Two Or Three Things I Know About Her

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






About Us


The video sleeve of
                  Godard's classic film.


Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d'Elle) directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France. 1966. As the Time Out Film Guide, Eighth Edition 2000 puts it:  'Despite some time-bound concerns and irritating concepts, the sheer energy of Godard's dazzling sociological fable is enough to commend it.' Here I will look at some of these irritating concepts.

A voice-over stating that language limits and constrains our view of the world accompanies a close-up of swirling coffee in a cup. This shot of a mundane everyday object makes it appear unusual. The swirling coffee looks like a view of rotating galaxies or of the vortexes common in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe which suck their victims into oblivion. Indeed, Juliette tells her son about her nightmare of being sucked into a hole and of waking with pieces missing from her being. This indicates that her existence in the city is likely to cause psychic disintegration and loss of identity. 

Rhode observed that Jean-Luc Godard selected such shots because; 'Like some of the Pop artists, he tries to snatch some semblance of beauty from an environment ravaged by greed.' (1) This reinforces the voice-over observation that the modern world seems alien. The creations of mankind are produced for an anonymous generalised mass market. The coffee is an example of such a product but by combining it with the voice-over declaration that only death will abolish the constraints of language it makes us aware that we are finite creatures ~ in an infinite universe, which contains more than we can hope to imagine or understand. In this sense the swirling coffee can also represent Juliette's consciousness being trigged beyond the ordinary by the ordinary.

This same concern with language and thought is also prevalent in Godard’s My Life To Live (Vivre sa vie). Nana, the female protagonist, tells a philosopher that she would like to live without talking but he replies that our thoughts are words and that we cannot live without them. Our language-bound thought isolates aspects of our environment and manipulates them for our own benefit. An example of this manipulation is given by a quotation from Poe. The artist in the story is more interested in the vision of the woman he creates rather than in the woman herself. As a consequence the success of the artwork in glorifying the woman brings about her death. Through various techniques Godard warns us that we are easily seduced into believing in fantasy worlds that can have a harmful effect upon the 'real' world. Nana's prime fantasy is that she believes she is free. She claims she is responsible for her own actions yet she ignores (or is unaware) of the influence of social, economic and cultural pressures that force her into prostitution. Indeed, in our kind of society, 'blatant prostitution is the logical conclusion for women who are conditioned to accept themselves as sex objects and...(therefore) behave accordingly.' (2

Unlike Classical Hollywood narrative that depicts the superiority and importance of the protagonist's life, Godard's narrative shows the weakness and lack of power of his protagonist. At the end Nana is killed in a petty squabble that does not have much to do with her anyway. Her life and death are just events that mark her out as an object. The film itself treats her as an object - the opening shots are different views of her head, the narrative provides us with none of her past history and she dances and performs for the viewer in the same way as she entertains her clients and men in the narrative itself. There is nothing special about her, she merely represents any woman who is subject to victimisation 'in a world defined by men, money, sex without love, and violence.' (3) The irony of the film is that in real life Godard through being the director of this production is portraying, defining and creating a woman in the same way as the artist in Poe's story does. Since it is Godard's voice on the sound track that reads from this text this irony is self-consciously articulated, and emphasises that the points made in the film do have relevance to the world beyond the film text itself. 

The same themes can be seen in Two or Three Things I Know About Her and the character of Juliette Janson is another representative of femininity in general. However, in My Life to Live, despite the division of the story into twelve segments, it kept to a cinema verite-type exposition of Nana's existence in Paris. Whereas in the other film several of the characters speak directly to the camera and acknowledge its existence. Although it follows Juliette through the activities of a single day she as an individual is not the central concern. The titles that introduce segments of the film relate to such things as 'What is Art?' the 'Psychology of Forms' and introduce '18 Lessons On Industrial Society' etc. Rather than focus on a character and how outside influences covertly impinge on them this film overtly looks at the outside influences and how they influence, and are perceived by, a character. The social forces become the star of the film and as the titles suggest there is a greater instructional and educational purpose in this enterprise. For example, in the '18 Lessons...' segment two men are shown listening to a radio describing the bombing of Vietnam. They are aware of the missiles aimed at Moscow and of the Cold War Imperialism of the United States. As the men listen to the radio reports and interpret them Juliette flicks through a magazine and reads out an item on how to make her legs look better. The reaction of the men is to tell her not to "talk crap." She does not argue with them but walks away. This scene seems to argue that male dominated society has been as guilty of creating the fetish for female beauty products and clothing as it has been of creating the East-West conflict. If she does talk crap it is crap of their own making. 

