Karina and Godard: The Muse, Her Master, and the Artistic Representation of Sexuality

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In Masculine Singular: French New Wave Cinema, Geneviève Sellier argues that the majority of films to come out of the French New Wave represent a male artist’s ambivalence toward the new liberated woman of the 1960s. Sellier’s position, although a little more nuanced than I describe it, essentially implies that French New Wave cinema is sexist. Although I disagree with some of Sellier’s claims, she makes a few significant points that are worth considering.

In January 1954, François Truffaut’s article “Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Français” appeared for the first time in Cahiers Du Cinema. The article offered a scathing critique of French cinema at the time, which was mostly prestigious literary adaptations, and insisted that French filmmakers move away from bourgeois ideology. Ultimately, for Truffaut, filmmakers needed to take control of the form and become artists, or “authors,” of their films. Truffaut’s essay changed film criticism and filmmaking, for better or worse. If it were not for this essay, the French New Wave arguably would not have emerged so enthusiastically, and as a result, American cinema would not have seen its revival in the 1970s, which in many ways has shaped the way contemporary films are made today. Although each film made builds upon the last, there is a reason why most film scholars draw a clear break in film history, often understood as “before Breathless and after Breathless.” Breathless (1960) influenced Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which then influenced nearly every American (and foreign) film we watch today.

So there is a reason why Sellier has a few problems with the French New Wave, and it is worth mentioning that this is important to her precisely because the movement was so influential. Ever since New Wave filmmakers practiced the auteur theory, cinema has more or less become a director’s medium. Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 may have introduced the auteur theory to film studies more generally, but we must remember that it is the French New Wave filmmakers who first championed the idea that the director is the sole author of the film who has complete artistic control.

Sellier’s difficult question, then, is what happens when all of the directors are men, as is the case with the French New Wave (she does make an exception for Varda)? What happens, according to Sellier, is that the films are made by, about, and for men, whereas the female characters are reduced to objects on the screen to be looked at. Although Sellier avoids a psychoanalytic approach, her perspective in many ways mirrors Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The to-be-looked-at-ness of the women in French New Wave cinema renders the movement sexist and, Sellier concludes that the directors are “writing” their films from a masculine singular perspective.

When I first encountered this study, I tried to pretend that I never read it. It was hard for me to come to terms with Sellier’s argument because the French New Wave was always such an important cinematic movement for me as a cinephile. I grew up on Godard and Truffaut and I always looked up to them as my heroes. Moreover, I fell in love with Anna Karina and Jeanne Moreau and Anne Wiazemsky and Sellier was basically telling me that my love for them was informed by sexist gender representation.

But the more I think about it, the more I begin to see the flaws in Sellier’s argument. It is fair to claim, for instance, that there is masculine dominance within the film industry, and there are many anecdotal director-actress relationships that shine a light on how the auteur theory can incite misogyny (Hitchcock, Trier, etc.).

The French New Wave, however, celebrates the sexual allure of women, and although certain films and filmmakers may depict women unfavorably, many of them showcase the beauty of women.

Consider, for instance, the string of films Godard made with his first muse, Anna Karina. Sellier describes this relationship as one in which Godard dominates the passive Karina and uses his camera to objectify her as a sexual object. There are many critics, scholars, and fans who view Godard as the ultimate auteur, and Sellier certainly uses this consensus to make her argument that Godard is a sexist filmmakers in “control” of his actresses. But I want to suggest here that Karina’s screen presence is so essential to Godard’s early oeuvre that to call her representation sexist is, in fact, a sexist claim. That is, every time we undermine a screen actress’ contribution to a film by claiming that her depiction is the result of a sexist male director, we begin to devalue the achievements of the actress.

Sellier, for instance, would describe this scene from Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (1961) as sexist because Godard’s camera objectifies Karina as a sexual object. But can’t a woman be depicted sexually without cries from the feminists claiming that such a depiction is sexist? As Camille Paglia writes, “I reaffirm and celebrate woman’s ancient mystery and glamour. I see the mother as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement.”

I am not saying that a male director can never be sexist and can never objectify women, but I do think it is fair to claim that most of the time this is not the case. There is a reason why Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” isn’t being cited anymore by film scholars–its argument doesn’t hold under close scrutiny. Further, while it may be fun and cute to see how many times we can throw the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in casual conversation, the trope itself is borderline sexist by claiming that characters who play the male love interest are sexist constructions. By doing this, we undermine the achievement of actresses like Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman, and Zooey Deschanel who played these roles. This is no different than debasing the performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in The Help because the maid is a so-called racist stereotype, as if to suggest that honoring women of the past who didn’t have the opportunities to be as free as women today is automatically oppressive.

