I don’t know if it’s a comedy or a tragedy, but it’s a masterpiece. So says Jean-Claude Brialy near the end of this film. This is, indeed, a complex turning point in Godard’s filmography. It is important to note that Godard made a film in between Breathless and A Woman is a Woman (Le Petit soldat), but it was banned by the French government because it focused on torture (as part of the ongoing Algerian War). What is obvious is the dramatic shift from the stark noir of Breathless to the candied colors of A Woman is a Woman.
But there are many things strange about this relatively “normal” film (relative as regards Godard). There is a sexual, existential tension between Anna Karina and Godard the director which is played out in a complex quasi-real paradox of a love triangle. Bear with me… Brialy and Belmondo are both symbols, but at times it seems that Belmondo is a symbol for himself. Brialy is more obviously the “Godard” character. Knowing the history of Karina and Godard, it might seem rather premature for them to be having relationship problems, but that’s why it is essential to note that her first film as Godard’s muse was Le Petit soldat. [It would eventually be released after Vivre sa vie as his fourth film (and, importantly, after the Algerian War had ended).]
I would go so far as to say that Godard is weirder in this film (last I checked, the only of his films available on Netflix=his most lasting contribution to the mainstream) than Jodorowsky is in The Holy Mountain. That might seem to be a stretch, but again: bear with me. Jodorowsky, while brilliant, is over-the-top in such a way which harkens back to the earliest of avant-gardes…the films of Dali and Bunuel. Godard, on the other hand, while seeming to “play the game” to a certain extent was in actuality creating a new language. Just the first few moments of A Woman is a Woman alone are enough to indicate as much. The role of sound and music in this film is paramount. While perhaps little noticed, Godard (together with the music of Michel Legrand) had developed a sort of audio jump cut. He would use this device to greatest effect in the opening credits of Vivre sa vie. The inexplicable stops and starts in both the soundtrack and the ostensibly synchronized sound (dialogue and such) serve to once again make the viewer subtly ill-at-ease (just as Breathless had done visually).
James Monaco had it right when he talked about the Nouvelle Vague exploding genres from the inside out. Godard here chooses the American musical. I could go on at length, but I will keep it short. No one has dug deeper into themselves time after time to give the viewer a truly novel and thought-provoking experience than Jean-Luc Godard. Understood on a strictly intellectual level, it is fascinating. Viewed over the course of a long, persistent career, it is truly touching.