More than 40 years ago, Jean-Luc Godard solved a dilemma that had been vexing filmmakers since the birth of the medium. How do you get moviegoers to pay good money to see a bunch of random, unrelated characters deliver a socio-political treatise on the ideals of communism, the economics of cities and the unreliability of language? His answer was as simple as it was obvious: Parade a series of the world's most beautiful women at times topless and having sex for money across the screen, as early and as often as possible.
That's the most reductive description possible of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, but it's tempting to think that even Godard wouldn't object to it. As much as the film may sound, on the surface, like a beret-wearing doctoral student's dissertation Karl Marx, the Vietcong and Paris' racial divide are all name-checked it's the director's fascination with all images cool, beautiful and sleek that propels this strange, free-associative movie into the stratosphere of great cinema. It's possible to not know or even care about what the hell he's getting at and still leave the theater with a strange new appreciation of the mundane: Driving your car, taking a bath or drinking a cup of coffee all become exercises in metaphysics when viewed through the prism of a Godard movie.
"You'd be right to say it can't be described in words," our guide Maria Vlady not-so-fatuously explains late in the film, playing a "character" named Juliette, but in essence just playing herself, or rather a voluptuous mouthpiece for the director's diary-like aphorisms. Godard himself can be heard on the soundtrack, whispering extemporaneous narration like, "If you can't afford LSD, try color TV." Juliette may or may not be a prostitute; we see her drop off her kids at the sketchiest day care imaginable and flit off to clandestine locations with pimply faced hipsters and American photojournalists. The latter encounter supplies the movie with one of its most hilariously absurd sights: Two supermodel-gorgeous young women walking around a posh hotel room, naked, with vinyl Pan-Am and TWA airplane bags covering their pretty little heads.
What could it all possibly mean? To use the vernacular of the movie, no mere sentence could describe it. But here goes: Two or Three Things is about the value of everything, of peace, of war, of women, of designer dresses, of electricity, of desire. No money ever exchanges hands, but throughout the film, transactions are constantly taking place, between Juliette and her johns, between her Mini Cooper and the gas pump, between the actresses and the camera. This is a film where a salesgirl or a hair stylist is liable to break character in order to turn to the camera and flatly tell us, "I got up at 8 o' clock. I have hazel eyes." What you make of these abrupt interactions is up to you; it's Godard's mission to make us aware that even our most insignificant moments have meaning, if not necessarily importance.
It helps that no matter how squalid, ordinary or decaying the subjects, they're all shot in beautiful, saturated color (and, not unintentionally, often in shades of red, white and blue). When the director zooms in on a sign for Mobil Oil, framed against a bright blue sky and swaying trees, you're liable to be in shallow, capitalistic awe or would that be a moment of sensitive aesthetic reflection? Likewise, it's hard to deny that the close-up of a man blowing cigarette smoke over the tubes and wires of a transistor radio set to the sounds of an aerial bombing in Vietnam is at once both profoundly depressing and, well, really damn cool.
It'd be nice to say that hip, modernist acrobatics like these changed the course of filmmaking, that they inspired a young Jerry Bruckheimer to alter the cinematic grammar of Hollywood blockbusters and that we all started to go to the multiplexes to get an intellectual, sensual fix and not a testosterone injection. But outside of a handful of people Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino and, on a good day, Wes Anderson and Gus Van Sant who picked up on at least some of Godard's vibe, popular American filmmakers didn't really come around to his way of thinking the way, say, novelists did after James Joyce. But in 1966, there was no reason to believe this wasn't where the medium was headed, and for the 84 minutes Two or Three Things is on the big screen, you're liable to be reminded, however fleetingly, that in the movies, anything is possible. Even supermodels who are willing to cover their million-dollar faces with carry-on bags.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 15, and Friday and Saturday, Feb. 16 and 17, at 9:30 p.m.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.