Pub date March 27, 2007
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Rome wasn’t built in a day, but cinema’s eternal enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard did direct Contempt, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Masculine-Feminine, Two or Three Things I Know about Her, and Weekend (and a few others too) in the four years leading up to the political explosions of 1968. These trenchant, tenacious films are as good a record as any we have of an era when light-speed changes in culture and politics only seemed to make history grind to a halt. Each represents a blast of here-and-now consciousness.

Given the feverish tenor of this output, the relative quietude of 1967’s Two or Three Things I Know about Her (playing at the Castro Theatre in a striking new 35mm print from Rialto Pictures) comes as something of a surprise 40 years on. Sandwiched between the hyperventiutf8g back-and-forth of Masculine-Feminine and Weekend ‘s apocalyptic moan, the film is the eye of the storm of Godard’s ’60s, that crucial moment between impact and explosion. The director supposedly got the idea for Two or Three Things from reading a news piece on the phenomenon of middle-class Parisian women working as prostitutes to pay for their bourgeois accoutrement. This loaded role comes to life in Juliette, introduced to us twice, via a typically Brechtian flourish, as both character and actress (Marina Vlady).

Her life’s arrangement is not a story so much as a situation for Godard, and correspondingly, the film isn’t a narrative but rather a study. The Summer of Love notwithstanding, Two or Three Things isn’t concerned with Juliette’s sexuality (any sensuousness is incidental to Raoul Coutard’s color-mad cinematography) or psychology (something that Godard never has much use for, especially when it comes to his female characters); a poster for Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is the only evidence of female suffering here. For Godard, prostitution is simply an apt metaphor for the dreary life of the new, amorphous Paris to which the "her" of the title refers: the Paris of the outer rings, then being settled by a disassociated middle class and recently set ablaze by more indignant communities.

So then, will the real belle du jour please stand up? It’s Juliette who tends to occupy the frame, sleepwalking through boutiques and barren apartment spaces (like Woody Allen’s, Godard’s film style often seems a matter of real estate), but Two or Three Things‘ most intimate presence isn’t visualized at all. Throughout the film Godard himself interrupts with a whispered, reflective voice-over: an existential director’s commentary track 30 years before DVD technology made this kind of authorial expressivity standard-issue.

No one Godard film is any more "Godard" than another, though Two or Three Things does feel unusually direct in its peripatetic meditations. Conversations, when they occur, are still tête-à-tête volleys (talk never flows with Godard), but more often than not it seems the characters are simply verbalizing their own reveries on life in the pseudocity. The maestro reserves the most powerfully searching musings for his own voice: in particular, the famous "clouds in my coffee" sequence, in which he parses the irresolvable tension between "crushing" objectivity and "isoutf8g" subjectivity amid extreme, lyrical close-ups of a coffee’s swirl, bubbles bursting and shades swallowed by the closeness of his voice.

As with most things Godard, there are multiple meanings to this series of shots, which simultaneously emphasize existential dread and a remarkable capacity for abstraction. It’s direct contact with an imagination on fire, reveling in the difference between thought and expression. Of course, a film built entirely on asides — in addition to Godard’s and Juliette’s reflections, we get many landscapes surveying Paris under construction and the usual café dialogues — is as likely to be a soporific as a revelation; reverie and sleepiness are frequent bedfellows in the movie theater and never more so than here. Certainly, Two or Three Things lacks the pop frisson of Masculine-Feminine or Weekend, but it’s also, in many ways, a more palatable work — not least of all for a toning down of the toxic sexism that mars Godard’s best, angriest work.

Two or Three Things will always be thought of as a stepping stone, though the film’s beauty lies in its singularity. In another, less famous but no less profound voice-over sequence, Godard contemplates the nature of his representations of reality ("Should I have talked about Juliette or the leaves?") while Juliette has her car washed. As the car (lollipop red, of course) shuttles from station to station, so too does Godard’s mind lurch from idea to idea before settling on an underlying truth: the necessity for an indefatigable "passion for expression." The world can be anything he wishes to make it. It’s a beautiful, surprisingly hopeful idea, and for a moment all that followed Two or Three Things slips away, leaving us only this unwieldy, pregnant now. *


March 30–April 5

Mon.–Wed. and Fri.–Sun., 7 and 9 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat.–Sun., 1, 3, and 5 p.m.), $6–$9

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120