Thursday, August 20, 2009

Godard's Women





In his filmography of over 90 films, it is impossible to say a single aspect of how Godard viewed and portrayed women that would apply to all these films. Godard’s films themselves are very different from one another regarding their style, the technology he uses, the characters and most importantly Godard’s ideology in directing them. Godard’s ideological views are always a leftist and more or less socialist-one, but it changed over time. Especially his Maoist/ Marxist period was a turning point in his filmmaking; that’s why most of the critics regard his filmography as before and after his Maoist phase. In his early films, Godard was mostly interested in playing with American conventional genres and extending them. In his first feature film ‘A Bout de Souffle’ (Breathless, 1960), he uses the conventions of a B-gangster movie; especially the ones of Humphrey Bogart. These experiments continued in ‘Les Carabiniers’ (The Carabineers, 1963)’ with the conventions of a war movie –mixed with the documentary style-, in ‘Band à Part’ (Band of Outsiders, 1964) of a crime film and most interestingly; in ‘Une Femme est une Femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961), the conventions of a musical-one. In these experimentations, the role of women in the films were much more concerned with the critic of her image in the film industry, though it may also criticize the society and its rules and regulations towards women, since their image was also created by these norms.

In the 60’s, Godard was concerned mostly with prostitution, in such films like; ‘Vivre Sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux’ (My Life to Live, 1962) and ‘Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d’Elle’ (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967), also later on ‘Sauve qui Peut (La Vie)’ (Every Man for Himself, 1980). In these films, Godard never accuses the prostitute or treats her with any form of morals or ethics, what he accuses is the system and society that create prostitution and the villains in these movies are the ‘pimps’, not the prostitutes. He also never treats the subject as ‘selling her body for sex’, instead he points out that prostitution is executed everywhere around the world in some form. For example, in ‘Le Mépris’ (Contempt, 1963), it is the director; Fritz Lang who sells his ideals and his talent to an American producer. Like a dialog on ‘Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d’Elle’: “Prostitution mostly manifest the body, but one can also prostitutes with his mind”, this is also a kind of prostitution, and according to Godard it is a graver-one.

The idea of prostitution or selling one-self in a capitalist society, for Godard, is a very broad and complex problem, that he likes to focus on most of his films. From the beginning of the time, the society wanted to shape and organize their citizens with some systems like law, religion and ethics. However, with the beginning of the capitalist era, this shaping became much graver, because the capitalist system works with stereotypes and uniform identities that it sells to its consumers. Because, with the expansion of the capitalist system, the roles and models, that it creates, also multiplied to be able to even include the roles that are against it. These roles come to the consumers mostly in forms of images, partly because of the rise of images in the post-modern society, and partly because the capitalist system prefers to work with images. The images gained a lot of hierarchical level in the post-modernist system, and the interaction between images and words increased, as Godard made his narrator in ‘Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d’Elle’ say: “There is increasing interaction between images and language. One might say that living in society today is almost like living in a vast comic strip.” This interaction is due to the globalization, which redeemed the importance of the language with English becoming a dominant communication language, and images gained power, because they are more or less international. With the consideration of capitalist use of images as presentations of everything from individuals to ideologies, it is no wonder that Godard spent a lot of time on the visual representations and its true meanings. Since this type of visualization is also a form of oppression, because of its power to diminish the importance of even a movement or an ideology to a set of images, women got the bigger part of this oppression then men. Hence, dealing with the women image created by the capitalism, Godard also deals with capitalism. This is why Godard continued to focus on this issue, even in his most politically active years.



