Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967) is a very special entry in the remarkable filmography of Jean-Luc Godard, a figure I believe Geoffrey Nowell-Smith is justified in lavishly, yet also precisely describing as “the most important and revolutionary filmmaker of the last fifty years” (1).
Largely post-dating his earlier interest in genre and evidencing only the earlier stages of his political radicalisation, what makes this film stand out most of all from Godard’s other 1960s cinema is its lack of surety. There is an uncharacteristically self-doubting tone to Two or Three Things when compared to the breathtakingly assured narrative and genre games that often (but not always) feature in his first half-decade – crowned by the twin 1965 glories of Alphaville and Pierrot le fou – or the increasingly “engaged” politically-themed films culminating with La Chinoise (1967) and Weekend (1967), then further escalating across the “Dziga Vertov” period. Without either of these twin rails, Two or Three Things – in many ways alongside the less political and more romantically-tinged Vivre sa vie (1962), which in addition to also treating the theme of prostitution likewisesuppresses genre and the primacy of narrative with “documentary” techniques and qualities – contains arguably the most inquisitive, open, genuinely self-reflexive, philosophical, aesthetically innovative, at times lyrical and often funny cinema Godard has made.
Elsewhere I have extensively addressed the film for its particular philosophical properties, exploring it (alongside Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece from 1966, Persona) through the theme of negativity (2). While much of Godard’s later cinema plumbs the Western world’s abyss of history, politics and the human more directly and with greater gravity, in films such as Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001), Notre musique (2004), and in a more overtly cinema-themed way with the Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98) video series, such works’ prevailing tone of autumnal mourning also evokes a sense of meaningfulness and grandeur (even sometimes of spirituality). With Two or Three Things we are presented with a very different filmmaker, offering in my view a more genuinely radical and unflinching account of Western modernity even as, or partly due to, using a much more focused or “small” canvas. This is played out in regards to thematic treatment – now including an important but still developing leftist commitment, with a notable increase in critical commentary about the USA’s global power, particularly its atrocities in Vietnam – but also a “limit-point” reflexive commentary on both Godard’s own filmmaking, as coloured by a kind of artistic-existential crisis, and on cinema’s particular role within the new mass media “reality”, which the film essays through a ruthless yet deeply fascinated lens.
For these reasons and more, this is one of the exemplary works of what is arguably European cinema’s greatest decade, exhibiting the twin energies – or “dialectic” – that power many important films of the 1960s (including Bergman’s Persona along with many others). On the one hand, never have the medium’s aesthetic and thematic possibilities and potential for authorial freedom been better demonstrated or celebrated. On the other, such an exploration extensively reveals the inherently vertiginous nature of this enterprise. As is so expertly demonstrated in Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth’s De fem benspænd (The Five Obstructions, 2003), freedom may not in fact be the wellspring of creativity and purpose. Rather, it may impose the abyss.
In addition to the lingering presence of an albeit sketchy narrative – Two or Three Things has a very loose story made up of one day’s events in the life of a lower-middle-class housewife and part-time prostitute in Paris’ then-new outer northern rim – and some notable stirrings of political engagement, a very particular modernity dominates the film and provides a grounding through both its presentation and analysis. Following the less fully developed but very innovative and frequently brilliant Une Femme mariée (A Married Woman, 1964), here is the first fully-formed Godardian “essay film”.
So what is this new modern reality Godard offers to tell us “two or three things” about? The film is often credited as the very first feature partially set in the new development of Paris’ outer banlieue regions, the socio-economic conditions of which would later notoriously mark the abject failure of assimilationist France to integrate immigrants from its former colonies. It features remarkable images of this recently built environment, here populated by largely white citizens including immigrants (both our notional protagonist and the actor playing her, we are told on the soundtrack in the very “Brechtian” opening scene, is “of Russian descent”), with a small number of moments also suggesting a North African presence. If Godard wanted to essay modern life at its most cutting-edge site, following two decades of Western governments’ eroding post-war idealism and promises, then this was the place.
