussman 68). However, he employs different techniques to Antonioni, primarily because Godard’s is a different kind of alienation. In La notte the mise en scène reflects the psychological state of Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), culminating in the cinematic equivalent of an anxiety attack. Contrary to the images of Lidia, Angéla dancing in the street and declaring she would like to be in a musical depicts her environment completely uncoloured by her psychological state. Her inner world and outer world do not coincide; rather, they are deliberately juxtaposed. Godard’s mise en scène presents an alienation in which there is an absolute disjuncture between subject and object, between character and world: no amount of wishing on Angéla’s part can alter the reality to which she must adapt.

Shiel also locates the evolution of neorealism in Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954) which, like Antonioni’s cinema, “comprises an expansion of neorealism in the direction of metaphysical or spiritual concerns” (104). Rossellini’s connection to the evolution of neorealism is important as his filmmaking was influential for Godard. During the second wave of neorealism Antonioni and Rossellini “prioritised female perspectives” (Shiel 104). Godard too, in Une femme est une femme, privileges a female perspective, although Angéla in her theatrical style is perhaps closer to Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) of Fellini’s La strada (1954) described by Rancière as “an icon of neorealist cinema” (183).

In his 1955 article ‘La strada’, Bazin argues that Fellini’s film “does not depart at all from Italian neorealism” (Cardullo 114) even though in Italy Marxist and Christian Democratic criticism “threaten to evict Fellini from the neorealist pantheon as each defines it, and to hurl him out into the darkness already inhabited by Rossellini” (Cardullo 117). For Bazin, Fellini expands neorealism: La strada does not “contradict” other neorealist films such as Paisà, Roma città aperta or even Ladri di Bicciclette; rather Fellini has taken a different direction to Zavattini and, alongside Rossellini, “opted for a neorealism of the person” (Cardullo 117). Shiel echoes Bazin when he remarks: “Perhaps more than any other filmmaker, Fellini pushed the boundaries of neorealism to their breaking point” (113). Shiel remarks that Fellini’s films of the 1950s all “employed realism as a window on to internal character although, like the films of Antonioni and Rossellini, they never strayed far from social concerns and presented their personal tragedies as narratives with real social implications” (113).

For Bazin, La strada and Rossellini’s Europe ’51 (1952) remain neorealist on the level of their aesthetic. This aesthetic which Bazin, following French ecclesiast and critic Abbé Amédée Ayfre, calls ‘phenomenological’, is one of neorealism’s “genuine achievements” (Cardullo 117) and informs the action rather than merely representing it. Cardullo remarks:

In describing neorealism as phenomenological, Ayfre means what Bazin says in the first sentence of the next paragraph: that “nothing is ever revealed to us from inside the characters” in the quintessential neorealist film. In philosophical terms, neorealism limits itself to a description of characters’ interactions with one another (“neorealism of the person,” according to Bazin) or with their environment (“socialist neorealism,” according to Bazin). What neorealism does not do is emphasize characters’ particular psychological problems or obsessions (120).

If we accept this reading of Bazin, it would appear Godard’s film has more in common with the earlier socialist neorealism with its emphasis on the characters’ interaction with their environment. What this reading omits, however, is that for Bazin it is not all internal states as such, but one internal state in particular, that neorealism does not give us: psychology, or better still, pathology. What the ‘neorealism of the person’ does provide is what Bazin calls the ‘soul’ of the character. It is possible to summarise Bazin’s approach to the question of the interior in neorealism in two premises: 1) neorealism does not cast the destiny of its characters in pathological terms; and 2) that the internal state which Bazin calls the soul in the ‘neorealism of the person’ is revealed socially, through interaction between characters. If for Bazin neorealism does not give us any internal state (as in pathology, wishes, desires, psychology), and if Bazin defines La strada as a ‘neorealism of the person’, then the soul which he refers to in Fellini’s film must not be something internal but something external, the soul must be produced or at least revealed by the interrelations between characters and between characters and their environment. Commenting on the characters of Gelsomina, Zampanò and The Fool in La Strada, Bazin remarks:

The very being of these characters is precisely in their not having any [psychology], or at least in their possessing such a malformed and primitive psychology that a description of it would have nothing more than pathological interest. But they do have a soul. And La Strada is nothing but their experience of their souls and the revelation of this before our eyes (117).

When Godard used the term neorealism in 1960, then, he was referring to a mode evolving through filmmaking practice and its surrounding critical discourse, in which numerous definitions of neorealism were proposed. To the materialist element of neorealism Fellini added the spiritual, and Antonioni the psychological, dimension. Like Fellini and Antonioni, Godard also provides a ‘neorealism of the person’, not from the perspective of the soul or pathology (Godard is neither a spiritual nor a psychological filmmaker strictly speaking) but from the point of view of an uncomplicated nature confronting a complex social situation. Godard remarks that Une femme est une femme “shows a woman who wants a child in a very absurd manner, while it is the most natural thing in the world” (Bergala 1998: 224). This pronouncement should not necessarily be taken as a reflection of Godard’s views on motherhood; it is more interesting to examine the way Godard raises the idea of maternal desire as one of the central problems of the film. Godard does not, however, offer us any psychology: Angéla’s desire is not explained in terms of any psychoanalytic or pathological motivation. Moreover, in line with Bazin’s prescription, Angéla’s wish is revealed through action and dialogue, through her interactions with Emile and Alfred and with her environment. Significantly, the more hostility Angéla’s wish confronts, the more it increases in strength.