Regarding Godard’s attack to the society for the imprisonment of women into some images and some specific roles, one can assume him as a feminist, or at least as someone on ‘women’s side’. But when we think about Godard’s complex structure of his films, and his views, this will not apply to all the aspects that Godard represents women with, and it will only be a generalization. It is true that Godard and feminist film theorist attack the same principles in the film industry and Hollywood, but it is not this simple to understand Godard’s reasons and motives behind this attack. One must keep in mind that, nevertheless he is attacking the society which objectifies women, he never gives his dominant position as a man while doing this. His cinema is a highly subjective-one, and the woman is always “Number Two”; ‘The Other’. This is what Laura Mulvey accuses classical film theory and psychoanalysis with. With the idea of ‘Phallus Complex’, which sees women’s enjoyment and interaction with a film in the level of her complex of not having a phallus and the illusion of the film which creates one for herself, the theorist, like the filmmakers, ‘puts women in the patriarchic culture as the significant of the masculine-other’. Classical feminist theory criticizes Hollywood cinema for its use of women as sexual objects to create a voyeuristic experience for men, and ignoring women’s role in the cinema, both as actors and viewers. Laura Mulvey sees the study of the system and codes, that creates this role of women, as the first step to destroy the patriarchic cinema. Because the voyeuristic fantasies and desires function in the sub-consciousness and in the ego, when we acknowledge these codes, their effects will be lessen. Hence, a self-conscious cinema like Godard’s eliminates this system of objectifying women.

Deniz Derman identifies Godard’s use of women in her book ‘Representation of Women in the Cinema of Jean-Luc Godard’ with John Berger’s idea of ‘spectation’. A women is constantly watched, but she also constantly watches her watchers and her observations contribute to her being (or her image). Godard’s women are also a spectation; in making his female characters aware that they are watched, he also makes the viewer aware that they are being caught. Part of the voyeuristic pleasure that cinema creates is the safety to watch without the danger of being caught, and this pleasure works on the sub-conscious level, like Laura Mulvey stated. So when a male viewer sees a woman perfectly aware of her exhibitionist role, and who acts towards this system of pleasure and peeping, the passive role of women gets active, and also the safety of the black, dimmed theater room is destroyed. In this way, Godard makes his viewers face the system.

In ‘A Bout de Souffle’, Patricia is aware that Michel is watching him. She is playing and guiding his look towards her body. In this way, Godard always uses women’s sexuality as an act, and an image. In ‘Une Femme est Une Femme’, Angela works in a strip-tease club and the only sexuality in the film comes from that club. The other scenes only have sexual qualitites, thanks to the play the male and female protagonists play, borrowed by the classical Hollywood cinema. The sexual pressure is present, but the real act is never shown. In ‘Sauve qui Peut’, the orgy scene is shifted into a play with strict roles, reminding a factory where every wheel need to act in a specific time to create the perfect order and the product. For Godard, sex is never a natural act, but a play between the two genders; their importance is given by the society, and their rules are created by the capitalist media.


One of the films where Godard’s lead-actress is aware of her exhibitionist situation is ‘Vivre Sa Vie’. While Nana is forced to become a prostitute to be able to leave her husband and get a life, the camera constantly flirts with the beauty of Anna Karina and Karina flirts backs. Breaking the conventional women image in this film functions in several ways. First, instead of focusing on the sexual act which is the definition of prostitution, Godard’s camera mostly focuses on Nana’s expression and gestures. It isn’t Nana’s body which is presented, it’s her face. And through this static and unemotional face (except from the scene of her viewing ‘La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc), hence, the eroticizing of women became impossible. The montage-sequence in Tableau 8 in which the voice-over explains the result of a 1959 social exposé of prostitution in Paris comments on Nana’s situation. The images that conveys this survey are the sum of daily images of Nana, often romanticized with the use of lightning, the close-ups and Karina’s self-aware performance. Nana is aware of her status as a prostitute; she doesn’t hide it and she makes it a philosophical dilemma to solve, at the same time, Karina is aware of the camera that watches her and tries to reveal her best image to it. This awareness naturally creates the awareness of the viewer towards these codes.

Godard also rejects the image of prostitutes with philosophical and literature references by Nana. Nana’s lover reads her poems (The Oval Portrait, Edgar Allan Poe) and she shows her knowledge in philosophy in the café scene of Tableau 11 (“Nana the Unwitting Philosopher”), where she discusses with the philosopher Brian Parain. Here, Godard uses for the first time the conventional ‘shot-counter shot’. This means that, this time, the camera pays attention to the scene, and to Nana’s ideas, but at the end, it is fixed to her face again, living the philosopher out of the picture. Godard’s prostitute is not a woman who sell her body and minds her own business, she is again self-aware, and she is thinking about her situation.

