The storyline of 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her, directed by Jean-Luc Godard and released in 1967, is, like much of Godard’s work at the back end of the New Wave, completely secondary to the political message of the image and narration. In fact, its so unimportant to the film as a whole that describing it as a vehicle for the message would probably be too generous.
It is ostensibly about a housewife, Juliette, played by Marina Vlady, who lives in one of the many newly built housing developments springing up on the edge of Paris, who spends her day working as a prostitute.
2 or 3 Things can be termed a ‘Paris film’, as Godard makes clear at the beginning with a message in typically Godard-esque brightly coloured lettering, that the ‘her’ in the title refers to ‘the Paris region’. But instead of taking the shape of what are often called ‘love letter’ films to the city, defined through Godard’s own New Wave work in A Bout De Souffle or Masculin, Feminin, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is intended as a warning about its future, socially, politically, and aesthetically.
The aspect of Juliette’s surroundings is the most important element of the film. We first see her standing on the balcony of a high tower block, and the film is puncuated throughout by bleak shots of depressing housing developments that contrast wildly with the, again typically Godard, aggressive colouring of the film. Nearly every scene is divided by a shot of a building site, a crane, a new motorway, an unfinished bridge, a rising towerblock, a cement truck, or containers on a river, and in this the idea that the face of Paris is changing is constant. Early on, Godard’s whispering narration puts this in the context of Charles de Gaulle’s economic reforms of the mid-sixties, and what he sees as the increasing encroachment of unopposed capitalism in to people’s everyday lives. France in the mid-sixties found itself in the middle of the Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years of almost uninterrupted economic growth that lasted from the end of the war to the mid-seventies, where the economy enjoyed unprecedented levels of productivity and consumer consumption supplemented by rising wages. By showing the estates in a state of constant construction, Godard is showing that, as if mirroring the rapidity of economic reform in France in the mid-sixties, the rising housing estates are produced with the same speed, aesthetically ugly, dull and grey, and alienating to those who live in them, or whom Juliette is the example in this film.
The film demonstrates time and again Godard’s concern for the impact capitalism has on the everyday lives of Parisians. This idea is taken to the extreme, where capitalism interferes with humans even in their most private moments, demonstrated absurdly but brilliantly in a scene where a woman enjoying a bath is interrupted by a man from the electricity company walking in on her. Completely uninterested in her nakedness and absorbed in his work, he merely asks where the meter is and informs her of the size of the bill. The other constant message is that of capitalism providing a fall back for itself; to supplement the alienation of one who is living an alienated existence, a constant stream of consumer goods are available, but, as Godard’s narration whispers;
‘The mere fact of suddenly enjoying an appliance spurs power consumption without regard for the bill. It’s the same old story. Either no money for rent or no TV, or else a TV but no car, or else a washer but no vacation. In other words, in any case, no normal life.’
Part of the film does take place in the centre of Paris proper, when Juliette goes in to the city for her work, but outside shots of the city itself are fleeting, and she soon returns back to the suburbs. Every shot we are presented with of a tower block, a building site, or a new motorway is a warning from Godard, that if left unoppossed, capitalism will render every city and the lives of its inhabitants lifeless, as it does to Paris in the construction of these new suburbs. He also condemns the apathy and passivity of the population as a whole, represented in Juliette, whose lacklustre observation that,
‘Nobody will know what the city of tomorrow will look like, some of its semantic richness will be gone, undoubtedly, undoubtedly’.
could not be more resounding as a statement by somebody who is alienated, but lacks the will or the opportunity to attempt to do anything about it one way or the other. Godard is willing the audience to condemn her for not being harsher in her lamentation. It is also a quick and effective testement to the extent to which Godard believes the rapid rise of consumer goods are pacifying the nation, both politically and culturally. A good contrast to make would be in the early films of New Wave, the apartment of the Doinels in The 400 Blows, or that of Jean Seberg’s character in A Bout De Souffle, austere and almost empty in comparison to Juliette’s flat with its collection of consumer goods and branded products, which, in the final shot of the film, are laid out on the grass outside her tower block, and the film fades over them.