Sellier’s argument ultimately says more about her perspective and the current trends in feminist scholarship than it does about French New Wave Cinema. We are at a point in time where political correctness trumps truth and where contemporary idealism becomes ahistorical.

Godard and Karina made seven films together, and in these films, Godard highlighted Karina’s beauty and allure. Not since Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) has an actress’ face been so iconic and so beautiful. Béla Balázs once argued that the close-up is the greatest weapon in a filmmaker’s arsenal, and the movie star’s face is the essence of cinema. For Balázs, the best thing about cinema and its stars is the to-be-looked-at-ness, which is the same thing both Mulvey and Sellier rally against.

In My Life to Live (1962)for example, Godard illustrates the beauty and allure of Karina’s face as he films her in three close-ups over the opening credits. The first is a profile shot in which her face is turned to the left, the second is a direct close up in which she stares at the camera, and the third is a profile shot in which her face is turned to the right. These opening shots, I think, epitomize Godard’s view of Karina as a sexual woman of desire. Adrian Danks compares Godard’s presentation of Nina to Carl Dreyer’s depiction of Falconetti’s Joan in The Passion of Joan of Arc. As Danks writes:

Through its obsession with the image of Nana, Vivre sa vie becomes a kind of lingering or after-image – best characterized by the close-up of her face and the multiple ways it has been imaged than by the narrative, or any one of the stories it tells or perspectives it unveils. In the end what I most remember is the image of Nana (isolated, crying and cut adrift in the pure space of the frame), the face of Falconetti’s Joan, and the synthesis of looks, gestures and tears that characterizes the scene revolving around Nana’s moving visit to the cinema (the cinema as ‘naked’ faces, bodies, space and emotion). Godard’s citation of Dreyer’s film is movingly appropriate as it helps single out what is most remarkable in Vivre sa vie. Both Dreyer’s and Godard’s films fragment filmic space, and the body, in similar ways and each provides amongst the most singular, painful and even cruel portraits of a character and actor on film. They both present female actors who show, give and nakedly reveal much more than we should ask for in the cinema.

Here, Danks argues that Godard’s use of the close-up is not only the most significant element of his cinematography, but also that it speaks volumes to Godard’s representation of Karina. He is an artist inspired by and in love with his muse, and he captures that beauty with his camera for the rest of the world to see.

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Paglia forcefully argues that certain feminist scholars reject artistic depictions of sexual women because they are unaware of women’s sexual power. That is, Paglia views women’s sexual allure and desire as a way to powerfully assert themselves in the world. In an infamous article appropriately titled “Enough with the Male Gaze!” Paglia claims that Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” misses one important point: female sexuality can be an art as well as a form of power.

Where this leaves us, I believe, is at a point in time where certain kinds of women and certain artistic depictions of women are being criticized by other women who want to have it their way. That is, Sellier’s critique of French New Wave cinema is no different than Gloria Steinem’s opposition to pornography, just as it doesn’t stray too far away from current negative reactions to Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance. What we have is one group of women claiming that another group of women isn’t acting like the right kind of woman.

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The idea of a sexual woman is something that contemporary society still hasn’t figured out. Whether we consider pop stars like Cyrus, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and Selena Gomez, or screen actresses like Karina, Angelina Jolie, and Amanda Seyfried, whenever art intersects with female sexuality, there is always a controversy attached.

The controversy becomes more heightened, and perhaps rightfully so, when male artists are responsible for depicting female sexuality. Godard showcases Karina’s sexual allure so he is labeled a sexist, and in contemporary culture, much hasn’t changed. Artists like Robin Thicke or Justin Timberlake are criticized for celebrating the female body in their music videos for “Blurred Lines” and “Tunnel Vision”, as if the actresses in the video didn’t have a choice to be in it, and as if the songs aren’t about gender relations in the first place.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that we do not live in a monolithic age, although the media and its simplistic sensationalism often suggests otherwise. There are many different cultures and sub-cultures and, as a result, there are going to be many different ideas of what sexuality and sexism can be.

For some feminists, a stay-at-home mom is the product of patriarchy, and for others, Madonna exemplifies female exploitation. Yet what we often forget is that, for the most part, the stay-at-home moms and Madonnas put themselves in these positions. Certainly we can lend our voice to the oppressed women in parts of the world where freedom and liberation has not yet been won, and certainly even in more developed and progressive nations women still struggle for equality, but we should be able to draw the line somewhere.

I don’t claim to know where that line should be drawn, but to cry rape when Miley Cyrus dances with a foam finger and to scream sexism because Jean-Luc Godard is aware of Anna Karina’s beauty are certainly signs that we aren’t where we should be.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/.

