Keith Bormuth
Keith Bormuth

2 or 3 Things in Relief

March 2011

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her

Published in Fillip, Issue 11

“It is the contemporary metropolis that is built on the model of language.” Paolo Virno

While ostensibly fulfilling the aesthetic criteria he created during the emergence of the French New Wave in the 1960s, Jean-Luc Godard shifted his gaze onto the climate and effects of design and branding in his 1967 film 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Whereas a dozen or so films in the early 1960s interrogated the dominance that cinema and the Hollywood image impressed upon cultural consciousness, this film documents and responds to what is presumably a larger threat–the organizing logic behind the rise of a global, corporate spirit.

The film does so by following one day of labour and leisure in the life of a woman, Juliette, who is a mother, wife, and call girl, whom we watch pass between the boutiques, streets, and cafes of Paris, and in and out of rooms in brothels. There, she makes money to help feed her family as well as to shop and put dresses on hold. Yet, the film begins, significantly, with a scene that commingles the two “hers” under observation. The first her is specified in titles on a black background as “Her: the Paris region.” The other her is Juliette, standing high on her apartment balcony, the city spread out behind her. Delineating this scene, however, is an attempt at distinguishing between the two figures when what effectively propels 2 or 3 Things forward is Godard’s insistence on defining each her by the other, and often, by way of the other.

Throughout the film, these two hers progressively become more and more indistinguishable. For instance, Godard interjects still shots of construction taking place around Paris in between scenes of Juliette’s daily work and activity while he whispers such lines such as, “I study the projects and their inhabitants, and the bonds between them, as intensely as the biologist studies the individual and race in evolution.” The bonds that Godard studies expand beyond commodity fetishism or alienated labour. This is shown effectively not only from the her that is Paris, but also that of Juliette, who is a vehicle and ornament of style and who embodies the frivolity of expenditure as a type of performance as a prostitute—labour with non-utilitarian means and ends. On one hand, there is the quantifiable labour of production, i.e. the municipal expansion of Paris, and, on the other hand, there is an absence of a quantifiable end-product, which is the normalizing effect capitalism distributes across all aspects of social life and relations, ultimately anticipating the post-Fordist climate and rhetoric to come later. It is possible to unfurl what is wrapped in the film as a document itself as a legible fossil outlining shifts in global modes of production. And from the way Godard films the expansion of Paris along with his narrative of Juliette, it is necessary to keep the two hers distinctly defined by the other. It is Godard’s most dialectical film, one that situates a polarity not only in its narrative but cascades bundles of polarities in an oscillating sway, from attempting a real document of Paris along a fictive realism of the new forms that compose its labor base—Juliette.

2 or 3 Things was inspired by an anonymous reply to an article published in Le Nouvel Observateur about the challenge of meeting basic living costs in Paris during mid-1960s urbanization, which resulted in a rise in prostitution among housewives in the suburbs. It was as if Godard’s analogy of prostitution in Vivre sa vie (1962), used to critique the exchange value of labour within capitalism, had been realized only a few years later within the expanding social sphere of Paris itself. Offering a unique immediacy in 2 or 3 Things, Godard addresses his previous approach to this metaphor, having somewhat presaged the social situation of prostitution in the domestic family unit.

Godard whispers the narration of 2 or 3 Things, blanketing each image and object with suspicion. For example, Godard consistently shoots much of the film’s scenes against global communications logos or transatlantic airline brands, as well as international magazines and travel posters. The focus on the collapse of distance, of efficient transnational travel and communication, highlights a global connectivity and a beginning demise of regionalism, as Paris literally expands its region. And even Godard during this time attempts to break from his position as cinematic provocateur, as the spearhead of the Parisian New Wave. Forming the Dziga Vertov Group with Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard soon creates Tout va bien (1972), a Brechtian drama on late 1960s class struggle. In addition, he ventured into the creation of non-cinematic works during the decade, such as France/Tour/Detour/Deux/Enfants, an unrealized television series with Anne-Marie Miéville in 1977. He does, however, return in the 1980s and 1990s to the general artifice of cinema, but it isn’t until his Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1998) that Godard returns to film and cinema as a document and object, a medium of exchange that registers knowledge as a new science, approaching film in Histoire(s) primarily as an anthropologist. This anthropological mode of articulation can be seen initially in the way Godard approaches the loss of regionalism in 2 or 3 Things. The mapping of a contemporary historiography of cinema, Histoire(s) traces the concrete effects that the abstract power of Hollywood and cinema generate as they affect the organization of thought.

