home > film & video

The Voices of Marina Vlady and Jean Luc-Godard in:
Two or Three Things I Know About Her


Lisa Danker, Milwaukee filmmaker.

Four years ago I went to a video store in New York City, “Kim’s Video,” and found a VHS copy of one of my favorite films for rent, Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her.  When I inquired about buying the tape, the clerk told me that its release on DVD was imminent and that it would be for sale in their store as soon as that.  For a couple of years I checked on the status of the DVD periodically, finally giving up and assuming I would see it again someday.  So last month, when I saw it on the shelf at Riverwest Film and Video in Milwaukee, I was ecstatic.  My outbursts of enthusiasm are rare, but this was one of them.  Which, given, the nature of the film, in its extended critiques of commodification, is paradoxical.

And I would not be the first person to point out the many ways in which Godard’s films are beautiful because of their paradoxes: Amy Taubin, for one, wrote a very good article around the time of the DVD release that is available on the Criterion website at http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1198.  She writes of the film’s aesthetic,  dialectical structure and paradoxical engagement with the fragmentation of daily life in 1967 Paris despite its striving for wholeness in Juliette Janson’s addresses to the camera.   Here I will briefly analyze some of the seemingly inscrutable but provocative lines in the film and parse out some of the structural and thematic concerns to evoke interest in the film and to further a discussion on how it functions historically and aesthetically for those who are already familiar with it.

Still, “Two or Three Things I Know About Her”
Deux oi trios choses que je sais d’elle, as it is titled in French, is both an essay and a narrative film, though many reviewers and critics consider it to be decisively essayistic.  It is more straightforward than many of Godard’s other films of the late sixties, such as Pierrot le fou or Weekend, but even less structured by narrative.  First and foremost, it is about the psychological and political impact of de Gaulle’s plans to modernize Paris through the construction of high-rise apartment buildings and rezoning of the city.  It is also a day in the life of Juliette Janson, a housewife in Paris who has taken up prostitution without her husband knowing it in order to make some extra money.  And the fictional scenes of Juliette’s life comprise the majority of the film’s run-time; the tendency to classify Two or Three Things I Know about Her as a primarily non-fiction essay film ignores its underlying fictional premise. 

Many of the scenes follow Juliette as she does household chores and through her mundane activities in the city: Juliette will often look right at the camera while washing the dishes, or browsing through racks at a clothing store, to speak about her life, recent city planning initiatives and other topics such as the nature of language, seemingly prompted by questions addressed to her before the camera starts rolling.  The film includes similar testimonies or interviews from other women about the city and how its transformation is affecting their lives, in a cinema verité interview fashion.  Godard’s whispered voiceover appears over images of construction, inside cafes, and ties together the disparate spaces conceptually and formally.

Stills, “Two or Three Things I Know About Her”

According to one of the DVD supplements, the story of Juliette working as a prostitute was inspired by a newspaper article on prostitution taken up by housewives to earn some extra money in Paris at the time.  In the second scene Godard, in voice-over, introduces us to Marina Vlady, the actress who plays Juliette, as she stands on the left side of her balcony.  In the following shot, now standing on the right side of the balcony, Godard re-introduces her as the protagonist Juliette Janson.  This scene splits her: between the fictional character, Juliette, and herself as the non-fictional actress Vlady. The essayistic and non-fictional elements of Two or Three Things are always contingent on the film's status as fiction, destabilizing its claims to 'truth,' or 'reality.' And ever concerned with the ethics of representation—how does Godard, a male film director, make a movie about a housewife working as a prostitute?—the film sidesteps that problem by presenting Juliette Janson as an explicitly fictional character who represents something actually happening in Paris at the time, itself an allegory, whatever its actual social impact and veracity, for the economic pressures-- especially on women—in 1967 (which we can see have persisted around the world to the present moment).  Juliette is a stand-in for those women as much as for the commodity fetishism that the film criticizes.

"A landscape is like a face." 

Juliette speaks this line twice in the film, first in voiceover after a scene in a café, while we see repeated shots of her crossing the street.  With no explanation, the statement at first seems inscrutable.  Juliette, or Marina, reiterates it later in the film while standing in front of a high-rise apartment building.  The scene is quite peculiar, even for this film.  It begins with a long, wide-angle shot of a very large rectangular gray and purple apartment building in the background.  Only Marina’s head and shoulders are in the frame, which appear quite small at the center and bottom edge of the frame.  “A landscape is like a face.  We’re tempted to say ‘I just see a face with a certain expression.’  But that doesn’t mean it’s an ordinary expression nor that you’ll try to describe it.  We may feel like saying that it’s this or that.  […]  But you’d be right to say that you can’t describe that with words.  Still, it seems to me that the expression on my face must mean something.”  The camera pans 360 degrees to show the landscape surrounding this high-rise, with another building just to its left, buildings in the distance and streets. 

