Viewing 2 or 3 Things I know About Her in this summer of recession and financial crisis gives the film a clear sense of prescience. Writer-director Jean Luc-Godard uses his movie to distill the pains and pleasures of consumer capitalism. On the one hand is a wealth of material riches previously only available to the landed aristocracy. On the other is the effort expended to attain those riches.
For Godard, the latter compels people to literal and figurative prostitution; that is, selling their bodies, their lives, to others for a chance at a new sweater, the latest car, a vacation in an exotic locale (this last is ironic for the way in which it foregrounds the alienation of everyday life). It seems uncanny, then, that the problem of how to pay for consumption, and the exploitation of that problem by banks and other creditors, is at the center of the current round of crisis in the global economy, 22-years after 2 or 3 Things was made.
As noted both by Amy Taubin, in her written commentary, and by Adrian Martin, in his audio track, for The Criterion Collection DVD of 2 or 3 Things, the film is the first of Godard’s cinematic essays, a form that intertwines fictional and non-fictional elements in the service of an argument.
Ostensibly a story about 24-hours in the life of suburban housewife Juliette Janson (Marina Vlady), who lives in the high rises on the outer-edges of Paris with her husband, Robert (Roger Montsoret), and two children, Christophe (Christophe Boursellier) and Solange (Marie Boursellier), the film never allows Juliette to become independent from the actor playing her. It is, rather, the idea of Juliette, of the middle class, suburban wife and mother who sees prostitution as a necessity if she and her family are to avail themselves of what modern France has to offer, that is at the center of 2 or 3 Things.
Indeed, one of the more fascinating extras included on the DVD is part of a TV debate between Godard and the then-Minister of Economy and Finance, wherein the writer-director articulates the view that virtually all people, especially in the emerging suburbs of Paris, are cajoled and channeled into various forms of prostitution so as to achieve a level of petit bourgeoise comfort. Viewed from this perspective, Juliette is more synecdoche for the French middle class than she is a fully realized protagonist.
From the very beginning, 2 or 3 Things is built from a tension between fiction and non-fiction, or, more precisely, between fiction and its construction. The film introduces viewers to both Marina Vlady and Juliette Janson. This duality is retained throughout. Just when you might begin to identify with Juliette as her own person, the actor announces herself, looking or speaking directly to the camera, or providing narration, not in voiceover, but in the scene.
One effect of the blurring of the lines between actor and character is to draw attention to the commonality between realities on-screen and off; whether we think we are watching Marina or Juliette is less important than is the awareness that the world in which they, and we, live is intimately related. Indeed, a persistent theme in the film, expressed both by characters and in Godard’s whispered voiceovers, is an uncertainty about our ability to understand and represent the world.
In one sequence, Godard wonders openly whether he has chosen the ‘right’ images for his purposes. This relationship of word, image, and world is a preoccupation of the director not just here, but throughout his body of work. It also connects Godard’s films to the work of his contemporaries in French intellectual life, including Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.
Blandine Jeanson as ‘Girl’ or ‘The Student’ and Jean-Pierre Laverne as ‘Author’ or ‘The Writer’ - image (partial) courtesy of Criterion Collection
One of the great strengths of 2 or 3 Things is that Godard appreciates not just the personal costs of life in consumer societies, but also the attractions of that life. Virtually every shot is full of bright, pop-y colors, and stylish things. The apartments where Juliette typically brings her clients are plastered with posters advertising airlines and vacations around the world, holding out that ironic promise of escape from the pressures of consumption through ever more consumption.
The film also meditates on the importance of objects, and what role they might play in connecting us to others, a concern echoed later in Bruno Latour’s studies of science, technology, and society. Godard’s allowance for the attractiveness of the consumer’s world seems to stem from the sense that he might be missing something, that there is some aspect of the experience of existence, even in conditions of alienation, which escapes our words and images.
Indeed, when rushing between engagements, Juliette has a fleeting moment of feeling fully and wholly connected to the world, a moment that she struggles to articulate and hold onto. There is, then, hope for something more in life than acquisitiveness, but whatever that is, is not easily found or kept, not even in words.
The 2 or 3 Things DVD is another finely curated disc from The Criterion Collection. Adrian Martin’s commentary track will disappoint those looking for close readings of individual shots, but is rich with contextual detail and points of information about the film and its makers.
Amy Taubin’s essay is a fine complement to this track. In addition to the previously mentioned TV excerpt, the DVD also features a profile of Marian Vlady shot during the production of the movie. Both excerpts help to flesh out the milieu in which 2 or 3 Things was made. In that vein, alongside Taubin’s essay is a reprint of a letter to a magazine that reputedly inspired Godard to make the film.
The remaining video supplements include an interview with theater director Antoine Boursellier, whose children appear in the movie, which provides a personal view on 2 or 3 Things and its director, a guide to noteworthy cultural and historical references in the film, and an original theatrical trailer.
If Godard’s critical examination of consumer economies gives 2 or 3 Things a clear currency, so too does his keen awareness of the role that America has played in building that world. In 1967, the War in Vietnam and the influence of Hollywood were the most obvious projections of US power. Hollywood and its image-making machinery remain, but so does the exercise of American military might for political-economic purposes, even if the locations and purported rationales have changed.
While the immediacy of its relevance may wax and wane, and right now it is waxing, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is a richly rewarding and provocative film for anyone compelled by the artistic and intellectual possibilities of cinema.