The only scene where Nana’s face shows some emotions is in Tableau 3, when she goes to see Carl Dreyer’s ‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’. Godard borrows here a very classical iconographic image of women from the history and the history of cinema. This is an interesting image, because it came both from the history and film history, thus it has a high recognition in the visual memory of all the viewers in the world. Jeanne d’Arc is maybe the second best known women in history, after Virgin Mary and she is far more controversial then Mary. She was considered to be a saint, but she was condemned to the death sentence by the patriarchic society, because her active role in the war was unacceptable for them. So, Godard shows Jeanne d’Arc as a saint suitable to the feminist argument, and against patriarchic society and identifies her with Nana. The scene, like almost any other scene in Vivre Sa Vie doesn’t give any establishing shots that would help the viewer to form spatial relationships. In this example, with the fact that the theater is very dark, Nana’s face is truly separated from the space she’s in. Jeanne d’Arc’s face also isn’t in relation with the screen, because Godard didn’t use the frame of the screen to show that she is an image, or a reflection on the screen. On the semantic level of the image, because Godard didn’t use any framing in Jeanne d’Arc’s face, we need to identify Nana with Jeanne d’Arc, not with the actress, or with the image of Jeanne d’Arc. Like Jeanne d’Arc, she has been given an image by the patriarchic society and condemned because of that image, Nana is now in the same situation; Jeanne wanted her country to be free, so she needed to die, Nana wanted to be free, so she will die. In this way, this scene also hints the end of the film, where Nana is killed, not by the male mediators of law and religion, but by the social mediator; her pimp. Like Jeanne d’Arc, she is also martyred by Godard, for the patriarchic society.

This scene is also the most disturbing scene in the level of being watched. Because Jeanne d’Arc’s and Nana’s close-ups are formulated as ‘shot-counter shot’, the level of enunciation in this scene is very intense. Nana watches the film, she watches Jeanne d’Arc and Jeanne d’Arc watches her back. But because Anna Karina is aware of the camera, Nana is looking to us at the same time, and we are looking at the two women. According to the enunciation theory, the meaning of a scene and the identification of the viewer is formed with ‘shot-counter shot’s. In a shot where the character looks directly to the camera, there is an absent space which will be filled with the counter shot. Since what the viewer sees is also what the character sees, the viewer identifies itself with this character, because this character guides his look. In feminist theory, the objectification of the women works in this structure too, since the protagonist –or the character that has the point-of-view shots- is a man, and the object of his look is a woman. In this scene, however, both agents are women, and since the watcher is female, her object cannot be a sexual object. Here, her look is more about the image of Jeanne d’Arc and the referential value of this image. The fact that the viewer, the audience, is also being watched, especially by Karina, constitutes a self-consciousness of the viewer that they are watching something. They are self-conscious that what they are watching is a film; an illusion, and not reality, and they are also aware of their role in the film system, as the creators of the voyeuristic look. Mairead Phillips records this experience in an article in ‘Senses of Cinema’ as follows:

“I am aware of my own place as a character in this film when Nana goes to a theatre to see a silent film called La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. I see a character in the film I have come to watch in a cinema herself watching another film. Am I, therefore, a character called Mairead watching Nana watching Jeanne? If the person being watched is also the watcher, I wonder who might be watching me. I look around me to find everyone else is watching Nana. “

Another point in the classical feminist film theory that Godard also uses in this film is Laura Mulvey’s idea of the use of a male protagonist. Of course, cinema’s erotic use of women can be done without a male protagonist, but the protagonist’s look guides the viewers’ looks on the screen and this enforces women’s sexual role as an object. Then, without a protagonist, the look stayed unmotivated with a diegetic device, and it becomes the look of the director and the viewer. Marilyn Campbell explains that, in the café-dialog scenes, Godard is “trying a random series of camera techniques… the existence of the camera is obvious, and it doesn’t try to fit to the narration”. With this logic, the male protagonist of this film is Jean-Luc Godard himself, who isn’t hiding his guidance to the film. The camera movements and camera angles stay unmotivated too, which creates a film over prostitution, by the look and views of Godard.