The result is anything but a convincing or conventionally considered “realistic” presentation. The almost humorously robotic appearance of the banlieue residents has garnered some criticism for what can seem Godard’s objectifying of them, or merely using these characteristically “Godardian” beautiful bodies to voice his own philosophical preoccupations. Certainly judged by familiar present-day criteria, notably as applied to any film presented as a documentary – which Two or Three Things does not claim to be, even if it uses many techniques associated, in particular, with the cinéma vérité non-fiction of Jean Rouch – the film would likely be judged quite harshly or even ridiculed on ethical and political grounds. Yet its extreme reflexivity means that it is not reallyabout these people or their world, the wordy but importantly also rather ambiguous title notwithstanding. What the film is about is Godard’s reflections on this new frontier and what it suggests about contemporary European modernity at large. More than this, it is also about his lingering belief but increasing doubt in the film medium’s ability to tell us something about all of this.
So rather than an account of a physical or material reality – although there are some great, often rather Antonioniesque compositions emphasising the strange beauty mixed with utter soullessness of multiple construction sites and cut-price modernist architecture – the film’s initially trumpeted epistemological ambition, and increasing undermining thereof, leads to an arguably more genuinely “modern” kind of realist reflection on contemporary experience. This is in the form of cinema’s inevitable part of a mass media environment whereby “reality” is no longer (if it ever was) a simple matter of material space, and is now increasingly defined by multiple palimpsestic images (3). Whether at home (including in bed), in the streets dominated by giant posters and advertising signage, or in Paris cafés, the “people” of the film seem constantly attentive to and defined by media images. Godard is our inquisitive and ambivalent guide to this new, increasingly virtual reality.
Part of what makes this such a wonderful and quintessentially modern film is its way of demonstrating how cinema, potentially at least, offers a critical commentary on an increasingly mass-media defined reality, despite also operating at the very heart of what Max Horkeimer and Theodor Adorno influentially called “the culture industry” (this is largely why film is notoriously singled-out for special mention and criticism in their much-cited chapter introducing this concept – “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” – in The Dialectic of Enlightenment) (4). Here, with almost perfectly matched force, Godard remains passionately committed to cinema while beginning seriouslyto doubt its efficacy. Two or Three Things shows film as both guilty perpetrator and victim of the reality it essays and exemplifies.
The film’s philosophical dimensions are perhaps never clearer than in its quite direct addressing of authorship. While in later films Godard’s distinctive voiceovers will become very familiar indeed, and he will often appear onscreen (as himself or as a rather lecherous washed-up “nouvelle vague” director), here he whispers to us in a confrontingly intimate way against an otherwise entirely silent audio-track, before and after which an incredibly noisy soundtrack resumes in which we hear the “real” world in both often distorted and carefully mixed form. But more than this being by far the most directly self-reflexive film in Godard’s already extremely self-conscious and authorially over-determined oeuvre, and while the author’s presence is so strongly felt on the soundtrack, he cannot enter the image-world shown and exemplified by his film.
Godard’s intensely felt yet invisible presence largely fuels Two or Three Things’ unique dialectical contribution, first to the rather crowded mid-’60s category of films about filmmaking and authorship and then to what would in a few short years become known as reflexive auto-critique. As both a subject and author, this most recognisably “human” entity offered by the film cannot survive its ontological violence whereby even more than ever in Godard’s cinema the people onscreen are reduced to the status of objects by the force of the image, the camera definitively flattening any potential for subjective resonance, performance or character. This is important both for its substantive meditation on cinema’s refusal to prove any kind of verifiable human presence, or indeed “essence” – part of what makes Two or Three Things such a wonderfully radical work of “film-philosophy” (perhaps ultimately more than “film-politics”) – and for thereby throwing into doubt both the question of film’s own essence and purpose but also notions of subjectivity per se and its romantic über-form, the author.
Godard’s ground-breaking reflexivity, as it appears in this film, has important implications not only for his own cinema but also the increasingly radical filmmaking of the next ten or so years that David Rodowick influentially termed “political modernism” (5) (elsewhere referred to as counter-cinema, in which leftist politics and auto-critique are considered essential dual starting points for any properly radical work). Yet what often gets purposely downplayed in such films in favour of linguistic analysis and “ideology critique” is precisely what remains so powerful in Two or Three Things for all its fascinating and disturbing power: the image itself.
