City Paper is not for tourists
The modern world has been hurtling into, well, modernity since 1967, the year that Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her was released. Changing times have left some of the director’s concerns in the dust, but substitute a few terms in the film—say, “Iraq” for “Vietnam”—and the film is as pertinent as ever. A candy-colored examination of consumer capitalism, the movie observes boomtown Paris with a mixture of dread and amusement. This lovely, provocative meditation may be the Godard film that’s most relevant to the contemporary United States, whose economy insists that people spend more than they earn. This 40th-anniversary reissue could not be more timely.
Godard, who made two or three features a year between 1960 and 1967, conceived this one after reading a series in a French newspaper. Working-class housewives from the burgeoning suburbs, the paper reported, were walking Paris streets as hookers, not out of economic desperation but simply to afford more of the bounty of the postwar economic expansion. The director had used prostitution as a metaphor for contemporary life in 1962’s My Life to Live, but 2 or 3 Things is no rehash. It’s both a summation of his work and a negation.
The “her” of the title is Marina Vlady, the actress, and Juliette Janson, the character she plays. In a whispery voice that undercuts the customarily authoritative tone of the voiceover narrator, Godard introduces her first as Janson and then as Vlady, giving each the same characteristics. The flickering, brashly colorful opening credits note that “her” is also the Paris region, which at the time was in the midst of a construction boom that transfigured established functions and appearances. And, although the film doesn’t say this directly, “her” additionally might be cinema, an art form that Godard was increasingly inclined to distrust.
There isn’t really a plot, just a framework featuring a day in the life of Juliette, a suburban housewife with two young children and a working-class intellectual husband, Robert Janson (Roger Montsoret). He’s a mechanic—cars, highways, and gas stations are among the film’s motifs—and we see him listening to shortwave radio, which inspires him to mock LBJ’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. At a cafe, he chats up a young woman (Juliet Berto, best known from Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating). Meanwhile, Juliette listens to her children’s Godardian questions (“Mommy, what’s language?”), goes shopping at a clothing boutique, and takes her toddler daughter to the brothel, which doubles as a day-care center for moms who turn tricks. A series of nondescript rooms decorated with posters of exotic locations and films (Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu), the place is a burlesque of the marketplace. (One customer purchases a woman’s company with cans of cat food, which are accepted without comment.) The camera’s presence is a given, so characters speak to it as casually as they do to one another.
2 or 3 Things is one of a string of late-’60s films in which Godard broke with the movies he had extolled as a critic and emulated (though not uncritically) as a director. Yet the film is largely of a piece with his earlier ones, and it’s more easily appreciated in context than by itself. Prostitution and construction cranes—the French word “grue” means both “crane” and “whore”—symbolize Godard’s increasing alienation from a Paris that was becoming unrecognizable. For 1965’s Alphaville, he photographed modernistic details of the new city to create a vision of an ominous future, but his interest in construction dates to his first short, 1954’s Operation Concrete, a study of a Swiss dam-building project where he had worked (as a telephone operator, not a builder).
The references to Vietnam are as characteristic of ’60s Godard as the prostitution metaphors and the objectification of women, something he both critiques and indulges. Beginning with 1966’s Masculine, Feminine, the Vietnam War was a Godard fixation, presaging his post-’68 adoption of a sort of Maoism and a communal filmmaking approach. But his style in this period owes as much to Brecht and Wittgenstein as to Marx and Mao; 2 or 3 Things undermines characterization, fragments and removes sound, and rejects storytelling in an attempt not just to question contemporary society but also to challenge filmmaking conventions. Trust no one, warns the director, and especially not the man behind the camera.
Godard never made a straight narrative film; even his debut feature, Breathless, had self-conscious asides. But 2 or 3 Things is arguably his first film that’s not in part a fractured update of a genre film. There are no chase scenes, no dance numbers, and no physical violence except the firing of a toy machine gun (and the implicit presence of war in southeast Asia). All that’s left from Godard’s intense love of movies is Raoul Coutard’s photography, with its widescreen compositions, primary colors, and abstracted close-ups. The movie is often remembered for its intimate study of a frothy cup of coffee, a testament to film’s ability to both document and transform the commonplace. With 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Godard gives up on Paris, America, and romance, but not on the beauty of the cinematic image.