Saturday, October 3, 2009

Notes on a Film: A Married Woman by Jean-Luc Godard

[T]he classic theory of cinema that the camera is impartial instrument which grasps, or rather is impregnated by, the world in its “concrete reality” is an eminently reactionary one.  What the camera in fact registers is the vague, unformulated, untheorized, unthoughtout world of the dominant ideology.  Cinema is one of the languages through which the world communicates itself to itself…Once we realize it is the nature of the system to turn the cinema into an instrument of ideology, we can see that the filmmaker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”.  If he can do so there is a chance that we will be able to disrupt or possibly even sever the connection between cinema and its ideological function.- Jean-Luc Comoli and Jean Narboni in “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”

Although Comoli and Narboni do not believe that film can ever remove itself from the dominant ideology of capitalism in terms of the economics of production and distribution, they do assert in their 1969 article, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” that the interior of film rather than its exterior can challenge “ideological assimilation.”  In order for this challenge to be effective, it must occur at the level of the signified and the signifier.  A film which seeks to resist and undermine the dominant ideology must confront that belief-system on formal as well as thematic ground.  It must reveal its “depiction of reality” as instead a depiction of ideology.

A Married Woman by Jean-Luc Godard is a wonderful and engaging film that attempts to challenge and resist “ideological assimilation” through both its form as well as content.  This resistance of form and content centers on the role of women within the ideology of capitalism, particularly how this role is inflected by consumerism.  Indeed, consumerism seems not only to describe and define the relationship of women to commodity, and women to themselves, also women to men.  Thus, the film attempts to show ideology as an illusion of “reality” (albeit an illusion which determines everyday experience and existence) rather than “reality” itself.  In this way, A Married Woman seeks to unveil the ideological nature of film itself, film as illusion.

The beginning of the film is characterized by the fragmentation of male and female body parts.  The first shot of the film contains the hand of a man clasped around the wrist of a woman.  As the film  proceeds, it progressively reveals the entire body of the woman, particularly her face, whereas the whole body of the man remains hidden longer to the gaze of the viewer.  The majority of the male body is located just off-screen.  The parts of his body which are revealed within the cinematic frame seem to align those invisible parts and indeed his entire body with the apparatus of the camera.  In a sense one might conceptualize him as filming the female body of the protagonist.  Such a reading is underlined by his continual statement, “I want to look at you” as well as shots which show his hand moving over the body of the woman.  The moving hand is like the camera which moves in conjunction with this hand.

Furthermore, in the final shot before the face of the male figure is exposed to the spectator, one sees the back of his head.  In this way, he stands in for the camera filming the body of the woman which is located behind him.  Does this opening sequence deny ideological assimilation by revealing the objectness of the female body and the equation of the male gaze with the gaze of the camera through the formal presentation of male and female bodies as fragmented? Or does it merely reproduce a dominant gender ideology?

The first sequence of the film also foregrounds the role of consumerism within the lives of women, particularly how women define themselves as well in terms of the relationship between women and men.  Within the film, consumerism encompasses not only the consumption of specific products such as bras, but also in terms of the advertising of those products.  In addition, the film posits a relationship between consumerism and various systems of representation such as women’s magazines as well as film.  For example, the female protagonist does not possess any underarm hair which she explains in terms of Hollywood cinema.  Film is presented as a model for what it means to be a woman.  It is an ideological device.

In addition, A Married Woman presents two similar shots of the woman standing in front of a large billboard which is advertising Triumph bras.  Here, the ideal, fictious woman of advertising (ideology) is compared to the “real” woman who must live out the demands of that ideology.  And perhaps this pairing disrupts the dominant ideology and reveals the role of film within the production of that belief system

Such an idea is further highlighted by the interaction of the female protagonist with magazines for women.  The magazine she is reading outlines various instructions for a formula in order to determine if one has an ideal bust for one’s height.  Within the scene, the woman is seen as conforming to the dominant ideology, but perhaps the humorous and ludicrous nature  of the scene and the formula attempts to subvert the viewer’s “ideological assimilation” to the dominant definition of woman.

One must, however, question the fetishistic centrality of the bra and breasts within the film.  Does this consideration of the bra and breast within advertising reveal it as an ideological site at which the category of woman is produced?  Does it denaturalize the breast and its presentation in advertising?  Or does it merely reproduce the presentation of the female body within the dominant system?  For example does the inclusion of male crotch shots undermine this reproduction?  Or does it demonstrate the disparity (in terms of size and conception) between representations of men and women within culture in order to construct a critical stance to the images of women presented by the film?

In conclusion, I would like to consider further the relationship between men and women within the film.  Because the female protagonist has both a husband and a lover, she can be considered independent of the dominant ideology and possessing agency. She has made her own choices. Yet, the film continually demonstrates how she is already defined within and hailed by ideology as a woman particularly in terms of the centrality within the film of the bra and breast.  In a sense, the woman in her alignment with commodities is herself understood as a (sexual) commodity who is exchanged between men, between her lover and her husband.  In the end, does the film reinscribe the notion of woman as commodity, as object or does it criticize and deconstruct this prevailing system?  To further explore this question, one would need to consider the voice-overs of the woman in greater detail to see how she speaks rather than how she is spoken by ideology.

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