2 or 3 Things I Know About Her - Jean-Luc Godard - Marina Vlady - Juliette Jeanson - bed - painting

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her
1967, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

For all of its remarkable qualities, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her does not go out of its way to be liked. It offers almost none of the enticements by which movies make themselves appealing. The story is a day in the life of Juliette Jeanson, a housewife who supplements her husband’s modest income by prostituting herself. There is no driving force to the narrative, no suspense, tension, conflict, or mystery to engage the audience. The film has no shocks or surprises, and only a few weak jokes. The settings are colorful but inelegant. Juliette’s character is never seductive, she rarely smiles, and sex is never shown, only conversations with clients or prostitutes parading back and forth with Pan Am and TWA luggage bags over their heads. Nor does the film fret with pity about her hardships – her earnings pay for trivial middle-class luxuries. There is only the omnipresent mystery of why the film should exist at all – it is resolutely enigmatic, a perpetual challenge.

The key to both appreciating and understanding the movie begins with the realization that it’s a remake of Godard’s Alphaville, a transgalactic spy movie about a tyrannical supercomputer – a movie with no shortage of enticements to win its audience. Both movies use Parisian locations to create a futuristic world barely recognizable as Paris. Juliette and the whispered voice-over both speak of a city of the future, and the Jeansons live in a gigantic modern housing project, the now-demolished Cité des 4000, which like Alphaville was conceived of as a city of the future. The name Jeanson is simply the French form of Lemmy Caution’s alias Johnson, and Juliette cites the name Natacha when she returns home. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her brings Alphaville down to earth, locating its dystopian fantasy in the here and now where it can be recognized more readily.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her - Jean-Luc Godard - Marina Vlady - Juliette Jeanson - balcony

The most obvious link to Alphaville is probably the cup of coffee. Godard whispers about the proximity of the future and “distant galaxies” nearby as the foam swirls and coalescing bubbles in the dark liquid resemble galaxies spinning amid a field of stars. The passage repeats a phrase from Lemmy Caution’s first interview with Alpha 60: “my likeness, my brother”, and it concludes by talking about “conscience”, a word that plays a key role in Alphaville. The whisper underscores the metaphysical wonder of the image. At once ordinary and awe-inspiring, the image of galaxies in a coffee mug once again relocates the fantastic world of Alphaville within the environment of everyday experience.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her - Jean-Luc Godard - coffee - bubbles
2 or 3 Things I Know About Her - Jean-Luc Godard - coffee - bubbles - focus

Only once is Paris easily recognizable, in a brief shot of the pimp on the Champs-Élysées before the Arc de Triomphe. The shot is narratively superfluous, but it comes about halfway through, and the famous arch thus marks the inflection point in a palindromic arc. Both before and after the Arc de Triomphe is a prostitution scene, a café scene, a scene of shopping, and a scene in the Jeansons’ flat. Robert listens to his shortwave near the beginning and again near the end, and Juliette’s son has monologues at both ends as well. In the first half Juliette remarks that her client will put his sex between her legs, just as Robert in the second half tries to coax a girl to say, “My sex is between my legs.” The respective scenes at home are separated from Juliette’s outing by cryptic inserts featuring unknown characters: a meter reader intruding on a woman’s bath and a couple looking for a place to have sex. An equally cryptic shot of an unknown woman looking through a window appears symmetrically near the beginning and end.

The duality of the palindromic structure is compounded by two other dualities, each an ambiguity in the identity of “her” in the title. On one hand, “her” can be either the main character or Paris itself. A secondary title card equates “Elle” with “La region Parisienne”, and the movie alternates between Juliette’s life and whispered musings about metropolitan Paris. On the other hand, the movie also stresses the duality between Juliette the character and Marina Vlady, the actress playing her. She is introduced in both guises successively, and she often addresses the camera as if she were the subject of a documentary rather than a fictional character. However, as her son’s dream about the merger of North and South Vietnam foreshadows, and as the coffee bubbles coming into focus also foreshadow, these two persons will blend into one by the end of the movie. The title says “2 or 3” because “she” is simultaneously Paris, Juliette Jeanson, and/or Marina Vlady.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her - Jean-Luc Godard - Marina Vlady - Juliette Jeanson - bed

The idea of a character coming into focus is a powerful subject for a movie, and it supplies the emotional substance that seems at first to be missing from such an unsentimental and mundane story. But let us first address the duality between city and woman suggested by the opening titles. The movie is built on the irony that its characters are drained of life while inert things are charged with a vital inner life. The actors and actresses do little to distinguish themselves from the material landscape with their flat delivery, unemotional performances, and matter-of-fact dialogue. Conversely, material objects are endowed with life: the Jeansons’ car roars through a car wash like a caged tiger; the foam in a cup of coffee moves and breathes; and the maple leaves by Robert’s garage, as the voice-over points out, tremble slightly just like Juliette. Juliette notes this commutativity of properties between objects and people when she remarks at the ends of two key speeches that “a landscape is like a face.” Using prostitution and commercialism as metaphors, the movie describes a world where people are treated like objects and objects are valued above humans.

