Melancholy Babies


“It’s not a musical—it’s the idea of a musical,” said Jean-Luc Godard of A Woman Is a Woman (1961), and accordingly, Anna Karina plays the idea of a musical heroine. As the stripper-cum-housewife Angela, she saunters rhythmically through the streets and cafés of Paris as if each step were choreographed. She abstracts coquetry: The bottomless lunar-beam eyes move at right angles; those thick fluttery lashes curl like quotation marks. Adorning her lanky Charisse frame with blue coat, white fur collar, and red beret, she’s Gallic femininity personified, Marianne as Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Yet she only sings one tune (about how Angela might be a pest, sure, but she looks great naked), and does about as much dancing as she would in My Life to Live and Band of Outsiders. The rest is winks and poses and grand allusions.

Fitting for a film that traffics in mimesis, the conflict provider is reproduction. “I want a baby in the next 24 hours,” Angela announces to irritable boyfriend Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy), who’s reluctant to oblige, and who’s as self-aware a life performer as his fickle mate. (Before they quarrel, the couple graciously bows to the camera.) Angela turns instead to willing, doleful Alfred Lubitsch (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the third point on her love-triangular design for living—Godard’s pastiche evokes one of Ernst’s confections as rewritten by Brecht.

At Film Forum in a fresh 35mm print and new subtitles, A Woman Is a Woman was Godard’s third feature but only the second to reach the public; made jittery by the Algerian conflict, censors withheld Le Petit Soldat, starring Karina alongside Michel Subor as a French army deserter, until 1963. Certainly the director’s fruitiest potpourri—and his first in widescreen and color—Woman turns away from the murky political ambivalence of Soldat back to the flinty, rueful romanticism of Breathless. But Angela’s part-time job, source of some domestic conflict, commences Godard’s career-long interrogation of the female body as a salable good, and there’s an edge of aggression to his fledgling game of cut-and-paste with hardwired narrative grammar. A Woman Is a Woman is Godard light, but not lite: Its breezy postures front for melancholia. Bickersome Angela and Emile chafe against not romance but the idea of romance, reducible to a quintessentially Godardian axiom and typed across the screen: “Everything will go wrong for them because they love each other.”

A Woman Is a Woman affectionately name-checks François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim—Jeanne Moreau even drops by for a cameo. Cédric Klapisch has been compared to Truffaut, but the new-waver’s weakness for glib sentimentalism seems to have left the biggest impression on L’Auberge Espagnole. (Various English-language festival translations have included Pot Luck and Euro Pudding.)

Xavier (Romain Duris), a bland aspiring writer in his early twenties, opts to study in Barcelona for a year, leaving behind snotty girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) and landing in a ramshackle flat populated by Italian, Danish, English, German, Spanish, and Belgian residents. Tautou’s presence underlines Klapisch’s lunges at Jeunet-brand whimsy—sped-up sequences, multiple exposures, animated maps, talking photographs—while the bloated narrative suffers most from Klapisch’s overly democratic approach to his collegiate European Union. He’s less evenhanded in parceling out stereotypes. We’ve got the lager-lout Brit and the rigid German, as well as the repressed married woman, Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrèche), who just needs one good fuck—from boring Xavier, natch. There’s a moral to all this, of course: Follow That Dream! If you need a dose of post-adolescent bombast, go with whatever Real World descendant is readily available: more skin, no message.

Not another teen movie, though its title might imply it, Sweet Sixteen has the weight of history on its shoulders—not just the millstone of socioeconomic barriers or the noose of cyclical poverty and abuse that Ken Loach so tirelessly explores, but the legacy of the director’s own body of work. Plotted as a cemetery, Loach’s latest adheres so closely to his long-established narrative pattern—overdetermined case study crowned with a morbid jolt—that viewers might underestimate its wit, empathy, and careful characterizations.

In Greenock, a bleak former shipbuilding village in west Scotland, crime pays—but just enough to, say, buy a trailer for your mom once she’s sprung from prison on the eve of your 16th birthday. Impulsive, wary-eyed Liam (Martin Compston) knows his mother took the rap for her boyfriend, Stan (Gary McCormack), a menacing drug dealer. So the kid exacts a rough justice when he pinches Stan’s heroin stash and hawks it around town. He breaches the territorial pissings of the local don, who absorbs Liam into his minions but not his mate Pinball (William Ruane), whose insanely enacted jealousy forces Liam into an impossible decision between loyalty and self-interest.

In a remarkably subtle, assured debut performance, Compston evokes Billy in Loach’s Kes and, in the heartbreaking final seaside shot, Antoine in Truffaut’s 400 Blows. The path from youth to adulthood hardens into a vise for Liam, gripped by an oedipal crisis beyond his understanding or control, as Loach plumbs the consequences of personal choice in a context where most choices are already foreclosed, and people’s well-earned anger only turns upon themselves.