Later, Juliette flicks through another magazine which depicts women branded with the Union Jack flag design. Here we might reflect that these women are as much the victim of male power as Third World countries are to Western Industrial and Economic imperialism. The voice-over ponders on the question of what are objects? Is the profile of the woman we see anymore real than her full-face seen 150 frames later? This advances the idea that in the modern world we can no longer test our senses directly with the real world. We have lost touch with the link between cause and effect. We have to come to terms with the God-less relativity of Einstein's Universe and leave behind the certainty and security of Newton's God-filled vision of creation. 

The continuity and awareness of the past no longer gives meaning to the present, instead the voice-over informs us that the future is closer than the past due to the lightning progress of science. However, as a hairdresser says to camera, she has no plans for the future it is something that is not under an individual's control. The symbol of modernity for Godard is the city. In Alphaville he has a soul-less and inhumane computer ruling the city with rational and unwavering logic; those people who express love or poetic feelings are killed or brainwashed. The rule of the city in Two or Three Things I Know About Her is shown as the source of social pathology. The express-ways that supply its life-blood of transport are constantly shown under construction. A girl in a cafe, in a piece to camera, introduces herself in terms of where she lives rather than in terms of her status, employment, personal achievements, etc. There is the sense that the city is created and built without human thought and that its construction has its own impetus and machine-like logic. 

The voice-over commentary makes the viewer look at commonplace activities in a different light. Its pronouncements are more like whispered innuendos rather than authoritative statements that the viewer trusts to guide their perception of the film's images. The 'voice of God' commentary of traditional documentary film is shown as being far from certain and omniscient in this case. This is all the more disturbing since the narration is spoken by Godard. The very discussion about the role and importance of language undermines the power of the narration to highlight or give meanings to the text itself. As the girl says to Juliette's husband in the cafe, words can either be dumb or smart. Indeed, in another part of the cafe two men select items from books at random and use them to compile a new text. This can be compared to the ideas and methods of William Burroughs and emphasises how meaning is irrelevant since all texts reflect fragments of reality. From a Realist view which Godard seems to share, events and facts do not matter, what is important is ‘the flux of phenomena that constitute the actual states and happenings of the world.' (4) The husband observes that "anything decorative is educational" (an ironic comment on the film or films in general perhaps?), Also, in the same place a girl talks to a Nobel prize winner not because she has read his work but because he is famous. These attitudes seem to be derived from the everyday experience of the city, which according to the voice-over is; "Like a huge comic strip" and these; "Signs in the city drown reality." As city dwellers or viewers we are overwhelmed with images and words which attempt to direct and guide our thoughts and behaviour. Juliette compares the townscape to a face but later in the film she cannot find any meaning in her face. She observes that sometimes she feels she is the world and the world is her, either way the world is redundant of meaning. It and her are objects to be seen and used by the anonymous forces that control the world. 
Television and other media should help us to make intelligent decisions about how to deal with social issues, such as prostitution, the city, consumerism, feminism, sex, violence, Americanisation, world conflict, ideology and power, etc., which this film attempts to address. However, it has been argued that such media are only concerned with: 

The protection and preservation of the status quo, the concentration on social and political elites, sensationalism, negativism, excessive personalization, presentation out of context, presentation of incident rather than issue, lack of analysis and background information, trivialisation and over- simplification. (5
Like the city and this film, signposts, posters, traffic noise, and other stimuli that overwhelms our senses television fragments the world for the sake of entertainment, leisure, and for educating consumers about what they should buy next. American television in particular has little dividing line between the commercials and the programmes and they all can merge into one. 