Returning to Fellini, Shiel comments that the Italian director was convinced that filmmaking involved a “creative intervention into and shaping of reality, not simply its reflection” (113). Like Bazin, Shiel observes too that Fellini’s neorealism was a countertendency to the mode proposed by Zavattini. For Shiel this is evident in Fellini’s preference for non-naturalistic performance:

[Fellini] never used non-professionals in leading roles …. All of his films mixed neorealism with elements of comedy or farce which required actors to make frequent sudden changes in expression, mood or tone, contradicting the pure realism of performance other neorealists found in actors from the street (113-114).

Like Fellini, Godard elicits a theatrical style of performance from his professional actors in Une femme est une femme and when Shiel describes the female protagonist of the films of Antonioni, Rossellini and Fellini as “a woman part naïf, part harlot, part saint, rather than glamorous urban sophisticate” (116) he could equally be describing Karina’s Angéla. Of the title character of Nights of Cabiria (1957), Shiel remarks: “Cabiria is characterised in terms of a fundamental emotional malleability. She shifts repeatedly between pathos and comedy in the manner of a circus clown ….” (116). Angéla has this same emotional malleability and this is exemplified in the scene in which, during an argument with Emile, she falls to her knees sobbing before suddenly laughing and declaring “I no longer know if I should laugh or cry”. Godard remarked of Une femme est une femme:

I meant it to be contradictory, juxtaposing things which didn’t necessarily go together, a film which was gay and sad at the same time. One can’t do that, of course, one must be either one or the other, but I wanted to be both at once (Sterritt 6).

Angéla’s emotional malleability contributes to the sudden changes in tone that characterise Une femme est une femme as a reflexive film. However, Godard’s use of performance style has different consequences to Fellini’s. Edgardo Cozarinsky remarks:

In Une femme est une femme, as in his more obviously serious films, it is this uprootedness of modern experience that Godard explores and dramatizes…. Even this close-knit texture of small bistros, striptease joints, political suspicion and conjugal wavering is constantly violated in its naturalistic surface, not just by the comic turns of the plot but by Godard’s reminders not only that the film is a performance but that the projected images are themselves illusory (26-27).

Godard uses interruption and dramatisation to show us this “uprootedness” of modern experience. The narrative is constantly interrupted by various devices and the film is book-ended with Angéla directly addressing the camera with a knowing wink, acknowledging the spectators and demonstrating her awareness of being an actor in a film.

The use of a highly theatrical acting style in Une femme est une femme often associated with the musical interrupts the drama to draw attention to its social background. Although melodramatic elements were already evident in the classic neorealism of Rossellini and the second wave neorealism of Fellini, Godard takes things further, and in this the influence of Brecht is significant. Commenting on Brecht’s Epic Theater Walter Benjamin writes:

The task of epic theatre, according to Brecht, is not so much the development of actions as the representation of conditions…. This discovery (alienation) of conditions takes place through the interruption of happenings….The art of the epic theatre consists in producing astonishment rather than empathy. To put it succinctly: instead of identifying with the characters, the audience should be educated to be astonished at the circumstances under which they function (150).

During an argument in the couple’s apartment, Angéla says to Émile: “before acting out our little farce, we bow to the audience”. Following this remark, they stand in the kitchen doorway, which frames them as though they were on stage, then bow and smile at the camera.

This gesture comes just before their argument escalates further, interrupting the drama and alienating the conditions of life from the drama. Similarly, Godard uses an extreme long shot for another argument between the couple to interrupt the drama and draw attention to its social background: Emile and Angéla appear as tiny figures on the street pushing and shoving one another. Filmed in this way, against the background of the social, the domestic problems of a young couple are reduced to insignificance.

Godard’s experimental use of sound, often juxtaposing loud jarring noise with silence, also creates unease in the audience who, are never allowed to fully relax into the drama. This is best exemplified in the opening sequence in which ruptures of sound are interspersed with near silence in a very short space of time. The rapidity of these changes functions as a sonic assault on the viewer, especially for audiences unaccustomed to such radical experimentation with film sound. In 1962, following the first screenings of Une femme est une femme, Truffaut remarked that

audiences were taken by surprise. Godard went too far for them in the sound-mixing. When the girl comes out of the café, there’s suddenly no sound, just complete silence. People immediately think the projector has broken down (Graham and Vincendeau 207).


