To say that 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is one of my favorite Godard films verges on the inane, given that pleasing anyone is the least of the notoriously irascible director’s concerns. Moreover, Things is not particularly entertaining in the sense of emotional involvement in an unfolding story. Rather, Godard takes the simple situation of housewife Juliette Jeanson (Marina Vlady) prostituting herself to pay for her way of life in Paris’s high rise suburbs as the starting point for an essay about consumerism. There is a story, but nothing all that eventful happens, just a day in the life of a housewife living beyond her means. This combination of fiction and essay enables Godard to make his political points, but in ways that are interesting in themselves. There’s never any doubt how Godard feels about capitalism and consumer culture, but by recreating the texture of contemporary Parisian life, he damns by showing rather than telling.
The “her” of the title is famously Paris, as well as Juliette, whose humdrum routine reveals not so much what is hidden behind the postcard as what is in plain view around it, ignored. Aside from her physical appearance, Juliette is not particularly interesting or appealing. What little we know about her comes from direct address interrogations about her background and feelings, of which she has precious few. Her liveliest moment occurs when she tries to choose between two dresses. Her life with her family is almost as mechanical as her interaction with her johns, and when she admits that she has considered leaving her husband, it is with no particular anger or conviction. She might as well be talking about what she had for breakfast.
The key to the film’s success is to evoke this monotonous, zombie-like vision of consumerist life with a surprisingly spare elegance. Godard’s camera explores the subject with concise impassivity, encouraging us to derive our own conclusions. Or at least think we are deriving our own conclusions, for free of the sometimes asinine postures he forced his actors and technicians to adopt in order to enliven his otherwise dry, juvenile and pretentious preaching, Godard’s calmly matter-of-fact execution here makes his tendentious argument feel patently true.
At this point in his career, Godard’s work fluctuated unpredictably between his increasingly critical perspective and his unquestionably original, often quite beautiful way of literally looking at the world. 2 or 3 Things provides a rare balance between the two. The striking imagery moves beyond what often feels like mere doodling in his other films from the period. While there is just enough concession to a viewer’s pleasurable engagement to maintain interest in the didactic purpose, Godard remains consistently serious, without slipping into the humorless, heavy-going of his later films. It is a pity that he was unable to maintain a similar balance in the rest of his work, for the results here demonstrate just how powerful and persuasive the combination can be.