At times this is certainly a wordy film, and much – although by no means all – of its analysis comes in the form of monologues and voiceovers. Yet the sentences we hear are so unsure and questioning, and the images onscreen often so vibrant, complex and interesting (6), that the very notion of modern or modernist cinema somehow not only survives in all its aesthetic and conceptual complexity but as triumphantly vindicated anew through a rejuvenation of arguably its raison d’être: intense, never-ending work on the importance of the image itself, both its wonder and absolute violence. Both when it comes to images, which here survive substantively – indeed at the expense of seemingly everything else – and words, which while used extensively are also almost immediately doubted (one of the consistent refrains mouthed by Juliette/Godard is the inability to put things into words), the film is thereby ultimately quite different from the more politically radical cinema to come, even as it remains a key influence on such work.
Another notable connection to future radical cinema is around the issue of gender, even if here we are in very contradictory, indeed murky, waters. While the importance of Godard’s formal innovations for 1970s feminist cinema is well acknowledged, he remains one of the least obviously “progressive” filmmakers of the 1960s when it comes to gender politics per se (even with the bar being already low). Inevitably beautiful, his films’ female characters also frequently come across as almost brainlessly conformist victims of fashion, commercialism and ideology, while the men are usually more rational, critical and political. On the surface, Two or Three Things is little different.
Apart from Juliette’s almost disembodied mouthing of lines that are clearly not her own (Godard supposedly asked actor Marina Vlady questions and fed her lines via a small speaker hidden in her hair, only part of what Adrian Martin rightly claims as a highly unusual and multileveled acting job [(7)]), she appears a kind of clothes-horse for both budget 1966 (the film was shot in August-September) Paris fashions and Godard’s philosophical and sometimes political material. Meanwhile, we learn little about her husband besides that he has some hobby-like interest in “pirate” radio gadgetry on which he listens to exaggerated or fictionalised news. But he is clearly more interested in the world beyond Paris’ consumer culture, even as this means essentially ignoring his wife and leaving her with all the menial domestic tasks and child raising. Nevertheless, arguably more than in Godard’s other work prior to La Chinoise (the film where this political-gender binary starts to break down), because the people onscreen are not remotely believable as real or individuated, we must look at these bodies as representative of gendered types hardly irrelevant to the socio-economic and ideological dictates of the time. This is not to excuse Godard’s overall attitudes in regards to gender in much of his ’60s work, but in this particular film such stereotypes arguably work in a critical way both as “social documentary” and metaphor, irrespective of authorial intention, in part because they are based in a particular reality no matter how broadly sketched.
Ivone Margulies points out that this film is a crucial precursor to Chantal Akerman’s feminist and formalist classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) (8), for both presenting prostitution as a sociologically real phenomenon for some women who need a bit of extra money to sustain what they perceive isan acceptable class and consumer status, and perhaps even more importantly as a metaphor for life within an ever-quickening and ruthless – and still resolutely gendered – capitalist reality. In both Vivre sa vie and Two or Three Things this latter point is what really interests Godard (even if the former goes to much more effort in informing us about the daily experience of prostitution through citing various statistics): in a reality such as this we all “prostitute” ourselves, be it to work, family, school, state, church, corporation, consumer product, or sexual or romantic partner. Perhaps even more than this, again fully in keeping with Godard’s crucial role for a figure like Akerman (who says she was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing Pierrot le fou [(9)]) while being seemingly at odds with the apparent assumptions about gender in many of his films, Two or Three Things essays with some clarity the enormous forces that conspired to seduce women at the time both into being exemplary consumers – even as this risked breaking down their ahistorical roles as wives and mothers (here through the figure of prostitution as fuelled by consumer desire) – but also thereby often to living within a cutting-edge liminal zone defined by the increasing destruction of “reality” in favour of the virtual world of images.
These uncharacteristically sharp and again not necessarily intended reflections on gender come together at the same point as the rest of the film: in the justifiably famous “coffee” sequence. Here, amongst other things, Two or Three Things presents the “impossible” position of female subjectivity in this mid-’60s consumerist reality, while at the same time the highly attractive aspects of such a world are just as palpable. Yet we are also reminded more than usual via some especially violent references – both regarding the dangers of life as a prostitute on the streets but also the more apocalyptic violence committed by the US Army in Vietnam – that the increasingly global media-saturated world, here fully operative in traditional Paris cafés via seemingly ubiquitous glossy magazines and fashion, are also spaces of flattening assault when it comes to subjectivity itself and any lingering notions of identity that predate or transcend the glittering world of images.