The title sequence in the beginning fortifies his role for this film. With Nana’s close-ups like mug-shots, first the quote from Montaigne comes: “Lend yourself to others but give yourself to yourself”. The credits role over Nana’s face, but the director’s name stays unmentioned. Here, Anna Karina is the signature of the director as her wife. Deniz Derman sees the rolling titles over Karina’s image as Laura Mulvey’s idea of freezing the narration to present the women body as erotic. But it can also be considered as an identification of Nana’s destiny. With the identification of background and foreground in a symbolic level, like in the Jeanne d’Arc scene, Nana is identified with Montaigne’s quote; she will be selling her body, but her own stays untouched. With this perspective, Godard will try to look in Nana’s inside. He thinks that one should look from outside to see the real meaning of things; the inside. He wrote about ‘Vivre Sa Vie’: “In Vivre Sa Vie I have attempted to film a mind in action, the interior of someone seen from outside.” The structure of twelve ‘tableaus’ work to reach a different part of Nana and her life each time. And the beginning of the movie; the first tableau works to observe Nana from outside and keeps the distance of the viewer from her to let them observe the film, not to live it. The first tableau ignores Hollywood cinema’s technique of establishing the protagonist; Godard shows a dialogue with classical ‘shot-counter shot’; but from their behind. At the end of the scene, we can see Nana’s face from the reflection in the mirror, but we still don’t have any impressions on her, until the scene where she works at a shop where we can finally see her face forward. In this way, the first time we establish some knowledge about Nana is where she works. She is identified as ‘ the shop-girl’, which will later become ‘the prostitute’.



Godard’s relationship with women in the films resembles to his relationship with classical Hollywood cinema; he is despised by their rules and by the fact that they are guided for the use of capitalism, but he cannot help to be mesmerized by them. Godard is against women’s image that capitalist media created for them, but he is also against the women who fall into the trap and use this image to identify themselves.

For some people, Godard is a feminist, because he rejects this image, but some other critics consider him as misogynous; a women-hater. This is because how he creates the women in his cinema. First of all, Godard uses women to identify a social-status or a social class. The women are never an individual, but a signifier of a class or a social establishment. The women are either identified with their professions; a prostitute in ‘Vivre Sa Vie’, ‘Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d’Elle’ and in ‘Sauve qui Peut’, a wife/mother in ‘Une Femme Mariée’ (A Married Woman, 1964), ‘Numéro Deux’ (Number Two, 1975), a working class women in ‘Numéro Deux’, ‘Tout Va Bien’ (All’s Well, 1972) and a high-class women –often unemployed- in ‘Week-end’ (Week-end, 1968), ‘Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d’Elle’ and ‘Nouvelle Vague’ (New Wave, 1990). They are not individuals and they never have identities other then what the society gave them. For that reason, they are confused about their own identities and roles in the society, like Juliette defines herself in ‘Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d’Elle’ : “I don’t belong to the civilization. I don’t belong to the culture that creates and uses me. I am the sum of myths. Seducer, goddess, child, mother… but I’m not real”. This is how Godard sees women and how he represents them in his films. No matter what role they have, they are always driven by other characters, life itself, or more likely by Godard-The Director/ The God. Nana can be the protagonist of the film, but she is always passive regarding her life decisions; she became a prostitute, because she didn’t have any money to support herself and her friend introduced her to her future pimp; Raoul, she fell in love, but couldn’t live with her lover because Raoul didn’t let her, she died at the end, because Raoul decided to sell her to another pimp, but the buyer didn’t have enough money. She has no words over her own life and her only wish which is just to be free and live without a man results with her dead.

In ‘Une Femme est Une Femme’ Angela wants a baby and her lover doesn’t, until the end of the film, although she threatens Emile to cheat him with Alfred, she always do what Emile says and the only reaction she gives to Emile is a flirtatious passive-aggressive-one, caricaturized by the musical genre conventions. This is only a play that she plays all the time to seduce men and Emile is aware of that, therefore he takes her for granted. The reason why Angela wants a baby is also about the different images given to women. Angela works in a strip-tease club and lives with her lover unmarried; she is the ‘bad’ woman- a prostitute and she wants to have a baby to become someone else. Anna Karina is even more playful in this film, that she was in ‘Vivre Sa Vie’. Alongside with her wink at the camera, and the musical numbers she does with Alfred and Emile, she is constantly playing the role she plays on stage. She is never sure about her ideas or what she wants to do, she keeps changing her mind when Emile or Alfred ask her something; if she wants to go with them or not, if she believes that Alfred loves her… The hypocrisy of women is apparent in the scene where Emile says to her that the plaid skirt doesn’t suit her. Right after she says “Good, I don’t want to look nice for anyone”, she can only take two or three steps, before turning to Emile and wink her artificial eyelashes to him and smile. No matter what role she has been given, the women always act towards it, and the ones who wants to free themselves from that role gets killed by one patriarchic agent or the other.

