Jean-Luc Godard calls A Woman Is a Woman "a neorealist musical -- that is, a contradiction in terms." He couldn't be more on the money. Woman is disorienting and unfamiliar, and altogether compelling.
Anna Karina owns the film wholly: She's a stripper in Paris who decides she wants a baby. She approaches her boyfriend (Jean-Claude Brialy), but he refuses. So she turns to another guy: his best friend.
Shot in 1961, this film is often considered an early New Wave entry, but in reality, the movement was fairly well established by then. Godard himself had already made Breathless, for example. But A Woman Is a Woman is indeed a bastard musical as he puts it: A story set to song that takes place in a filthy bedroom and a strip club, and involves betrayal and seemingly heartless characters.
And yet, you can't help but love the fluttering eyelids of Karina and her earnest desire for a better life. The symbolism of the latter starts right at the beginning: At the strip club they have a sort of magic wardrobe; walk through it and you can change from dance costume to street clothes and back again.
The musical part of the film is front-loaded; Karina sings her first stage number largely a capella. Later, things get more surreal than melodic: When the couple's relationship is near an impasse, they converses by showing each other words in books: "Sardine." "Peruvian mummy." Title cards appear at random, symbolizing pretty much nothing.
Woman can be trying during moments like this, but Godard has a point: Life isn't like they show in a Hollywood musical. You can sing and dance your way through life, but you'll have to do it naked, with men leering at you. Getting out of this world isn't easy, but with effort and compromise, happy endings do exist. It's one of the New Wave's more hopeful movies, and its weirdness comes across as endearing more than conceited.
Now available as a Criterion DVD release after much anticipation, the disc includes an early Godard short film, an old TV interview with Karina, and an extensive booklet of production notes that's a real keepsake.
Aka Une femme est une femme.