“I’m not sure if it’s a comedy or a tragedy,” shrugs actor Jean-Claude Brialy in Une Femme Est Une Femme, “but it’s a masterpiece.” Not wrong there. This hyperactive 1961 ground-breaker, even more than the mesmerising Alphaville, is everything that’s wonderful about early Godard. Later, he became obsessed with semiotics, deconstructing to the point where only the fanatical could go with him. But here, in the post-Breathless era, high on success and confidence, he’s brushing excess flecks of genius off his coat. Watch these and you’ll be amazed at the playful energy, wit, flair and intelligence. You’ll also wonder when it was that cinema elected to tread water.
With ’59’s Breathless (not included here), Godard became the most acclaimed, controversial Nouvelle Vague director. Hundreds of imitators sprang up, only a handful survived. Reinventing the language, the look and the licenses, he used jump-cuts and hand-helds to reinvigorate and readdress the “illusion of reality”. Let’s not, though, lurch into the academy-speak often dumped on funky, youthful Jean-Luc. He’s fun! That said, Le Petit Soldat may not be the friskiest example?made in ’60, it was banned for years for referring to the use of torture by both sides during the French-Algerian war. A deserter’s ordered to kill; Camus-like, he does. In a relatively sombre piece, there’s already a fascination with the way we see, exemplified by scenes in which our reluctant soldier begs the debuting Anna Karina to let him photograph her.
Karina, a Danish model, came to France and was nurtured and married by Godard. Detractors reckon Une Femme Est Une Femme is ‘just’ a documentary on her visual magnetism. Certainly, few performers can lay claim to a movie which so electrically captures and delights in their essence. You absolutely cannot take your eyes off her. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.” she says, doing both with balletic skill. It’s a homage/parody of musicals, a Jules Et Jim-style love triangle, and a series of surreal epigrams and quickfire jokes. Karina: “Been here long?” Belmondo: “No. Twenty-seven years.” Elsewhere, Belmondo growls: “Hurry up, I want to watch Breathless on TV.”
It was Godard’s first colour film. For ’65’s Alphaville he returns to a supremely grainy monochrome, rendering a future dystopia (Paris, unrecognisable), where technology has wiped out human individuality and love.
(And hasn’t that premise been recycled a few times since?) Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) investigates; Karina, in a frostier but equally iconic role, struggles to help. Nostalgic, ultra-modern, literary but vibrant, these ‘old’ films are the youngest you’ll ever see.