The first thing to appear on screen in Une femme mariée (1964) is nothing, followed by hands. His and hers. One with a ring, one without. Then the back of a woman's neck. Bare legs. The side of a face. The whole face. A torso. Different poses. In Pierrot le fou, one year and two films away, Jean-Luc Godard would turn the opening credits into a semiotic game, where each letter appeared one at a time in alphabetical order, so the audience watches as isolated and thus meaningless symbols slowly cohere into a unified whole. Une femme mariée, the most generous and underrated of Godard's 60s films, takes a similar approach, but with a very different end, for greeting not language but a person.
Charlotte (Macha Méril) is first seen (if that's the correct word) following a tryst with a man who isn't her husband. She exists in a kind of cinematic cubism, introduced in fractions and geometric close-ups, with an awareness of the off-screen space from which a man's hands will come. And come they will, accompanied sometimes by advice or instructions, which she'll brush aside effortlessly and with a smile. Truffaut's The Soft Skin (1964), which also began on a pair of hands, is a referent, as is the haunted opening of Hiroshima, mon amour (1959). Godard doesn't (and couldn't) go for Truffaut's delicate warmth, and his version of a cubist sexual reverie is significantly tarter and less gloomy than that of Alain Resnais, which is a statement in and of itself. The traumas of World War II will play a part in Une femme mariée, but on the whole, they've been buried under novelty gadgets and magazine quizzes about how to tell if you have the perfect bust.
The nebulous link between appearance and essence is one of the great themes of Godard's career; his films are rife with images, objects, quotes, artwork, and cliches that have been drained of their expected meaning, or given a new one. As a total view of Charlotte comes together physically, the relationship of subjects and objects—of what's understood and what's merely seen—becomes tangled and inverted. She is there to be identified with, not to be ogled. Just as we look at her, we feel his hands, and her serene expression suggests that even though she is being explored by both the camera and a somewhat loutish lover, she retains a sense of self-possession that can't be essentially captured by either. In one of the first shots where she's completely in the frame, not cut into pieces by editing, she darts impulsively across the roof (like Fantômas, she explains; even Godard's housewives have been hanging out at the Cinematheque). But while Pierrot's words had become complete, the opening scene here lands in much more ambiguous territory. Identity is fluid and uncertain, and having built a humming inner life beneath images of sex and scandal, the film arrives back at a point of absence. As she and her lover get dressed, he looks over his shoulder at her. It's the first explicitly subjective shot in the film, and from his point of view, we see her as she hasn't been seen so far: completely mundane—dressed respectably, turned towards the camera but a safe distance away, contained entirely within the image, framed with such a sudden absence of poetry or modernism that it's practically a smash cut. She could be anyone you pass on the street. The married woman has been rebuilt.
Part of our on-going series The Details, a column that catches the small within the big, focusing on the individual elements that make cinema so expressive.