Yet, 2 or 3 Things straddles Histoire(s) and Vivre sa Vie, as it is not wholly a document, but it is equally conscious of its significance as a document. That 2 or 3 Things is commonly viewed as a film essay that traces the effects of a new logic of capitalism on ideas of the normal and the general, it follows that this specific read aligns Godard’s critical investigation of capitalism with the work of Georg Lukács, who examined the impact industrial society had on the literary medium of the novel, and more closely of the Frankfurt School, which interrogated expressions of capitalism in television, radio, and cinema.

However, teasing out a total critical impulse in Godard denatures his slippery ability to enlist film as more of a response to culture than a negation of it. Even as he politically indoctrinates certain films, Godard dislodges his propagandizing impulse in 2 or 3 Things, it appears, because he speaks simultaneously of a deteriorating image of his Paris and a dwindling alliance with the ideology of the Nouvelle Vague. Arguably, it is within that ideology that Godard first staked a position, against the constructs of cinematic history, later claiming an interest in the socio-political effects of those films.

So, does there exist an innate political expression in the diffuse and shifting urbanity of Parisian expansion shown in 2 or 3 Things? Or, is this manifestation subordinated by what looms on the horizon: non-utilitarian labour, a performance without end-product, all of which Juliette embodies in culture? Is the law of the nation-state, whose reach expands with the spread of urbanization, composed in its inception by Juliette, as her identity moves between her status as an anonymous object of desire and those objects that she desires? Godard proposes the eventual production of law based on the non-rational desire of the subject, of Juliette’s relationship to the culture she metabolizes. There is no essence in which to synthesize these two notions unless one considers the objects and aspects of transnational design that glue the film together. In 2 or 3 Things, Godard no longer attempts to articulate the fetish character of Hollywood nor cast the essence of the commodity in a state of critical friction; instead, Godard’s whispers surround full-screen shots of corporate logos, film posters are not so large and pronounced as in Le Mépris (1963), but are instead turned upside down and cropped by the frame, e.g. domestic commodities are literally flipped on their side in Juliette’s kitchen. The final scene features domestic goods from a grocery store composed as a city of buildings in grass, which echoes the inner network structure of a CB radio that appears in a previous scene. Here, the fetishism of capital no longer functions; Godard renders the simple commodity inert and articulates its abstraction by such alterations.

Throughout her work day, it is continually unclear whether Juliette is interested in the novelty of style or some other aspect of it. Whether style, design, fashion, or a poetics of form, Godard inisits showing the effects of an everyday style on Juliette. Godard even checks his own stylization in his previous films. In a brothel in the beginning of the film, when Juliette drops off her child before walking the streets, we encounter a painted poster of Anna Karina from Vivre sa Vie, signaling a move in which Godard’s own earlier stylization of prostitution is held in a visage of the director’s self-contempt. Capital is shown to increasingly to stylize the bonds between a culture and its inhabitants and not necessarily a product of alienated labor, emblematic of the construction workers that are constantly molding the landscape in the film.

The casual way that Juliette spends her day working, using herself as an object only to return to a fantasy of domestic life, blurs established boundaries of normative social identity. It is a metaphor that captures the standardizing effects of capitalism. The beauty of Juliette lies in her rawness and ability to be effected by a general desire for newly styled things—clothes and objects that will mark her and craft her identity—things that make her more desirable, more consumable. Who or what she is crafting this desirability for is always indefinite and essential to such normalization. The subject that desires her is a ghost, a spectral figure that can flexibly graft its fantasies onto her. It is neither a lover, nor a husband, nor the one who buys sex from her, nor even herself. Her mutable and abstract quality, its dispersion into all identity and no identity, expresses most succinctly Godard’s interest in Juliette.

The beginning of the film is littered with scenes of Juliette strolling through clothing aisles and uttering philosophical perplexities to the camera such as “…Because my impressions don’t always relate to a specific object. For instance, desire. Sometimes we know the object of our desire. Sometimes we don’t.” Those who desire her as an object financially support her family and fund her desire for objects. She is then the nexus, a specific nodal point that crystallizes the complex and abstract landscape of an exploitative logic under which Parisian urbanization and the individual worker are organized.

The outlining of labour in 2 or 3 Things also registers a global tension. It isn’t too long after the late 1960s that the beginnings of post-Fordism increasingly propose questions surrounding unprecedented changes in modes of production and labour, solidifying new appropriations of Marxism, such as the Red Brigades in Italy. Best contained within 2 or 3 Things and not in the exhuming of Brechtian motifs on class struggle in Tout va bien is the morphing composition of the modes of production, what Paolo Virno signals as a “hybridization between spheres” of “Labor, Political Action and Intellect.” They ostensibly are filmed in their collapse in 2 or 3 Things.