Like Alphaville, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is interested in synthesis. Rather than holding objecthood and subjecthood as irreconcilable opposites, the movie charts Juliette’s emergence as a fully human character, which corresponds to her two sides coming into focus. Like Natacha in Alphaville, Juliette finds her own path of escape from the dehumanization of modern life. It’s no coincidence that she achieves focus right after the key image of the coffee, which comes literally into focus right after Godard’s voice-over whispers about focus. About 29 minutes into the film, immediately after the coffee, Juliette’s oppressive spell of meaninglessness is broken for a brief moment. It could easily be mistaken for an inconsequential transition between scenes, but in fact it is the heart of the movie. Juliette walks through the tree-lined streets from the café to her first rendezvous, describing her emotion in voice-over: “I don’t know where or when, just that it happened. I have tried all day to recapture the feeling. There was a scent of trees. I was the world… the world was me. A landscape is like a face.”

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her - Jean-Luc Godard - Marina Vlady - Juliette Jeanson - walk

Placing the movie’s most crucial scene before the Arc de Triomphe would upset the symmetry of the palindrome, except that it’s echoed later when Juliette reminisces about her brief walk. As she speaks the camera rotates 360º, embracing the banal housing blocks all around her. “I only remember it happened… maybe it’s not important. It was on the way to the hotel with the chap from the Métro. I’ve thought about it all day… a sense of my ties with the world. Suddenly I felt I was the world, and the world was me. I would take pages and pages, whole volumes, to describe that. A landscape is like a face.” Accompanied by one of Juliette’s only smiles, the circular pan is a gesture of profound acceptance, finding wonder in the ordinary and expressing Juliette’s reconciliation with the harshness of her existence.

In 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her there is no Alpha 60 controlling the world; the forces sapping meaning out of life are structurally ingrained in the social, political, and economic order. The echoes of the supercomputer can be heard in the stop-and-go cadence of the fictional Nobel laureate Ivanov, or in the multiple allusions to the Vietnam War – a conflict between opposing ideologies that Alpha 60 would have understood well. If any single force has replaced Alpha 60, it’s in the final shot of about 30 brand-name products arrayed neatly on a green lawn: Ajax, Tide, Lucky Strikes, etc. The nucleus of this galaxy, the central point from which the shot zooms back, is a box of Hollywood chewing gum. With its manichean tendency to divide the world between good and evil, Hollywood at its worst is like a nebulous version of Alpha 60, shaping the ideology of millions through its oversimplifications of reality and helping to strip the richness of experience from people’s lives.

If Juliette’s moment of freedom during her brief walk through Paris teaches her to find life-sustaining meaning in resistance to a world that deprives humans of their reasons for existence, her lesson is a more powerful expression of existentialism than Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Her newly acquired wisdom is contrasted with her husband’s mindless fatalism during a brief exchange at bedtime: “So what now?” “We go to bed.” “And then?” “We wake up.” “And then?” “Same again. We’ll wake up. We’ll eat.” “And then?” “I don’t know… die.” Her level of vision is superior because she always questions and he only answers.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her - Jean-Luc Godard - Hollywood - consumer products - lawn - grass

It’s ambiguous whether Juliette’s newfound sense of being at one with the world will last. The story ends with Juliette going to bed with Robert and lighting a cigarette. The smoldering tip of her cigarette is held in extreme close-up – finally balancing the close-ups of coffee in the rough palindrome, a mesmerizing picture of metamorphosis that feels microscopic and macroscopic at the same time. Again Godard whispers over the image:

“Listening to the commercials on my transistor, and thanks to Esso, I drive off without a care on the road to dreams. I forget Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Budapest; I forget Vietnam, the housing problem, the famine in India. I forget everything except that I’m back at zero and have to start from there.”

Among Godard’s first 15 films only four have unambiguously happy endings, and three of those (Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, and Made in U.S.A) end (minus a coda in Band of Outsiders) with a man and a woman driving off together down a highway. Here though the drive down the highway is presented as a dream. Juliette’s last words before going to sleep are similarly ambiguous: “I’ve changed and I’m still the same. So what is it?” Her life hasn’t changed over the course of a day, but her point of view has, and she returns where she began with greater knowledge of herself. She is both the subject and the object of the film’s title, both “I” and “Her”. As the palindrome closes, it arrives “back at zero” and declares the necessity of a new beginning. There is room for happiness, but it’s now the viewer’s turn to step in and either ignore Juliette’s lesson or take it to heart. Just as the coffee precipitated Juliette’s epiphany on her brief walk, the cigarette should precipitate an epiphany for the viewer.


L’avventura – Palindromic structure; wonder achieved through a shift in vision

Vivre sa vie – Prostitution as a metaphor for the degradation of life

Winter Light – Palindromic film with a transformation in the protagonist

Alphaville – Transformation of Paris into a city of the future, Johnson/Jeanson; Natascha; galaxies

Made in U.S.A – Transformation of Alphaville‘s dystopia into mundane reality; search for meaning in a meaningless world

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – Middle class woman performing routines and engaging in prostitution; hinges on key event near middle

Blade Runner – Challenge of finding meaning in a world dominated by commerce