Wednesday, February 17, 2010

2 or 3 Thoughts about "2 or 3 Things"

Watching 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, I found myself consistently wanting to slap the young Jean-Luc Godard. There's something grating, at first, about the film's conceits: the way characters, most notably the protagonist Juliette (Marina Vlady), speak thoughts aloud and listlessly soliloquize about cultural theory concepts like first-year grad students who've just encountered Foucault or Derrida; the way Godard's creepy whispering narrator pops up from time to time with more grad school socioeconomics and semiotics; the slides of colorful text that occasionally appear and break up the (already loose) narrative; the constant breaking of the fourth wall. These tricks, certainly not new to Godard's work, are piled high, here, in a nearly insufferable way.

Yet there is SOMETHING compelling, something intriguing, that kept me from spitting the DVD out of the machine and calling it a night. Despite its so-very-60's politics, the film's interrogation of a world choked by consumerism still manages to strike the right notes at many of the right times. And yes, the central metaphor about consumer culture turning the bourgeois into whores is a bit, well, obvious. But that such a facile image does not manage to sink the film is a credit to Godard's skill.

The story, such as it is, concerns Juliette: a young housewife who, in order to support her family and maintain a middle class lifestyle, works as a prostitute in Paris. Juliette's husband, Robert (Roger Montseret), a worker in an auto garage, spends time philosophizing and obsessing over the Vietnam war. He is mostly satisfied with his life; at any rate, he does not share Juliette's materialistic impulses, which is why she becomes a call girl. The film follows roughly 24 hours in Juliette's life, while occasionally diverting to another character's perspective. But again, the plot is the least important thing here; this film is all about images and ideas.

To that end, Raoul Coutard (the Nouvelle Vague's favorite cinematographer) provides some great work. The images tend to be highly saturated and filled with primary colors. The early portion of the film tends to focus on red, white, and blue, reinforcing the film's fixation on France and America, though this palette expands as the film progresses. Coutard also uses atypical framing; the balance of his compositions is ever-so-slightly off. Human subjects and the objects around them seem to fight for supremacy in the frame. The mise en scene also frequently places products, advertisements, and packaging (with highly-visible brand names) in many if not most scenes.

This highlights Godard's criticisms about the objectification of people in consumer culture, while his narration notes the difficulty of telling a story where objects "exist more than people." During one scene, Godard's narration makes this problem explicit. The camera lingering on trees, Godard says: "Describe Juliette, or foliage? Talking about both is impossible. Let's just say that both trembled gently on this late October afternoon."

Godard further demonstrates this split between people and objects by regularly cutting to dialog-free shots of buildings, bridges, and construction. Does this represent the disruption the urban, commercial landscape poses on regular people attempting to live out the story of their lives? Perhaps. Juliette's elliptical story does pose something of a narrative challenge to the viewer. One digression, involving Robert's conversation with a young woman at a cafe, feels like too much of a tangent for the thin narrative to support.

In the end, your enjoyment of the film may depend on how seriously you wish to take Godard's ideas (or perhaps on how seriously you think he is taking himself). As I've said, this isn't really a film for fans of narrative storytelling. But there is poetry, here, too. There is visual beauty, and (aside from the more obvious and labored bits) excellent cinematic techniques. For my taste, I prefer my essay-films to be somewhat more documentary-like (such as Welles's F for Fake). But as an interesting, and mostly successful, attempt at melding an essay with a narrative, 2 or 3 Things is definitely worth watching and sticking with until its great concluding shot.

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