Une femme est une femme is generally considered Jean-Luc Godard’s lightest film. Alistair Whyte remarks: “Although A Woman Is a Woman contains the seeds of Godard’s later development, it is, undeniably, a lightweight film.” (11). Colin MacCabe describes the film as “the most joyful of Godard’s films, indeed perhaps his only joyful film” (134). For a director who delights in contradiction, these remarks indicate it may be among his most serious films. That the film belongs to the same period as Le petit soldat (1960) and Vivre sa vie suggests it is more than just a “light-hearted parody of a sex-comedy (Neupert 2007: 228), or an homage to “pretty women, to fun, to Hollywood when it was vivacious” (Gilliatt 75). The tendency in Godardian scholarship has been to set aside Une femme est une femme in relation to Godard’s other films of this period. When it is included, it is generally along the more narrow lines of Godard’s experimental use of genre, and even then it is often glossed over. This may have something to do with its generic unclassifiability, which prompted Truffaut to remark that it was “a strange film that didn’t fit into any category” (Graham and Vincendeau 208). Godard himself claimed he came on the subject of Une femme est une femme while thinking about ‘a musical neorealism’, a conjunction he invented and described as “an absolute contradiction” (Bergala 1998: 224). The overall look of the film too is deceptive: it is Godard’s first studio film and his first shot in colour and Franscope. These features pushed critics into resolving the generic paradox of the film in favour of the musical, despite the fact Une femme est une femme also includes many stylistic features of Godard’s other, grittier films. Rather than approaching Une femme est une femme as an anomaly, generic or otherwise, I have tried to re-situate the film in the wider context of Godard’s work during this period. This shift in emphasis from the musical to neorealist aspects of the film is necessary if the more complex issues the film raises are to be uncovered. As James Monaco as early as 1976 remarked: “Une femme est une femme … deserves more serious attention than it has so far received” (137).


Works Cited

André Bazin and Bert Cardullo, Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York:       Shocken Books, 1968.

Alain Bergala (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard. Tome 11950-1984. Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1998.

—, Godard au travail: les années 60. Paris : Cahiers du Cinéma, 2006.

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, “Italian Neorealism (1942-1951)”. Film Art:        An Introduction. Ed. Bordwell and Thompson. New York: McGraw-Hill,         2004. 485-486. Print.

Nicole Brenez and Michael Witt, “‘1750 Percussion Rifles’ Work of the Document, Rights and Duties of Cinema”. Rouge. Web. 21 Mar. 2010. <http://www.rouge.com.au/9/percussion.html>

Peter Brunette, The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Jean Collet, “No Questions Asked: Conversation with Jean-Luc Godard on Bande à part. Focus on Godard. Ed. Royal S. Brown. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1972. 40-45.

Edgardo Cozarinsky, “Une Femme est une Femme”. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard. Ed. Ian Cameron. London: Studio Vista, 1969. 26-31.

Jean-André Fieschi, “The Difficulty of Being Jean-Luc Godard.” Trans. Roberta Bernstein. Jean-Luc Godard: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Toby Mussman. New York: Dutton, 1968. 64-76.

—, “La Difficulté d’être de Jean-Luc Godard”. Cahiers du cinéma. No.129 November 1962: 14-25.

Penelope Gilliatt, “The Urgent Whisper”. Jean-Luc Godard : Interviews. 1976. Ed.          David Sterritt. Jackson : Mississippi UP, 1998. 69-84.

Sidney Gottlieb, “Rossellini, Open City, and Neorealism”. Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City. Ed, Gottlieb. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 31-42.

Peter Graham and Ginette Vincendeau, ed. The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

Alain Masson, “An Architectural Promenade”. Continuum 5.2 1992. 164-65.

James Monaco, “Godard Women and the Outsider”. The New Wave. Ed. Monaco. New York: Oxford  UP, 1976. 98-125.

Simona Monticelli, “Italian post-war cinema and Neo-realism”. The Oxford Guide to        Film Studies. Ed. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. Oxford: Oxford UP,     1998. 455-460.

Richard Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Madison: Wisconsin UP, 2007.

Jacques Rancière, Film Fables. Trans. Emiliano Battista. Oxford: Berg, 2006.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, “When Is A Musical Not A Musical?” Chicago Reader July 25, 2003.

Mark Shiel, Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.

Noa Steimatsky, Italian Locations: Reinhabiting the Past in Postwar Cinema. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2008.

David Sterritt, Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 1998.

Alistair Whyte, Introduction. Godard: Three Film Scripts. By Jean-Luc Godard. Trans. Jan Dawson, Susan Bennett and Marianne Alexander. London: Lorrimer, 1975. 7-15.

Cesare Zavattini, “Some Ideas on the Cinema”. Film: a Montage of Theories. Ed. Richard Dyer MacCann. New York: Dutton, 1966. 216-228.

[1] Stanley Donen’s On the Town may be considered a precursor to musical neorealism, while Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies des Cherbourg and Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark make later use of the genre.

[2] See, for example, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of the film ‘When Is a Musical Not a Musical?’

About the Author

Felicity Chaplin

About the Author

Felicity Chaplin

Felicity Chaplin is a PhD candidate at Monash University in French and Film and Television studies. Her thesis is entitled ‘La Parisienne in cinema’. Her research interests include: classic Hollywood and French cinema; star studies; fashion in film; and the history, art, literature and culture of nineteenth century Paris. Her translation of Nicole Brenez recently appeared in Lola.View all posts by Felicity Chaplin →