Captured in beguilingly chic noir et blanc, Jean Luc Godard’s Une Femme Mariée (A Married Woman) is an erudite, somewhat autobiographical, handsome and twisted examination of female infidelity. Although it has been rather overlooked amidst Godard’s formidable body of work, it is one of his most alluring and personal cinematic endeavours and represents a critical juncture in his evolution as a film-maker.
Originally titled La Femme Mariée (The Married Woman), Godard bowed to the French censors, Commission de Contrôle, who were fearful of the film’s potential to be interpreted as an incendiary indictment of womankind. Made after his most commercial offerings Le Mépris (1963) and Bande à Part (1964), Une Femme Mariée marked a clear departure in style with a defiant, lovelorn Godard disenfranchised with the direction of contemporary Hollywood cinema (to whose mores he had never wholly subscribed); rejecting it as a source of both inspiration and provocation.
Untrammelled by pressures of financial returns or star egos, this feature found the Nouvelle Vague’s most prominent exponent alchemising with a meagre budget to create a fractured, more abstract delivery. Despite its playful aesthetics it is achingly tortured, philosophical and intimate. Alternately fascinated and repelled by the subject matter he presents, Godard both conjures and condemns the thrill of clandestine passions.
Godard hastened the film together to placate Luigi Chiarini, the director of the Venice Film Festival who had hoped that Bande à Part would premiere at the festival (instead it opened at Cannes). Produced directly following his irrevocable separation from his wife and muse, the actor Anna Karina—with whom he had shared several smouldering, turbulent years and, thus far, collaborated on four features – it takes as its focus a common preoccupation of Godard’s: the love triangle.
Karina, to Godard’s considerable anguish, had begun a relationship with Maurice Ronet. With his defunct marriage an open wound, Une Femme Mariée featured several uncomfortable parallels between reality and fiction. It was clear that, with this film (as with, for example Le Mépris, Une Femme est Une Femme), Godard had chosen to plunder his personal traumas and tribulations for material.
The trio of leads, for instance, were the same ages as their off-screen counterparts, and the married woman’s onscreen lover Robert, played by Bernard Noël was, like Ronet, an actor. Such parallels would cause anxiety for his cast; like Brigitte Bardot in Le Mépris before her, Macha Méril, as the female lead Charlotte, was uneasy about playing a character which was so flagrantly based on Karina.
The credits foretell the unusual method of execution, informing us that Une Femme Mariée comprises, “fragments d’un film tourné en 1964” Opening with an unseen woman’s hand feeling its way along a crisp white canvas (subsequently revealed as a bed-sheet); turning, flexing, wavering—her wedding ring visible. We hear her cryptic remark, “I don’t know”. A man’s hand slides in to firmly grasp her wrist, his voice responding, “You don’t know if you love me?” She answers, “Why do you talk all the time?” adding, “It’s so nice here”.
This sequence anticipates the more well-known Pierrot le Fou (1965) where Anna Karina’s exasperated Marianne—who favours experience over discussion—famously tells Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo), “You talk to me with words, and I look at you with feelings”: dialogue which has been taken as a succinct summary of the inherent incompatibility of the characters of Karina and Godard.
The series of images that immediately follow are partial views of Charlotte, the eponymous married woman, and Robert, her lover, which both brutally dissect their bodies and voyeuristically revel in the intimacy of these moments.
In his excellent book Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Brody describes the effect as, “an anatomy of an affair, as seen through the lens of a coldly repressed jealousy. By isolating the parts of bodies from their characters, Godard suggests that the sexual acts are being performed mechanically and unthinkingly, rather than as the actions of complete, responsible people.”
With this distinctive opening sequence Godard was throwing the gauntlet down to his audience; challenging them from the off with his unabashed, intellectually provocative new approach.
Macha Méril as Charlotte is a serene mistress of duplicity – her implacable elfin exterior barely troubled by ripples of discernable guilt. Her inner turmoil is instead represented by the whispered free-associative phrases that Godard himself recorded for the soundtrack.
By incongruously inserting his own voice; confessing for this representation of his former partner, he undermines the character’s credibility and, as Brody comments “it was as if he were sharing with an intimate stranger the self-lacerating confidences of what he had heard, seen, or imagined from his life together with Anna Karina.”
Méril plays Charlotte as a smiling assassin, her subtle performance holds up impeccably under the intense, almost indecent scrutiny of this most accusatory of directorial gazes. On more than one occasion she gently knocks her fists against her cheeks and dips her head toward the ground ambiguously: are we witnessing nerves, or faux coyness?
Philippe Leroy convincingly portrays her intense, suspicious (albeit with demonstrable good reason), and violent husband Pierre: if he is the primary representation of Godard here, then Godard emphatically does himself no favours. And her lover Robert fares no better; after interrogation to establish his suitability as a partner and father, Charlotte finds him unsatisfactory and the film closes with the end of the affair. The dialogue was skilfully semi-improvised by the actors, and thus the film places realism in tandem with Godard’s sleek modernist visuals.
Godard does not reserve his disdain purely for marital relations. He satirises the vacuous nature of modern wants with the married couple’s glib discussion of their ‘enviable’ abode and lifestyle accoutrements; effortlessly exposing both the ludicrous unimportance of the acquisition of things, and the hollowness of their relationship.
In addition, he exposes the corrupting influence of the prurient world of advertising on young women, with both good humour – Charlotte is wittily framed between the enormous bra cups of a billboard, and acuity – Charlotte listens in on a young girl shyly discussing her tentative steps toward a sexual relationship; footage which is preceded and followed by montages of crude images and text from fashion magazines, thus creating the impression of the innocent reality bewildered and adrift amongst crass fantasy.
Une Femme Mariée is a sophisticated, confessional, dynamic piece of film-making and a pivotal work from the Godard canon. It is highly recommended to both Godard completists and to those interested in the malleability and potential of the cinematic artform; particularly with regards to its ability to convey truth and its relationship to reality.