This one from Godard must be famous and noteworthy in large part because it concentrates Godard’s style and themes into a very typical (for Godard) narrative (or lack thereof) without the distraction of an Anna Karina, a Jean-Paul Belmondo, or a Jean-Pierre Leaud. Marx and Coca-Cola are everywhere here. The cuts are more jagged than ever and the colors more beautiful. Godard moves into a more abstract mode than usual, using construction sites, buildings, mirrors, and of course women like Picasso used cubes.
Recent reading of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s essay “The Cinema of Poetry” assists this viewing. Pasolini uses Godard, Antonioni, and Bertolucci as examples of the poetic in cinema. He chooses these three precisely for their stylistic differences, demonstrating that the idea of cinematic poetry is formal rather than stylistic; a multiplicity of styles can be categorized within this broader mode or form. Pasolini describes Godard as neglecting or breaking all the rules and thereby creating a visual poetry. This sort of poetry, Pasolini maintains, is inherently pre-verbal and not unique to Godard (only Godard’s stylistic version of it is unique to him). It’s imagistic by its very nature and semiotically primal. The cinematic artist uses a medium unlike that of the verbal poet. Images do not have the same semiotic basis as does the written word. “Stylemes,” as he puts it (units of style), are not tied to a dictionary dictating their objective meaning like words are. This being said, Pasolini was also a poet of words and so acknowledges that there is also an historico-subjective nature of words. This is called “diachronic” language, the sort that is added to and develops over time. So in the same way that a poet like Shakespeare added definitions to the English dictionary, a visual poet like Godard adds images to a cinematic dictionary. Certain kinds of images now mean (or can mean) something different thanks to Godard’s work.
So, a level of abstraction, paired with the idea of Godard as a cinematic poet, may together indicate a sort of free-form poetry here. We all know the kind of verbal poetry that makes little or no sense without a sense of context and some definitions. Though it’s hard to be exactly sure what Godard is up to in every frame of his films, keeping the above in mind is helpful. We know that Godard is concerned with capitalist consumer culture and is neo-Marxist in political/economic orientation. We know he loves to play with the idea of objectifying women, which for him includes actually objectifying them. We know he’s both serious and playful, adamant in his critiques but at least has enough perspective to critique with glee. So much is impersonal in this film, despite the pretense of persons. They feel like pawns for Godard’s agenda, but perhaps they’re only as personal/personable as Godard himself.
The director was not (and is not) a humanist. He’s more concerned with ideas and, whether ironically or most fittingly, materials, things, stuff. Morality is a non-idea to him, as everything is reduced to its pragmatic value. This may be an irony of Marxism (whether neo- or orthodox): ideas and things are decommodified only to be recommodified. Their cash value is exchanged (oh, dirty word) for use value, which is ultimately inseparable from and just a new version of exchange value. But I digress.
Whatever the “value” of Godard’s values, Pasolini does offer a helpful framework or lens by which to understand the style and form of Godard’s early films. Best of all, Pasolini does justice to authorial intent. Poetic cinema as a concept keeps the films in their original context while also allowing for universal understandings of them. It’s on par with calling a poet’s writing “poetry,” or noting at the poetic elements in an author’s prose.
In addition to Pasolini’s meta-look at Godard, Amy Taubin offers some helpful thoughts specific to 2 or 3 Things I know about Her (or Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle, or 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle) here at Criterion. A number of ideas she only suggests, for want of space, but they get one’s brain going in to the Godardian vein. She mentions the whispering narration, which is certainly Godard whether or not its his literal voice. Reminds one of Alphaville, the voiceover to which is quite a bit more cynical/satirical than it is here, and it contrasts strikingly with that film’s voice by being a whisper rather than a robotic monotone. Taubin notes that here, the whisper brings the viewer into an intimate space with Godard, whose voiceover nonetheless indicates a power he has over the spectator by exercising the right to inform the images with verbal ideas. Then there’s the fact that the film’s female protagonist, Juliette, is a housewife who offers herself as a prostitute by day in order to pay the bills once her husband and children return home from work and school. Her body is used, Taubin observes, in a similar way to the city under construction. Ignored in its essence, the city/woman is changed in order to suit the needs of others; but it/she passively obliges for the greater good. This is one of the “2 or 3 things” the viewer knows about Juliette; the fact isn’t that we know only very little about her but that what we do know is incriminating. What better than cinema do we have to spy and expand our useless or deconstructive knowledge of things and people?