Whether they are prostitutes or mother and wives doesn’t matter to Godard, because he sees the marriage as another form of prostitution. Since the family is the core of the capitalist society, where everyone plays his/her role, the mother is the factory that will create another generation of consumers, she is the seducing-object for his husband, she is the consumer of make-up products, jewelry, clothes and other items created for the capitalist image of women.

The more complex issue is that women don’t have a single identity. Especially the women of middle and working class are shattered, they have different roles; mother, wife, worker, woman… and they cannot connect all these roles to create one single identity, so when they are asked about it, they cannot find one answer, they keep changing they ‘definitions’. In ‘Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d’Elle’, Juliette is ‘not yet dead’, ‘indifferent’. She only knows her “parts”, because someone told her where they (her knees) are. The constant dialog of “What do you like most about me? My knees, my eyes…” in ‘A Bout de Souffle’, ‘Tout Va Bien’ and ‘Une Femme est une Femme’ shows that they are identifying themselves with their bodies and it isn’t even a whole body, it’s partial like their identities. In ‘Le Mépris’ (Contempt, 1963) this dialog is changed as follows:

“Camille Javal: You like all of me? My mouth? My eyes? My nose? And my ears?
Paul Javal: Yes, all of you.
Camille Javal: Then you love me... totally?
Paul Javal: Yes. Totally... tenderly... tragically.”

The unfortunate thing in this dialog is that Camille doesn’t ask about her ‘soul’ or her ‘mind’, loving her mouth, her eyes, her nose and her ears is to love her completely.

Since women are only visual for Godard, he shows them as goods. In ‘Vivre Sa Vie’, Nana becomes a good that Raoul first rents to the costumers and then sells to another pimp. In ‘Week-end’, this isn’t only an approach against women, but all humans are goods and the utopian hippie society puts all the humans into edible goods. On the road she and her husband need to take to survive, the capitalist goods of fashion; Corinne turns into the Maoist goods of hippies. Corinne was the signifier of the high-class woman, crying in front of their burning car for her designer bag which was also in it. After the accident, the circumstances changed and she needed to throw away her image to survive, so first she said goodbye to the bag, then she became masculine wearing a dead-man’s clothes, and finally she became a soldier of the Maoist army. She was again passive through all these changes, she only wanted to survive and she let whatever came to change her for the survival. Even, in her Maoist state, she didn’t become active, she only putted one image aside and wore another-one.

Godard may seem at first as a feminist director, but his protests on the dominant women image and the use of women in the modern media is only a protest to the media itself. This approach is only due to his Marxist views and he isn’t interested in changing this condition and free women, he only wants to create another image for the women that will suit to his beliefs. In this way, Godard could never put his masculinity aside and threat women as the same as him, for Godard, the women will always stays as ‘Numéro Deux’.


Campbell, Marilyn. ‘Life Itself: Vivre Sa Vie &Language of Film’. Wide Angle, No.3, 1976, p. 36

Campbell, Mark. ‘French New Wave’. Harpenden, Pocket Essentials. 2001. p.55-63

Danks, Adrian. ‘Vivre Sa Vie’. Senses of Cinema. 2000. access date: 21/09/2008

Derman, Deniz. ‘Jean-Luc Godard’in Sinemasinda Kadinin Yeniden Sunumu’ (Representation of Women in the Cinema Jean-Luc Godard). Ankara, Turkey: Med Campus Project. 1995.

Lack, Roland-François. ‘Vivre Sa Vie: An Introduction A to Z’. Senses of Cinema. 2004. access date: 23/09/2008

Mulvey, Laura. ‘Visuelle Lust und Narratives Kino’(Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema). In: Lilane Weissberg (Hg.): ‘Weiblichkeit als Maskerade’. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer. 1994

Phillips, Mairead. ‘How Anna Karina Changed My Life’. Senses of Cinema. October 2001. access date: September, 25, 2008.

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