After a brief direct-address monologue by another woman at the bar (possibly another prostitute, sitting next to a bookish-looking guy we glean is a pimp), Juliette and another woman sit and read magazines. But they soon slip into the margins and background of the scene. First, the women are literally evicted from the frame by big close-ups of what they are reading, or more accurately gazing at – print ads featuring the Union Jack (“swinging London” chic being at its peak) dominated by images more than text. Following some whispered voiceover ruminations asking which frames give us the truth of this woman browsing a magazine over close shots of both, the camera/Godard then becomes fascinated with two connected, yet as played out here very different, images. Most strikingly there is the iconic, incrementally close shots of swirling black coffee over which the filmmaker delivers his longest and most philosophical monologue from within the now familiar and here increasingly visible void. However, between such images of coffee/outer space/the abyss, and much less commented on by critics, are intercut shots of the barman making coffee accompanied by the distorted noise of an aesthetically unremarkable café – a hard reality that, rudely and repeatedly interrupting the increasingly mystical and decontextualised ruminations of the philosopher-author, assaults his propositions with the brute force of earthly material life in the land of endless consumption.
Although by whispering Godard slightly masks both his voice and gender, we have likely guessed the film’s narrator is its male director. Some have posited that it is his coffee into which the camera stares in the film’s famous centrepiece, the soundtrack literally recording his interior and solipsistic philosophising on the spot. But as I have suggested, this overlooks that the author cannot actually enter this world in the full material, audio-visual sense. Others have wondered if the coffee might be that of the man sitting near Juliette and with whom she shares some lazy and possibly flirtatious glances. Nonetheless, what is crucial here and throughout (Godard’s intentions or conscious opinions again to one side) is that we have a properly grounded split from an object-like central female character that truly recedes from the film at its philosophical apogee. This is perhaps because she seems incapable of generating this kind of reflection and depth, and when in surrounding scenes Juliette mouths shorter lines suggesting some kind of “substance”, they seem clearly fed to her directly by the film’s “writer” – a fact true of nearly all films of course (unless they are improvised or documentaries) but rarely felt so palpably.
Two or Three Things’ effective sidelining of its alleged protagonist during what appears the most thematically weighty scene reveals, I believe, its important philosophical sleight-of-hand. What literally sounds like a much more convincing subject – the film’s author it so happens, arguably its true protagonist – cannot really enter his own film. But that he is still capable of existing in the margins on the soundtrack, and in this famous scene seduce and deceive us by affecting a temporary coming-to-life through sheer force of oration, is testimony both to Godard’s lingering idealism and hope, but also his sporadic romanticism. The price is that he increasingly sounds like an anachronism, a compelling yet spectral figure trying to make sense of the “new world” in front of his eyes.
Less commonly commented on than gender, perhaps, is the issue of class, in particular the fact that Godard is here clearly concerned with a different socioeconomic reality to the more privileged and intellectual milieu both from which he comes and the class that watches these films (a conflict that would partly motivate his “retirement” from commercial cinema following Weekend). That we never see any evidence of the filmmaker having actually set foot in the banlieue – which in any vaguely documentary film would be expected as an ethically necessary starting point– is notable. This, along with the lingering issues of gender and more obviously subjectivity and authorship, comes to a very different kind of head right near the end of the film in a shot that works like a dialectical doubling or perhaps even correction of the much more famous café scene.
Following a heavily canted “establishing shot” of the housing-complex environment comes a composition pinning Juliette’s head at the far bottom centre of the widescreen frame, in her grey-blue coat graphically flattened against the similarly coloured surrounding apartments (perhaps including her own). On the one hand, once the film has returned to the banlieue Juliette is more than ever made an object by the image. Yet on the other, through what turns into a slow 360-degree pan showing the seemingly endless high-rise landscape, Juliette is even more fully integrated into her very own world in a way that almost mocks Godard’s abject failure to even enter the film’s spaces. And in the face of such phenomenal onscreen integration of body and milieu, the elsewhere intermittently verbose filmmaker is now silent. Instead, it is the unbelievable yet also quite mysterious and elusive female figure on screen that commands our attention with a very fragmented monologue.