Still, “Two or Three Things I Know About Her”

A landscape is like a face because its truth lies neither in profile nor in full frame, nor in a 360-degree pan.  In other words, Paris as it is changing is impossible to depict fully in a set of images or film frames.  Something is always left out.  Something always lies outside the frame; the context of the image is inaccessible, torn apart from it the moment the image is produced as a separate object.  The landscape is like Marina’s face in that it too wears a certain expression too big for words to describe; but, more importantly, the city landscape is worn on her and the faces of the people who live in it.

But surely a landscape is different from faces and from the faces of wounded people in Vietnam shown throughout the film, their lives reduced to the photographs that comprise the War’s archive of photographic and written documents.  Or perhaps it is not different, and that is the point.  How does one use the cinema ethically or the camera at all, a machine specifically equipped to produce actual objects that serve as substitutes for catastrophic events that happen half a world away?  Painting and writing, insofar as they also represent people’s faces—their subjects whatever they are—have generally not been taken to stand in for the things themselves as with photographic images.   “We no longer need chance events to photograph and kill people,” as the iconic little red car zooms across the highway.  The statement that “a landscape is like a face” criticizes the ways in which images homogenize their subjects: faces, landscapes, building, war casualties.  On the one hand, the film is and has to be complicit, as it is essentially a photographic medium.  On the other hand, it destabilizes its own authority and calls attention to the way in which photographs and film are often used to serve as evidence but hardly ever questioned in relation to the contexts in which they were produced.

“The ABCs of Existence”

In a certain way, the film is confused, and so are its speakers: Vlady, Godard, and the Parisians interviewed.  They are confused about the changing relations between lives, the new spaces of a city in reconstruction, and how to live acceptably under growing financial pressures. Juliette in her addresses to the camera begins to sift out her intuitions and conclusions about it, but her comments always seem tenuous, somehow illegitimate.  The film’s rhetorical strategies, however, lend Juliette’s ruminations more significance than the titles of books—on the sociology of the city among other topics—that flash on screen as disconnected headings for some of the narrative sequences.

Juliette’s use of language in the film lends coherence to the varied spaces of the city it depicts, the beauty salon and the mechanic’s garage, outside on the streets and in Juliette and Robert’s ‘modern’ apartment.  Juliette’s reflections challenge the way that language is typically used in public spaces like a beauty salon: she lists ideas, punctuating her conversation with Marianne, her manicurist friend.  This ‘fictionalized’ use of language in the film is one of its most beautiful and liberating elements.  And, yet, to imagine in ‘real life’ ever talking to people the way that Juliette does would be awkward and strange—a real challenge to the conventions of social and institutionalized space.  If it is a question of language, however, the first consideration is that everyone should have the capacity and the power to speak.  Parisian housewives working as prostitutes in 1967 did not have the capacity to speak as Godard did by way of this film, still do not.

Still, “Two or Three Things I Know About Her”

And where the film could be potentially more successful in truly challenging the power relations that structure institutional, public, and textual space, would be by lending Juliette, or Marina’s voice, more rhetorical power than Godard’s—this is where the film falls short of its transformative potential, in subverting Juliette’s fictional voice to Godard’s.  Whispered as it may be, his voice-over fixes his poetic and political reflections in a definite authorship that is his, not Juliette’s or Marina’s or that of any housewife.  Though it acknowledges itself as inherently part and parcel of an industry and economy that exploits people, the film ultimately asks for our intellectual contemplation but fails to exert any real pressure on the power relations it criticizes.  In pointing this out, I do not wish to diminish its criticism or poignancy, but rather to suggest other more effective possibilities.  I love the film, admire it intellectually, and encourage everyone to see it but find that this is a problem that could have been addressed in formally more complex ways.  To some degree it also reflects how women’s access to the public sphere and to cinematic discourse has been—i.e. not very many women directors, though the situation is improving—and still is limited for many reasons, the not least of which are economic.

Bookmark and Share

(film & video archive)