Une Femme est Une Femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961) seems like an oddity in the film canon of Jean-Luc Godard. The second feature Godard released after À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), it has the cineliteracy expected of the director, but the political edge of later films, including Le petit soldat (The Little Soldier, 1963) – his second completed feature, but released after Une Femme est Une Femme – is absent. Instead, Une Femme est Une Femme is perhaps the closest Godard came to making something like Agnès Varda’s 1961 comic short Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald ou (Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires) (The Fiancés of the Bridge Mac Donald) – that is, a motion picture functioning primarily as a tribute to classic Hollywood, with Varda’s film starring none other than Godard and his later muse and partner, Anna Karina.

 In Une Femme est Une Femme, the woman is a woman in the form of Karina as Angela, happy but yearning for a baby, which may be with her partner Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy) or his friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo). The film focuses on Angela as she navigates around and between the two men and tries to get her wish. Une Femme est Une Femme mixes escapism and realism, indulging in flights of fancy but never making the settings look fantastical. Godard’s film namechecks Gene Kelly, but it looks less like the stylised fantasy of An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) and more like the realistic, on location approach taken in On the Town (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1949). Whereas Kelly and company in On the Town hit the sidewalks of New York, Godard’s performers walk the streets of Paris. Angela and Alfred dance and pose to mimic Hollywood musical movie stars in the streets, but we also see real pedestrians – notably older faces – walking by the camera. While the street locations are real and the faces look lived-in, movie magic is all around, such as the impossibly instant costume changes in the club where Angela works. While classic Hollywood musicals sometimes conjured up sequences meant to be taken as pure fantasy, such as “Broadway Melody” from Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952), they were mostly conveying a heightened reality. Godard’s film uses stark contrasts between the real and unreal to draw attention to both reality and the artifice, making us aware of the cinematic tricks (Singin’ in the Rain also concerned itself with filmmaking, but it never deconstructed itself like Godard’s film does).

 Une Femme est Une Femme prefigures a colourful French musical like Jacques Demy’s Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), which fits the definition of a musical more than Godard’s film but is more melancholic. Nevertheless, while reality may be heightened in Demy’s musical, the audience is not taken out of the world he creates. In contrast, Une Femme est Une Femme constantly reminds the audience that it is a fantasy, examining the artifice of the musical while exulting in it. For instance, Adrian Martin refers to an “early street scene” in Une Femme est Une Femme with Karina and Belmondo:

…an incredibly souped-up, non-stop musical score (by Michel Legrand) goes from high melodrama to “mickey mousing” effects, surging and falling away, while the characters chatter on. There is in fact no “song,” as such, only the residual shape of a generic, musical scene. In order to achieve this, Godard post-dubbed the actors (a rarity in his work past his first three feature films), allowing other, overt treatments and manipulations of the sound design.1

 Une Femme est Une Femme includes references to other nouvelle vague films, such as Belmondo mentioning a television broadcast of Breathless or asking Jeanne Moreau (appearing uncredited in a bar scene) how it’s going with Jules and Jim: of course, the joke could be interpreted as Belmondo asking Moreau about the filming of Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim, François Truffaut, 1962), which was released after Une Femme est Une Femme, or he might be asking her character from the film about the Jules and Jim characters. Also, Charles Aznavour, whose music features in the film (seen on a jukebox as Angela and Arthur drink in a bar), starred in Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, François Truffaut, 1960), with that film and book referenced. There is also the editing that disrupts the smooth flow of action, both visual (jumps in scenes or a sudden flurry of shots indicating flashes of memory) and aural (songs start, stop, start again, or sound cuts out). Then there are the colours, which go beyond the decorative. Red, white, and blue recur in the film: this evokes the Tricolour, of course, but it is also suggestive of moods and meanings. For instance, for much of the film we see Angela in red, Émile in blue and their predominantly white apartment. Angela is the passionate character and Émile is a colder person, while the apartment is a blank, ‘neutral’ space. However, to reflect Angela’s changing emotional state, moving from Émile to Alfred and back, she is also seen dressed in white and blue.2

