While I was re-watching Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman Is a Woman on video recently, my cat constantly scratched at the chair, the phone rang incessantly, and the afternoon sun glared onto the TV screen.
It couldn't have been more appropriate. After all, in early films such as this, Godard loves pulling your attention away from his own narrative. Like the smartest kid in school who always gets sent to detention, young Godard was a gifted filmmaker inclined overwhelmingly toward mischief.
This week, A Woman Is A Woman opens at the Clinton Street Theater, with a beautifully restored print featuring new subtitles. Made in 1961, Woman is the story of a stripper named Angela (Anna Karina, Godard's then-wife and his frequent screen muse) and her relationship with two men: boyfriend Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy) and would-be suitor Alfred Lubitsch (the great Jean-Paul Belmondo), a character whose name is a none-too-subtle reference to the legendary filmmaker of the same name. Angela talks of having a baby, Alfred and Émile maneuver for her affections, and so on. But rarely does a film's plot matter so little--especially to the filmmaker himself.
One moment Godard's film comes to a halt while a character plunges wholeheartedly into a few bars of song and dance, in tribute to Hollywood's classic Technicolor musicals. Later, a pair of cheeky detectives make a cameo--not for any good reason, mind you, except to inject a bit of film noir, another of the filmmaker's faves. At another point in the film, Alfred approaches the real-life Jeanne Moreau and asks how things are going with Jules and Jim, the film fellow New Wave icon François Truffaut was actually making at the time. And throughout A Woman Is a Woman, a romantic song by French crooner Charles Aznavour abruptly jumps in and out of earshot, as if a fiendish toddler were controlling the volume.
Because Godard's style can feel like he's chanting "Look at me! Look at me!," sometimes it's tempting to do just the opposite and tune out. Yet because Godard plays his cinematic pranks with such virtuosity, and such unbridled enthusiasm, the farce of A Woman Is a Woman becomes far more entertaining than any honest treatment of its story would have been. And for all the pre-irony-era irony, Godard also displays a passionate, infectious love of cinema that enlivens us to its possibilities even as he tears the art form apart.
Part of legend is also luck, and Godard benefits from the romance of early '60s Paris, a time after World War II and before the '68 demonstrations, with sexual freedom first blossoming and Belmondo--ever the epitome of cool--ready to capitalize.
Like the early '60s itself, though, this filmmaker's golden age didn't last long, for Godard's descent into shrill politicking is one from which he's never fully recovered. Besides, the postmodern leap Godard took is now a well-worn path. That's what makes a movie like A Woman Is a Woman both culturally anachronistic and eternally youthful. Godard's revolution may have lost its relevance, but its vital energy remains.
Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St., 238-8899.
7 and 9 pm Friday-Thursday, Sept. 26-Oct. 2. Additional show 2 pm Sunday. $4-$6.