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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her

So from a well executed but standard melodrama in 21 Days we jump right into the art house deep in with Jean Luc Goddard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. When most people think art house movies this is probably what they envision. A very cerebral film that's hard to sum up into words. This is a movie with a MESSAGE and IDEAS. Story and characters are a secondary concern. Sounds like a bore. Well that's what makes Goddard such a respected filmmaker. This is actually fascinating.

The story, such as it is, is about a Parisian wife and mother who also works as a prostitute. That sounds like the stiff of serious drama or campy melodrama. But Goddard just uses that premise as a springboard for a series of cinematic vignettes. He starts with a long take on his lead actress, Marina Vlady playing the main character Juliette Janson.

The camera lingers on her as a narrator (who always speaks in whispers) tells the audience 2 or 3 things he knows about the character Juliette Janson. The scene then repeats with a nearly identical shot and the narrator tells us 2 or 3 things he knows about the actress Marina Vlady. Right away Goddard breaks the fourth wall. It's saying you're not really watching Juliette Janson, you're watching Marina Vlady play Juliette Janson. He's deliberately calling attention to the conventions of cinema and storytelling. That will be a running theme in this film.

The script alternates between vignettes that are funny, scenes that ponder what it means to tell a story, and some shots of the highway system in Paris. There are some very funny moments in this film. It's not all dry thought. There's a scene where a naked woman in a bath is interrupted by the gas meter reader. In the beginning Juliette's leftist husband listens to a report on the Vietnam War then still in its early stages. The report gets more and more ludicrous as American forces bomb first Hanoi then Beijing then Moscow as an attempt to "bring peace." All the while the reporter keeps his monotone voice. That's part of the reason this movie works. It captures the feeling of the late '60s when people began to question everything about society. And as the radio gag points out a big reason for the questioning was that the establishment seemed to be blindly lurching towards nuclear war all the while justifying their actions with inside the Beltway catchphrases. Given the situation in Europe this movie might be due for rediscovery.

Juliette and the other characters speak in a bland monotone and very little emotion is conveyed. That forces the audience to think and analyze instead of just sitting back. And some of what it says is very intriguing. At one point Juliette and her friend meet her husband at a garage. The narrator goes over the many different ways the scene could play out. It all depends on what the author chooses to focus on. Goddard and the French New Wave of the 1960s ushered in the era of Auteur Cinema. The idea that the most important element was the intention of the director. This movie is almost a visual essay on the Auteur Theory.

The movie also uses sound to great effect. When Juliette shows up for work at her sterile brothel she brings her young daughter who screams and cries throughout the entire scene. The noise takes over the scene. In another scene two characters have a conversation while a pinball machine plays noisily in the background. Goddard also cuts to closeups of print advertisements. This Goddard's comment on the modern world, it's in your face, it's constant, and eventually you just tune it all out. The script is obviously highly critical of America in the 1960s. Not just for Vietnam but also for the crass Don Draper commercialism. In one scene Juliette and a friend arrive at the hotel room of an "American" journalist, played by an obvious Frenchman. The film ends on a shot of household products. The scene mocks the audience. It says, "We might all be destroyed tomorrow but at least you have your laundry detergent!"

Should this be seen by serious film students? Of course. Should it be used as a template. I strongly urge against it. This is a product of its time period, not just the counter culture of the '60s but also the Auteur Period. This was made the same year as The Dirty Dozen, Disney's The Jungle Book and the musical Camelot. It was a time when film needed someone to just smash the conventions and re-examine everything. But those conventions have already been smashed. On a final note, according to my old film history book Goddard became even more radicalized after 1968 and made films even more didactic and political than this one! Yikes!

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