While elsewhere her words seem too “well-written” and obviously forged by Godard’s idiosyncratically philosophical and political hand, here Juliette appears in an odd, very tentative way to be possibly generating her own thoughts. More exactly perhaps, she seems to be trying to replicate and put into customised words some vague existentialist-phenomenological notions earlier spoken over beautiful shots showing Juliette moving through the leafy streets of inner Paris with a sense of lightness and possible hope (putting all notions of character and causality aside, perhaps inspired by the philosopher-author’s immediately preceding “coffee” speech). However, the lingering depth and poetry of Godard’s lines is now impossible; instead we get fragmentation, hesitation, and lacunae. Nevertheless, this stuttering performance delivered by our onscreen figure (though she is perhaps not coincidentally out of shot during most of the scene, the pan dominated by architecture) is arguably more convincing and far less potentially romantic. This is the struggle to put into words the confronting ambiguity of everyday experience, and the always in-doubt nature of the consumer-culture defined subject as confronted by a phenomenal reality within which it, of necessity, seeks its own reflection (“a landscape is like a face”, she wilfully repeats).
This fascinating moment in Two or Three Things is perhaps the film’s most genuinely open one, where its defiantly intellectual and articulate offscreen author finally gives way (at least for a while) to a possible new life form – “her” – borne of the strange new world that “his” film presents and essays, and now possibly itself is being taken over by. That Godard subsequently returns on the soundtrack in the film’s final scene to lament a reliance on the consumer world he critiques just as it offers him disturbing distractions from the horrors of Vietnam, etc. – over shots of Juliette and her husband going to bed, a giant cigarette at the moment of inhalation (another “magical” image of a consumer item), and then, finally, a wonderful arrangement of domestic cleaning products laid out on the grass like amateur installation art – does not result in the restoration of subjectivity and authorship. But its ghost lingers. And the hushed voice concludes that we must “start again from zero”: hardly an act of self-affirmation, even if at the same time also a central lingering romantic trope within the very notion of the modern.
Despite – more properly, in light of – all the above, I would contest that Two or Three Things is ultimately very much both a realist film and a kind of documentary. Perhaps this is ultimately not so much either because it ventures out into the reality of the “new Paris” or adapts Rouch’s already reflexive cinéma vérité documentary form, even as the latter development will forever mark Godard’s work in different ways. More fundamentally, the film presents and indeed constitutes reality in its exponentially image-saturated and properly modern form, every frame quivering with strange new life in all its plastic beauty and devastation.
- Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Making Waves: New Cinemas in the 1960s, Continuum, New York, 2008, p. 189.
- Hamish Ford, Post-War Modernist Cinema and Philosophy Confronting Negativity and Time, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, Basingstoke and New York, 2012.
- For a detailing of the different image types portrayed and gestured towards in the film, along with the diverse conceptual and theoretical discourses of the image into which it plays, see Adrian Danks, “The Space Between Things: Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her”, DVD Booklet Essay, Madman Entertainment, Melbourne, 2006.
- Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment,trans. John Cumming, Verso, London, 1979, pp. 120-167.
- David Rodowick, The Crisis of Political Modernism, Illinois University Press, Chicago, 1988.
- In his DVD commentary for the film, Adrian Martin argues effectively that Godard seems equal parts perturbed and fascinated by the colours and forms of the consumerist world he essays. Martin, Two or Three Things I Know About Her,DVD commentary, Madman Entertainment, Melbourne, 2006.
- Ivone Margulies, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1996, pp. 128-140.
- Margulies, p. 2.
Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle/Two or Three Things I Know About Her(1967 France 90 mins)
Prod Co: Anouchka Films/Argos Films/Les Films du Carosse/Parc Film Prod: Anatole Dauman, Raoul Lévy Dir: Jean-Luc Godard Scr: Jean-Luc Godard, “documentation” by Catherine Vimenet (based on the articles “La Prostitution dans les grands ensembles”) Phot: Raoul Coutard Ed: Françoise Collin, Chantal Delattre Mus: Beethoven (Quartet No. 16)
Cast: Marina Vlady, Roger Montsoret, Anny Duperey, Jean Narboni, Raoul Lévy, Joseph Gehrard