“Lights! Camera! Action!” These words kick off Jean-Luc Godard’s exuberant homage to Hollywood musical comedy, whose visual and verbal genius reminds us no matter how grouchy and didactic French cinema’s enfant terrible became, his Sixties classics remain unsurpassed. Une Femme est Une Femme tells the story of Angela (achingly lovely Anna Karina), who works as stripper in a pop art nightclub and daydreams her life is a musical comedy, somewhat like those starring Gene Kelly or Cyd Charisse, with choreography by Bob Fosse. What Angela really wants is a baby, but her partner Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) remains unenthusiastic and jokingly suggests she ask his friend Alfred (the incomparable Jean-Paul Belmondo) instead. Little does he know, Alfred is in love with Angela. After a flurry of arguments, misunderstandings and romantic complications, everything ends happily as all good musical comedies should.
Godard’s first film in colour and Techniscope is riot of anarchic invention as it mixes the lush cinematography and eye-popping décor of lush musical spectacles with his own frenetic camerawork, surreal asides and sub-textual layers. Beneath the avalanche of brilliant sight gags, cinematic mind-games and sly quotes from film, literature and philosophy lies a remarkably potent portrait of the frustrations that befall a young couple. “Always asking for the impossible”, mutters Emil over Angela, a woman as vibrant and full of life as he seems lethargic and introspective. As in his later masterpieces Contempt (1963) and Pierrot le fou (1965), Emil is tantamount to a withering self-portrait, prone to over-intellectualise where Karina - Godard’s then-wife - is portrayed as earthy and elemental.
This gulf between man and woman is surmounted by love which Godard, subverting the musical comedy form, illustrates via a series of puckish episodes: most notably the laugh-out-loud ingenious scene wherein the lovers give up talking and communicate using book covers instead; or the climactic kiss-and-make-up-then-break-up sequence. Suave, lovelorn Alfred (whose surname Lubitsch alludes to the maestro of humanist comedy Ernst Lubitsch - probably the greatest director nobody ever talks about nowadays) may dream of stealing Angela away, but offers a more frivolous love when compared to her pain-tinged relationship with Emile. It’s eloquently illustrated with a slice of pop culture subtext when Alfred suggests playing “Itsy-Bitsy Bikini” on the jukebox, but Angela chooses the more melancholy and mature Charles Aznavour instead. Her and Emile’s waspish one-liners, punctuated with playful flourishes from Michel Legrand’s sublime score, sound callous but ring true of the ways articulate, yet insensitive people lash out when in pain.
In-jokes abound, from Belmondo’s desire to hurry home because “Breathless (1959) is on TV tonight”; his unexpected café encounter with Jeanne Moreau where he inquires how Jules et Jim (1961) is going (!); and repeated instances where Angela breaks the fourth wall and seizes control so the action plays out as farce. Often unfairly dismissed as Godard’s puppet, Karina never gets the respect she deserves as an actress. There is a strong, Chaplinesque quality to her performance as her glance occasionally pierces the veil of artifice to convey genuine hurt and wonder. Plus the sight of Karina clad in a sailor suit, singing beautifully while cinematographer Raoul Coutard bathes her in an array of wondrous coloured gels is as sublime as cinema gets.