Jean-Luc Godard, "2 or 3 Things I Know About Her" (1967).

Jun 12 2009

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her

In trying to slash my way through the thicket of signifiers that is 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle), it struck me that the film was probably Godard’s way of doing the same thing: trying to make sense of the untrammeled, vertiginous proliferation of words and images around him, like the mutating swirl of sugary galaxies in a coffee cup, just as I and the rest of the audience was doing in the theater. Or something like that: practice as cinema, cinema as practice, process as cinema, cinema as process. (If this is Godard’s “attempt at a film,” as he famously wrote, then this is my attempt at figuring it out — hopefully slightly more articulate than my initial response.)

This cinematic process begins initially as a dialectical engagement with the pure products going crazy, with the said process subtending the wisp of a plot: a day in the life of Juliette Janson, a Parisian mother of two (or three?) who works as a prostitute on the side to make ends meet afford to buy more clothes. On the surface, Godard’s movie is a critique of consumption; most of the film is set in sites of economic transaction (cafes, salons, stores, a hotel where prostitute and client meet), and takes place in a suburban Paris that has been carved up administratively. (Godard, who narrates all this in a whisper — to subvert the traditional role of narrator? — argues that this process of urbanization is “naturalizing capitalist tendencies”, and contributes to the ongoing capitalist oppression of the residents.)

The movie is about how images, and images as commodities, are consumed and sold, with the movie both interrogating and replicating this decoupling of words from images (and vice-versa), the deliberate way that meaning is forced (by advertising, by the government, by mass media, insert your favorite ideological state apparatus here) to slip between, and detach itself from, signifiers. “Words never say what I’m really saying,” one character says at some point. The cinematic process here, in other words, is a critique of this slippage, an attempt, perhaps, to fix meaning more precisely. The oddness of the subsequent scenes that show Juliette shopping for clothes makes more sense when seen in this light. She describes the colors of the sweaters matter-of-factly as she walks through the shop; the focus on her is intermittently interrupted by other women who address the camera: “I got up at eight o’clock. I have hazel eyes.” As in an earlier, seemingly random declaration by Juliette — “I can feel the tablecloth” — these objective, denotative statements serve to anchor meaning, to attach words to palpable, material reality.

This is because meaning is already mediated everywhere, or re-presented / re-produced second-hand (or third-hand?): We see a close-up of flowers, at which point the camera zooms out and the flowers turn out to be postcards of flowers lying on the grass. (Indeed, the most materially “real” sequences are shots of the Parisian landscape, which in this case are freeways in the midst of construction, or massive housing towerblocks, of which Juliette is a resident.) In one scene, a purported Lyndon B. Johnson speech is broadcast over the radio (which we do not hear), which is translated into French by people listening to headphones. Juliette’s response is to read from a fashion-advice column in a magazine. The two men talk about how the Vietnamese (as famously said by Gen. Curtis LeMay) are to be bombed into “the stone age”; the other asks if “stone” means “Pierre” — it isn’t clear, therefore, whether they “understood” the import of LeMay’s threat — which turns into a conversation about automobile bargains. These are all non sequiturs, yes, but no less absurd in their order than the parade of soundbites and advertisements on the evening news. As in a scene where a couple of writers engage in some form of nonsensical collage art by reading fragments from stacks of unrelated books around them, meaning is produced — or, in this case, lost — because of random bombardments of information.

“Words never say what I’m really saying.” We can start with the title itself, presented in the credits as a colored-type-on-black sequence of three frames (“2 / ou 3 / choses que je sais d’elle“), then repeated two (or three?) times. Then the next frame, informing the audience that they had the wrong “her” in mind: “Elle: La Region Parisienne“. But “elle”, it turns out in the next scene, is also Marina Vlady, the actress in a blue sweater, who turns her face to the right — “but that is not important”, the narrator informs us. Vlady plays Juliette Janson, the other “elle” in a blue sweater, who turns her face to the left — “but that is not important”, the narrator tells us again. They’re mirror images of each other, and/but one and the same. (I just realized as well that the “2 ou 3″ of the title can refer to both an offhand approximation — “2 or 3, more or less” — and a fixed set of alternates — “It’s either 2 or 3″.) Indeed, the trailer, made by Godard himself, gives us a plurality of elles.

Two-thirds of the way through the movie, the narrator pronounces that there is increasing interaction between images and language — I figure he means the adoption of television sets in households here, or perhaps Godard’s own cinema — “yet language in itself cannot accurately define an image.” You can almost see Godard sharing Roland Barthes’ frustration here, in the latter’s preface to Mythologies, his collection of essays:

The starting point of these reflections was usually a feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history. …in the account given of our contemporary circumstances, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden here.

Godard doesn’t refer to the discourse around him as “ideological abuse”, but the film shares a similar sentiment, and warns against passive, unblinking reception. (The narrator’s last words are of how the music on the radio lets him forget Vietnam, the housing crisis, and Auschwitz.) There’s a scene early in the movie when Juliette, who is washing the dishes (and looking very much like she’s posing for a liquid detergent commercial), turns to the camera and announces: “We often try to analyze the meaning of words but are too easily led astray. One must admit that there’s nothing simpler than taking things for granted.”

The cinematic process here, in other words, a constant teasing and prising apart of words and images to see how they work. Process as cinema, cinema as process: 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is a movie only in fits and starts, undercut by questions, stammers, doubts, and apologies. The film’s dialogue interrupted by background noise, by car horns or pinball machines — in one scene Juliette says “The telephone”, just before it rings repeatedly without being answered — or by Godard’s nod to the ethnographic film genre by way of interviews and sometimes audible offscreen prompts. Sometimes the dialogue / thought process itself is curtailed, especially in a remarkable sequence with Juliette in a salon while she’s getting her hair washed – describing herself looking outside the window, having a conversation with the manicurist, and addressing the audience (or her interior thoughts said aloud, it isn’t clear), all at the same time.

The film ends with a shot of boxes of household products arranged on the grass, and in the diminishing light as the movie fades to black, the boxes look like the suburban housing towers that confine “elle“. Detergent as architecture, architecture as language, language as architecture: “Language is the house man lives in,” Juliette tells her son (who has just finished telling her about his dream about North and South Vietnam reunified). Language, surely, is unconfined, and yet — house, or prison-house? “To say that the limits of language, my language, are those of the world, of my world, and that in speaking, I limit the world…” the narrator whispers, cognizant of his limitations. But there is a solution: “Since I cannot escape crushing objectivity or isolating subjectivity… I must listen, I must look around more than ever,” the narrator concludes. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is the product of that purposeful anthropological examination. “Everything can be put into a film,” Godard wrote. “Everything should be put into a film.”

[NOTE: I saw this as part of the Alliance Francaise's very generous screenings of twenty -- twenty! -- films set in Paris, all for free. Free! And so it sounds rather gauche for me to point out that the screening of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her was from a second- (or third-?) generation videotape, and that the picture's colors, exacerbated by its enlargement through projection, rendered both skin tones and anything red -- both Juliette Janson and Mini car, Marina Vlady and Esso gas pump -- into an undifferentiated Barney purple. Hardly ideal watching conditions, for sure, but it had the uncanny and appropriate effect of painting both person and commodity in the same ghastly shade. In this light, everything was for sale.]

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