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7 Comments

  1. Personally I really value Sarris’ The American Cinema. Admittedly, it wasn’t until years of reading his reviews that I understood it- Sarris appreciated that most profound thoughts and themes were played our with style and panache by genre filmmakers with personal obsessions and ideas that did not require Western Union to spell it out.

    But I never could really understand why he thought so highly of Blake Edwards…

    Anyway, this is a very good read.

  2. James Finlay
    0

    This will come in handy for my course studies. Copied and shared. Thank you.

  3. It’s an interesting theory that I’ve heard tossed around before.I just find that one should judge films based not on necessarily their themes but rather based on the actual film itself. This is why Roman Polanski is considered a great director, Birth of a Nation is considered to be a great film, as is Do the Right Thing, whereas some films that have “good” messages are frowned upon by critics, like the backlash that Crash or The Help have received.

    The same, IMO, applies to the French New Wave. While many women were reduced to only their sex appeal, as is more prominent in Godard films I’d say (from what I’ve seen, Truffaut isn’t exactly what I’d call someone who’s a “victim” of doing so), one should look at the film from the actual criticism standpoint and try to not inject moralities into it. For example, I don’t care for A Woman is a Woman as I find it’s not acted very well, neither is it particularly entertaining, funny, or clever. Or with Masculine Feminine which I like a good deal, despite its somewhat sexist ideologies (well, not to mention the fact that it basically mocks the young modern leftist generation at the time).

  4. In general, I am a little skeptical of feminist critical analysis of cinema, primarily because I find it intellectually predictable and not terribly nuanced. For the most part, it really hasn’t progressed theoretically beyond “male gaze is bad”. I think the author of this article makes a very strong point against this tendency:

    Sellier, for instance, would describe this scene from Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (1961) as sexist because Godard’s camera objectifies Karina as a sexual object. But can’t a woman be depicted sexually without cries from the feminists claiming that such a depiction is sexist? As Camille Paglia writes, “I reaffirm and celebrate woman’s ancient mystery and glamour. I see the mother as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement.”

    A Woman is a Woman is a very atypical film from Godard (probably his lightest), so I’m not sure if it’s a very strong example of Godard’s gender politics. Still, Karina completely dominates the film. Not as a sex object, but as an aspiring mother–and as a woman who is completely in control of her own sexuality. Also worth mentioning is that she cheats on her man and is not punished. This film, as slight as it is, subverts gender expectations quite a bit.

    To elaborate, I will say that I think the criticism of Godard in particular is incredibly misdirected, especially in the guise of feminist analysis. There are few male directors whose films are as sympathetic to women as he is. Consider Vivre sa vie and Contempt, both of which I would characterize as strongly feminist films. Arguably, the most interesting thematic subtext of these films (and others in Godard’s oeuvre) is nothing less than the sexual objectification of women and the corresponding struggle of women to break free from this rigid objectification. These films are very much about women encountering their own freedom. Am I missing something?

    I think this is an interesting topic.

  5. You raise a lot of interesting points, but your tone when discussing feminism is extremely disparaging, and your suggestion that Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is anything but the dangerous and downright sickening perpetuation of rape culture that it is, is frankly rather alarming. I think it’s important to mention that it is possible to celebrate the talent of actresses playing roles that conform to a harmful female stereotype while acknowledging that that role simultaneously is representing a harmful female stereotype. It is also possible to acknowledge that there can be empowerment found in – to use your example – being a stay-at-home mother for that stay-at-home mother while simultaneously acknowledging that there is nothing revolutionarily feminist about conforming to a role approved of by and benefiting the patriarchy. Generally, I’m not convinced by your argument, and throughout you seem to underestimate the extent to which the patriarchy is engrained in Western society and unconscious thought. Your article reads like a stab at feminism at a point in time when feminism is still very, very necessary – especially in cinema, a medium that is often consumed rather than considered despite how heavily it influences our ideologies.

  6. Alex Jose

    Fantasic article, really enjoyed reading! and very topical too! I think Pierrot le Fou (starring Karina) is a perfect example of a woman’s sexual hold over a man..

  7. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    As a huge French New Wave fan, your ideas are really intriguing to me. I hadn’t thought about this until I stumbled upon your article, but these arguments are pretty sound. I think this notion of male artist is mirrored in the feminist criticism found against the abstract expressionists, also from the 20th century. Now that I think about it, I wonder why there has never been any feminist theories about jazz, another artist male 20th century institution.

    Gotta love Godard, though, regardless…

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