Jean-Luc Godard has always had a quiet interest in the relationship between his politics and the space they inhabit. The topographies of modernity coinciding with his political questioning of capitalism occurs in films such as Tout Va Bien (1972), La Chinoise (1967), and Weekend (1967) – looking in particular at a factory, an inner-city flat/Maoist commune, and a busy roadway . These spaces have provided more than a backdrop but almost a shift into a specific perspective to view the rest of Godard’s various questioning; sometimes simply adding to them whilst, at other times, overtly raising the initial political discourse in the first place. The best example of this dialectic relationship between space and politics is, however, in the other film he made in 1967: the high-rise sexual linkage of 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her. The film was spawned from the magazine, Nouval observateur, which hosted an article[i] and then a series of responsive letters regarding the subject of increased casual prostitution by women in order to survive at the middle-class end of the social and geographic spectrum. The rise in such a phenomena was linked to various social changes – after all, this was the year before the riots, protests, and a general social unrest in many nations – but Godard ties the ideas down to two specific instigators:
- The social pressure exerted upon society, especially on woman, by materialistic culture with its need to “keep up.”
- The effects that such power of materialism has on the living spaces of the urban and suburban areas around Paris.
The two aspects are linked in the film which mixes Godard’s burgeoning essay style with the fictional dramatisation following suburban housewife, Juliette Janson (Marina Vlady), whom, after dropping off her child at a day-care centre, is shown to embark on her usual day of casual prostitution. Essentially, Godard is one of the first filmmakers to tie materialism and sexuality together and does so with a keen eye on the psychogeographical developments of Paris during the era. The film opens with a statement, connecting the concept of “Her” (Elle) to the spatial area of “The Paris Region” (La région parisienne) and this is the film’s chief gambit; the blurring of the female body with the living spaces of the country, both being adapted through materialistic commodification.
It is worth noting that the film is made in the same year that Guy Debord, the Situationist who was connecting commercialism with topographical evolution well before Godard, published his most definitive work, The Society Of The Spectacle. It’s surprising that, with the rest of the film’s numerous literary references, that Godard didn’t also reference Debord as the two were on the exact same lines on this matter of place and commodification for the chasing of social mores. This being said, Debord had rejected Godard’s work on the grounds that its own (and Godard’s own) obsessions with popular culture[ii], undermined his general position as still speaking to the commercial masses; hindsight shows Debord to be overly judgemental in the case of Godard’s 1960s output.
Essentially, Debord suggests the effects of the same changes in the spaces within post-War cities that Godard eventually encounters, especially in 2 Or 3; they both become aware of the horror of forced suburban libidinal circuits in the geography of living spaces. In The Society Of The Spectacle Debord suggests why this is, writing that:
Urbanism is the mode of appropriation of the natural and human environment by capitalism, which, true to its logical development toward absolute domination, can (and now must) refashion the totality of space into its own peculiar decor. (1931, p.121).[iii]
The natural fallout of this is not only visual (the film basking in such developments of many typical high-rise blocks and motorways) but also social, and 2 Or 3 looks to this fallout where the capitalist race towards consumerism (itself a circular journey that can never be completed) is only achievable for house-hold women such as Juliette if they sell their bodies; the social and physical body also being “refashioned” into the “peculiar decor” of urbanism. This relationship, however, must have a context and must have some greater enabler than simply the desire for the latest gadgets, fashions, and household goods. Godard therefore makes the link between the very design of these spaces, built out of (and for) materialistic consumption, and the potential for the women to, in a sense, lose the moral mores of middle-class life through the very architecture of such places.
The link is built visually by the opening statement but also by various references and dialogue. Many shots show Juliette outside one of the high-rise blocks, in one instance showing her to state that “A landscape is like a face…” . This builds a link between the space of the living quarters and the space of her body; the link which pushes her to prostitution in the spare hours of her day. The film can enter problematic areas when considering how this paranoia over the way women are forced to operate in these spaces leads to Godard throwing suspicion of prostitution upon every female person in the film. Even when they do not, for one moment, suggest the selling of their body for sex, there’s an underlying suspicion that any woman living comfortably in this area and in the film is doing so by means of prostitution. It is an uncomfortable and misguided exaggeration.
The point, however, becomes less problematic when in context of why Godard is highlighting such an issue. He is not hyper-extending it because of misogyny or disgust towards the women but a disgust at the system that is effectively forcing them into these situations. Godard puts the blame on this chiefly at the feet of the developer, politician, and prefect of management at the company Spatial Planning, Paul Delouvrier, who oversaw many of the developments of the flats and motorways in the film. Going on the program, Zoom (1966), Godard went head-to-head on the subject with government official, Jean Saint-Geoures, the results of which are exceedingly interesting. In the debate, Godard links the concepts of prostitution to outside of the body, suggesting the Marxist view that any person working for solely commercial purposes (such as advertising) is working in a form of prostitution and that both mental and physical forms of selling oneself are an outcome of the consumerist environment. He suggests that: “To me it’s not an individual phenomena but a collective one.” (1966) and this seems heavily connected to the capitalist zones of the film where such behaviour, the selling of the self for necessity (physically or mentally), is necessary and normalised.
Saint-Georues expounds a problematic thesis whereby the difference between casual and committed prostitution is delineated as follows: “One is a case of over-adaptation to our consumer society, the occasional prostitute who quickly realises that a comfortable life requires money… The other is a typical case of a maladjusted woman gradually destroying herself.” (1966). This crass overview is typical in its blanket assertions and the lack of linkage between the radical changes made to communal spaces and the actions required to continue living in them; neither form is either an over-adaptation or a maladjustment but a tragic consequence of neocapitialism taking control of living spaces in suburban areas (the modern equivalent is found surrounding the arguments of gentrification). He does, however, make the correct assertion aligning with Godard (and the logical outcome of Debord) that “… nothing encourages these phenomena more than large cities…” (1966). He is openly highlighting the libidinal circuits at the cusp of their very formation though he is unaware of the interconnections that Godard could see happening between goods, people, and place.
The final scene of the film is a poignant moment in this regard and is far more than just an attack on material products. The shot shows a strange alignment of various product boxes on the grass outside of an apartment block but, if attention has been paid to Godard’s images throughout the film, the likeness between these boxes and their adjacent housing development will be obvious. Godard is making one final stark statement that, like the boxes which hold the product, the buildings (that in themselves were built by corporate power) hold their contents – the occupants, the people – in the same commodified way. Their ability to sustain themselves in this area being circular in its cause and means: to live in these boxes is to be turned into a product, a product which must be sold if you desire to live in these boxes in the first place.
[i] By journalist, Catherine Vimenent.
[ii] Perhaps even the culture industry with the director’s passion for Hollywood films.