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REVIEW

Godard's portrait of `modern' life still fresh

December 22, 2006|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

Jean-Luc Godard's 1966 "Two or Three Things I Know About Her ... " not only is as timely as ever but also exudes the blistering force of prophecy. Everything that intrigued yet repelled Godard about modern urban life 40 years ago -- the increasing disenfranchisement of the working class, the challenge of sustaining a sense of self in a relentlessly depersonalized, dehumanized consumer society, the erosion of freedom and opportunity in a rapidly evolving technological universe -- has only intensified over the decades. Godard's protest of the American quagmire in Vietnam applies to the U.S. invasion of Iraq with tragic accuracy. There seems no question that "Two or Three Things" stands among the finest achievements of one of the cinema's greatest iconoclasts.

Catherine Vimenet's articles "Prostitution in the High Rises," in the March and May 1966 issues of Le Nouvel Observateur, provided the point of departure for Godard's usual contemplation of life in all its interconnected aspects. Godard is the past master of free association, and here, as in virtually all his films, he considers the nature of art, philosophy, science, politics, technology and media. Of paramount importance are the semantics and the limits of language, and their individual and collective impact on the human psyche.

Marina Vlady's Juliette Janson is one of Godard's great heroines, and Vlady is perfectly cast as a beauty as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa. Juliette, like the supporting characters in the film, serves as a mouthpiece for Godard's torrent of ideas and thoughts, thus Vlady at once must seem an ordinary housewife and a woman of superior intelligence with a capacity for self-knowledge and reflection. In the highly intellectual reality of the film, Juliette remains remarkably at ease, as smart and intuitive as she is sensual. She lives in one of those stark, vast suburban Paris high rise complexes with her auto mechanic husband (Roger Montsoret) and their two small children. Realizing that her husband, while politically engaged, lacks the drive to climb the socioeconomic ladder, she turns to daytime prostitution to afford some of the niceties of life for herself; to her it beats working in a factory.

Godard acknowledges that some women are driven to prostitution to feed their children and others to satisfy their media-induced consumer cravings. He sees this as an inevitable byproduct of constricted working-class status and an integral part of ordinary everyday life; indeed, prostitution emerges as a metaphor for working-class survival.

When Juliette checks in for assignations along with many other women like her, she brings along her preschool daughter to leave with her pimp, who in effect runs a nursery for his working mothers. In her encounters with johns, Juliette is relaxed and confident -- but with them, as with her own husband, she wonders, as in the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller song, is that all there is to life? Is it all just endless routine?

And what lies beyond it? Yet Juliette retains her capacity for taking pleasure in self-discovery.

"Two or Three Things I Know About Her ... " has the punchy rhythm, the flood of striking, provocative, often Pop Art images characteristic of Godard. It was shot by the legendary Raoul Coutard in a warm, luminous color that captures both Vlady's glowing radiance and a workaday Paris riven with raw, new development projects -- a freeway in particular -- that seem oblivious to the city's elegant past.

Godard's sardonic trademark humor does not fail him: There's a hilarious moment when Juliette's exuberant, precocious little son (Christophe Bourseiller) explains to his mother a dream involving twins negotiating a treacherous precipice, triumphantly declaring that its meaning is "the reconciling of North and South Vietnam." There's the usual plethora of pithy Godard throwaway lines -- e.g., "We live in a time where the future is more present than the present."

Endlessly provocative, "Two or Three Things I Know About Her ... " manages at once to be exhilarating and contemplative. So rich is its interplay of sound and image that it's no wonder that Charles Chaplin hailed the film as "one of the most beautiful symphonies I have ever heard."

*

"Two or Three Things I Know About Her ..." MPAA rating: unrated. Adult themes, brief nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.

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