Never fully producing a narrative nor a psychological chessboard like his influences such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, Godard magnifies complexities contained within the ephemera of a social scene and instead makes intimate a contingent here-and-now. The furniture stores, the magazines, the billboards, posters and logos become the psychological maze from which to construct a film and its characters. Combining this mode of film-making into an investigation into aspects of urban development and emerging cultural pathologies, 2 or 3 Things continually allows the potential for symbolism to fracture knowledge, for style to trump information, and Godard assaults claims of truth in any sociological read as much as he disputes the autonomy of any aesthetic gesture. This is realized the moment the film begins, from the silence imposed on a scene of construction work, or the sporadic sounds of cars, to full-screen flashes of chapter headings, or the various graphics that slice through the film.

Marking a distinct approach, removing himself from something like Frankfurt School critical theory, Godard defines his relationship to these complexities by remaining paratactically buoyant atop surfaces. The allure that accompanies desire between individuals and objects remains ripe and resistant to the possible decay into knowledge, and this allure is allowed to remain within the designs and objects that define such desire between individuals. 2 or 3 Things is not an essay on the imposition of commodities within social existence. Nor is it a meditation on exploited labor. In 2 or 3 Things, the need to participate with contemporary style, as exemplified by Juliette’s character, conditions an infrastructure that generates a logic for the superstructure of a general organizing principle that impacts individuals in Paris. This exchange is more parsed than dialectical, as 2 or 3 Things distributes a response to the effects of the municipal expansion of Paris. Juliette’s remark to her husband as he operates a bulky CB radio to capture the American news on Vietnam, “You’ve got no culture,” coyly locates an innate politicalness to culture.

Accessing the dimensions of cultural cache—its fashions and styles—became the vehicle for much pop art during the mid-late 1960s. Yet, different from the strategic ambiguity inherent to Warhol, Godard effectively retains within the film its logic of legibility. Whereas the modalities of the genre as well as pop images of 1960s capitalism endure (a new science articulated by Warhol’s unprecedented positionless aesthetic), Godard holds fast to not only his political position, which remained actively Marxist in 1967, but also to his education in the history of cinema, from which Godard had yet to escape. Whereas Warhol attempted to lace the understanding of his work with the same understanding of the pop-media that fueled popular consciousness, Godard disrupts such a move by alienating the vernacular of his time between a political consciousness and a cultural conscientiousness, oscillating between the two. 2 or 3 Things is a document discovering the decline of a nation-state’s force as it cedes to the non-rational desire of the subject, harbored by privatized transnational interests.

Godard composes much of the scenes in 2 or 3 Things against excessive branding and design collateral throughout 2 or 3 Things. Examples of design that appear in the film are thematic and impersonal, typically signifying industries of movement, from travel posters to oil companies to transatlantic airlines. And, an idea of distance is precisely what begins to collapse. Design, therefore, acts as a substrate, and a glue that joins moments of domesticity with packages and posters to a force that deterritorializes and re-crafts social space itself into an image of a commodity arising from an emerging corporate logosphere that reinvents Bauhaus into International Style.

And this shedding of regionalism (a style for the International consumer) is an omnipresent force, a silent form as a particular sign, a design. 2 or 3 Things maps the emergence of such a sign, a sign whose function is to exceed its referent. What is most phenomenal about 2 or 3 Things as a social document is precisely this–We are left with the shell of an old relation to branding and shown a newborn face of consumerism, one replete with those same forms bequeathed by Modernist experiments and design movements, but now solidified into a transmutable image that represents, stands-in, and eventually is, in its current economic iteration, precisely what is to be consumed.

Although many scenes in the film showcase quite beautifully various forms of corporate typography, Godard’s intention to critique branding and design is made clear in 2 or 3 Things’ most remarkable scene. A war photographer from the United States has Juliette and another call girl wear international airline bags, appropriately branded, over their heads, and instructs them to walk back and forth while off-camera he lays on a bed. The scene unfolds in front of an outdated illustration of maritime trading, a ghost image of an old ideal where free enterprise and new worlds are combined, providing a clear portrayal of “unseen” prostitution that occurs in a disenfranchised identity.

Whether or not the catalyst for 2 or 3 Things existed as a real situation—a kind of epidemic of normalized prostitution in the domestic spheres of Paris—it is peripheral to the crawl of a global voice, a whisper from all over, and the collapsing of the distinction between an image and its logic, a region and its regionalism, useful labour and non-utiltarian labour. Godard’s whispered narrative pensively defines the film, and in its indefiniteness, he articulates the landscape to come.