However, the apartment in Une Femme est Une Femme is not a space of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Angela seems confined to this setting much of the time, reminiscent of Breathless and anticipating the mid-section of marital strife in Le mépris (Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard, 1963). Notable female characters – Angela included – are engaged in some kind of sexually related activity to make a living (from stripteases to sex work) and perform stereotypical domestic chores, while the fraternity seems to be more between Alfred and Émile than Émile and Angela, at least in the film’s first half. We also have textual games, seen during the opening credits, in a later scene when the camera pans back and forth with Angela and Émile in the apartment with on-screen text functioning like silent film intertitles, and in the arguments between Angela and Émile, when they declare their feelings about each other via text on book covers.3

 There are musical traces of Une Femme est Une Femme in Godard’s subsequent features Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live, 1962) and Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders, 1964), but it is apparent in those films that Godard is moving away from the colourful widescreen diversions of Une Femme est Une Femme for a more serious look at social and political issues. The visuals in Une Femme est Une Femme also anticipate the bold colour stylings of Contempt, a more lacerating look at arts versus commerce in cinema, and Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965), a ‘lovers on the run’ film (reuniting Karina and Belmondo) à la Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950), but a road movie with characters that run out of road and into self-destruction. In addition to changes in the use of music and visuals, the romantic couplings in these later Godard films are far more fraught than the love triangle larks of Une Femme est Une Femme.

 Martin notes Godard’s change in approach to the use of music, contrasting Une Femme est Une Femme with a later Godard film: “In Pierrot le fou, Godard takes a far more aggressive posture towards the song sequences. I would go so far as to call it an antimusical impulse – Godard’s boundlessly inventive destructiveness as an artist becoming more extreme in this phase of his career.”4 Martin cites the first song in Pierrot le fou as an example of this, remarking on “Godard’s use of direct sound to capture Karina’s singing … Godard also chooses to record, at the same time as Karina’s voice, the playback of the music, which is simply a solo piano track; he does not seek to rerecord, mix or treat this backing in any way.”5 The result is that “the sound of this song in Pierrot le fou is like nothing in a Hollywood musical – it’s very raw, reverberant and thin … the mood of the song for the film’s spectators becomes increasingly uncomfortable and disquieting.”6

 Une Femme est Une Femme, like the American musicals it references, feels like the product of a more innocent time, before the seismic changes of the ’60s brought a cinematic and societal revolution, and before the escalation of the Vietnam War, with Godard’s films moving from American movie homage to US cultural critique, a shift in tone from spirited to scathing. This change in Godard’s approach in later films marks Une Femme est Une Femme as something of an end point for Godard, drawing a line under the simpler pleasures initiated in Varda’s short. His subsequent films still play with film form and reference cinema history, but they are more like film as film analysis rather than film as film reference. Une Femme est Une Femme is Godard as playful before the political and, as such, it is a fascinating directorial curiosity.

Une Femme Est Une Femme/A Woman Is a Woman (1961 France 85 mins)

Prod Co: Euro International Films, Rome Paris Films Scr: Jean-Luc Godard Prod: Carlo Ponti, Georges de Beauregard Dir: Jean-Luc Godard Phot: Raoul Coutard Prod Des: Bernard Evein Mus: Michel Legrand 

Cast: Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo


  1. Adrian Martin, “Godard, The Musical,” Cinema Scope, Number 7 (April 2001): p. 15.
  2. For more on how colours are used in Une Femme est une Femme, and how this contrasts with their use in Contempt, see Paul J. Sharits, “Red, Blue, Godard,” Film Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 4 (Summer 1966): pp. 24-29.
  3. For an in-depth examination of the literary references and meanings in Une Femme est une Femme, see Kevin J. Hayes, “Une Femme est une Femme: A Modern Woman’s Bookshelf,” Film criticism, Volume 25, Number 1 (October 2000): pp. 65-82.
  4. Martin, p. 15.
  5. Martin, p. 16.
  6. Martin, p. 16.

About The Author

Martyn Bamber has previously written for Senses of Cinema and is a contributor to the book: Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964–1999.

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