Despite obvious changes in the ways by which women are portrayed in the media, as well as their participation in the creation of content, it is still hard nowadays to state that women have been completely incorporated into the system, both as protagonists and as content creators. The ratio of women to men as leads in film is still far too uneven for comfort, and it is even harder to find a male director who creates vast amounts of female protagonists full of depth and story. Jean-Luc Godard, however, is one of those strange cases. He is a man who, despite retaining problematic aspects, still gave a voice and identity to the women in his films. They are many, and they boast many different personalities and qualities. The representations of women in Godard’s films are vast and noteworthy, and this piece will merely scratch the surface of what could be discussed for days on end.
Saying “Godard’s women” is not the same thing as saying “Fellini’s Women.” Although there are clear indications that Godard found comfort (if one could ever use that word when discussing Godard) and convenience in Anna Karina, calling her a muse seems oddly unfitting. Regardless of their off screen relationship of husband and wife, this energy does not translate on screen, and Karina seems like a vessel for something more, much like other elements in Godard’s filmography. Take, for example, the wildly famous “Vivre Sa Vie,” in which Karina plays a prostitute. It is obvious that Karina is terribly beautiful. Her chiseled bone structure, luscious lips, and world-famous eyes make it impossible to deny that Karina was made for the camera, something to be enjoyed and consumed by the spectator. It would be easy to have this translate onto her skin, but it does not do so. Although it would be quite simple to objectify and exploit Karina’s sexual attributes, her character in the film is so much more, and her character is crucial to the larger narrative of social commentary that Godard wanted to achieve.
Unlike other directors, Godard does not expose and humiliate Karina’s anatomy. She is beautiful, yes, but this fact does not prevent her from leading a film full of critique and awareness. Does this make Karina frigid? Absolutely not, and she proves it in another one of her Godard hits, A Woman is a Woman. In this film, Karina is beyond charming, utilizing her attributes to create an utterly joyful and imaginative woman. Although the story and form of A Woman is a Woman are more lighthearted than those of Vivre Sa Vie, it still holds commentary and clear concern for issues beyond that of storytelling. And while Karina could have fallen into banality, she retains the depth she showed in Vivre Sa Vie. This is true for a lot of Godard heroines: women who are objectively and conventionally beautiful, but are not exploited for their attributes; rather, they are capable of being part of a retelling bursting with insight.
The fact that these women are parts of larger narratives does not necessarily mean that the image of women in Godard’s films is that of an independent woman capable of political analysis. These women are parts of the narrative, which is a feat in itself; however, it is interesting to see how passive and indifferent women are in the stories. While the men are usually carrying out the political commentary, the women represent the mundane and the domestic. Such is the case, for example, of Masculin Féminin, where, even though the male cast is outnumbered by the female cast, the vast majority of commentary is carried out by Jean-Pierre Leaud. It’s strange and somehow sad to see a director who is not afraid of female leads give his protagonists such little insight into the more serious aspects of his filmmaking. This flaw is, of course, easy to critique in a modern context full of developed feminist ideals, where wishful thinking of highly vocal and politically inclined female protagonists is an active practice. However, not all is unfortunate; the silence of Godard’s heroines is as loud as if they were actually activists, and the fact that their trade is actually acknowledged and given so many minutes in a film is already a huge feat.
This discussion leads us to one of the most crucial points in Godard’s work and its relationship to female protagonists: prostitution. Prostitution plays an enormous part in the lives of the men and women who inhabit the tales told by this director, and it does so in a manner unique to most films, or any type of media. In society, as well as in popular Hollywood films, prostitution is talked about in a reserved and hesitant manner, avoiding explanation or the portrayal of how it really happens, and how standardized the system has truly become. It is hard to think of a Hollywood film where a woman’s work being a prostitute is not the film’s most important attribute. The most famous tale of prostitution in popular cinema is probably the hit Pretty Woman, where Julia Roberts’ character has the opportunity to escape her cruel and embarrassing reality. Such is not the case for Godard’s women. There is a certain fresh feeling about seeing prostitution being handled in such a manner that does not blame or shame women. The women in the films just happen to be prostitutes, and this aspect is not the most important one of their lives; it does not entirely define them, they do it to survive, and they are detached and used to the practice.
For someone who is perhaps new to Godard’s work, the natural way in which prostitution appears in Godard’s films may come as a surprise. After all, it would seem at first glance that Godard does not understand the nuances and connotations that prostitution has been attributed to giving to women. This idea is untrue, and it becomes quite evident over the course of his extensive filmography that Godard understands the weight and importance of prostitution and its relation to women and men in a larger social context, which is crucial to some of the messages he carries in his films. Anna Karina’s Nana is just as vibrant and exhilarating as any innocent and naïve heroin of a romantic comedy, and she is a prostitute, a fact that shapes her existence and brings forth her demise, but a fact that in no ways alters her spirit and character, or reduces her to a mere stereotype or judgment call. Juliette in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her works in the afternoon as a prostitute, and then comes home to her husband and child and the challenges of the mundane. There is no formal or stylistic judgment from Godard, he mainly exposes the truth, without alterations. Juliette is a prostitute and mother, not mutually exclusive, no different from secretary or sister.
This is, perhaps, the most noteworthy element about women in Godard’s films. They are still playful, evil, exploited, and abused, but they are given the privilege of having their realities acknowledged. They are women who work, who talk about sex, who wish for pregnancy, who struggle to pay the bills; no frills are added. This reality should be a given and not a privilege, but it is something film lacked in the past and still lacks today: the ability to acknowledge that women live a reality apart from that shaped by media and consumption.