As we see in this century, Godard’s observations and condemnation of the ugliness and alienating aspects of the new suburbs could not have been more starkly vindicated. The clean and new, although obviously dull and lifeless suburbs of Godard’s sixties have now evolved into the banlieues of the 2010s, notorious throughout Europe as being rife with endemic poverty, crime, unemployment, and making the headlines every few years when instances of rioting break out, as happened during the 80s, 90s, and most recently in 2005, when rioting spread to cities all around the country, from the Belgian border to Marseille, after the deaths of two youths in an electrical substation after being chased by police in the banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois, an eastern suburb of Paris. The perfect cinematic partner for 2 Or 3 Things can be none other than Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 release La Haine, a bleak depiction of a life of boredom, rioting, and unemployment in the banlieue of the nineties. Godard’s doubt as to the suitability of the suburbs for long-term human habitation have been proved correct.
This film should also be required viewing for students of architecture, and especially those who may still be unconvinced of the inherent ugliness and unsuitability for the practicalities of city life of the urban renewel schemes of the sixties. The disregard of aesthetic value is there to see in the film, and still obvious in many town centres across Britain. While French architects were tearing up the land on the outskirts of Paris in the mid-sixties, British architects, when not erecting tower blocks of their own, were systematically ripping up and redeveloping the historical centres of towns across the country to make way for larger roads and shopping malls. What was once a town square, the traditional meeting and gathering point of any urban area, became the Arndale in Manchester, or the Birmingham Bullring. If anyone had ever harboured an impossible desire to make bedfellows of an English Tory, lamenting the passing of the traditional town centre, and the films of Jean-Luc Godard, this may be a good place to start.
2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her stands out among Godard’s films as one of the most pertinent warning for the future and the quietness of the film, urged by Godard’s soothing narration, does not detract from its apocolyptic tone. The subject for concern is Paris in this instance, but it could be any city around the world. Godard sees the rapid expansion of capitalism, and, more so than ever before, in to the everyday lives of people, and the film is a warning to the audience to reject passivity and adopt a permenant vigilance, because if we don’t, we may end up in the same tower block of Juliette, or at least the one next door. The serenity of the film, and its slow pace, only add to the urgency, and as if the director feels that the subject at hand has gone beyond the usual political grandstanding, instead, he quietly and politely attempts to persuade. Watched alongside earler New Wave films set in Paris, where we see the city in all its glory, it is Godard’s lamentation to the possible decline of a city that has yielded to the brutalising effects of capitalism.
Luckily, Paris has largely escaped the brutalising effect in regards to its appearance, partly through awareness and panic raised by those like Godard, and the city proper we see now looks much as it did seventy years ago. It is in these instances that France should be thankful for its cultural zealots. Through uncompromisingly strict planning regulation, often, I imagine, to the detriment of the city’s economy, the city proper retains its overall character. Londoners should look at Paris with a hint of jealously, for while the financial district of that city is relegated to its outskirts, a thankfully distant series of skyscrapers glimpsed through the window on a suburban train, few people would disagree that the square mile of the historical City of London, and central London in its entireity, has been mangled almost beyond recognition by faceless glass office blocks, the designers of which making no attempt to fit in with the aesthetics of their surroundings in any way. In turn, this has ensured that the centre of the city is no longer for people, but for companies and finance; unless you’re on a pretty hefty salary, you’re not going to be living anywhere near the centre of the London, even in a bedsit.
When considered in this way, the title of 2 Or 3 Things itself seems like a conversation response from somebody who has been away from Paris for a long time, and refuses to acknowledge its changed state. A friend could be welcoming them back, telling them about the new suburbs and warning him that things have changed for the worse, and the response to this is, ‘Well, there are two or three things I know about her’. Perhaps this is Godard’s belief that Paris will always have two or three things up her sleeve, and will never surrender to ugliness completely.