Godard plays with ideas about objects and their perceived meanings and value. The shiny new red mini is shown as a vehicle of personal freedom yet it is encased within the road system which is as yet incomplete. The escape that city people yearn for is destroyed by the very means by which they seek escape since their roads and buildings gobble-up nature. The new car is contrasted with the wrecked car in the garage which highlights the flimsy and dangerous nature of this form of high-speed transport. A point made by the voice-over is that we take better care of our objects than people. 

The signs of the petrol station apes those of the television commercials of the period, and when Juliette is shown at the kitchen sink we are offered another image borrowed from television. As she wonders if she is indestructible we see her surrounded by household cleaning products. She is the victim of what a title calls 'Economy brainwashing'. In a clothes shop she denies this by saying that her feelings don't always refer to a specific object. However, she does feel she wants something but she doesn't know what. Society is geared to encouraging people to work for things and more things which they believe they need to be happy even if the process of gaining these rewards causes more misery than they can help to alleviate. At the end of the ~lm we are shown a geometrically ordered display of products and one product is titled 'Hollywood chewing gum' which might refer to the fact that even our dreams are manufactured and packaged in a place remote from our immediate personal experience. As Silverstein notes, Juliette's world is summed up by a 360 degree pan of the housing complex where she lives since it 'circumscribes the essential world of Juliette Janson, one that contains the structure that hems her in and to which she is committed.'(6)This works well with Godard's choice of the cinemascope format and use of brilliant primary colours. His film can be seen as a bigger, brighter more colourful and improved product yet its content can be regarded as undermining all the promises of its packaging. This hollowness reflects the hollowness of the television advertiser's attempts at telling us that we will have a better life if we use brand X, Y or Z. 
The whispered voice-over tells us of the life cycle of the average female. She gets a job, then a boyfriend, he causes her to become pregnant and to keep the child she has to resort to prostitution. Eventually she will fall in love and marry, but after another child her husband might 'force' her into prostitution. This highlights Godard's scepticism about the reality of love (the notion of love as truth is questioned by the philosopher in Life to Live) and that at root marriage is an ecoomic unit which underpins and legitimises Capitalist ideology and power. As a consequence of media images and social expectations women prostitute themselves for things they are told they want just as on a larger scale poor countries have to prostitute their  principles and stability in order to enjoy the benefits of Western Capitalism. 

John Kreidl wonders if; 'Godard might have been better off asking some real housing complex prostitutes to talk to Marina Vlady, and filmed their interviews. Would cinema verite have handled Two or Things better? (7) Such a view ignores Godard's objectives and intentions, which was to make, 'a film in which I am constantly asking myself what I am trying to do. The pretext, of course, is the life - and sometimes the prostitution - of the new housing schemes. But my real aim is to observe the vast mutation which our civilisation is undergoing at present, and to ask myself how one can best come to grips with this mutation.’ (8) We are in a time when there is no belief in absolutes. In the construction of documentary films we are aware that the 'voice of God' technique uses images to reinforce the authoritative voice of the narrator. Cinema verite allows events to be revealed without the guidance of an authoritative voice-over but it could be argued that people when confronted with a film camera do act out the roles expected of them (the two women who wear airline bags on their heads can be regarded as examples of role playing taken to its extreme), and that the editing of the material gives as much power to the director as the script does in the 'voice of God' technique. The 'witness-participant' technique seeks to overcome these drawbacks by featuring interviews and people speaking directly to the camera, however, the force of the personality of the people featured can determine whether you are prepared to believe them or not. Also, interviews only provide anecdotal evidence which can be either undermined or reinforced by the type of images the director might juxtapose with this material. The self-reflexive' technique mixes voice over with interviews and observation and is aware of the paradox that any film that seeks to analyse the real world is using 'a form of discourse...' that fabricates... 'its effects, impressions, and point of view.' (9) Godard is aware of how argument and evidence can be conflated and makes the viewer aware of the construction process that creates the film and its associated meanings. At the beginning the female protagonist declares that; "My name is Juliette Janson" in a statement to camera, she then announces that she is Marina Vlady. In this manner we are made explicitly aware that the actress Marina Vlady is playing the part of Juliette Janson. In another part of the film the voice-over contemplates on whether the right images and choices are being made. The camera could select anywhere and any detail, the range of choice is vast and we are shown that these are just one person's views. Buckley goes as far as to say that Godard chooses almost on a random basis the images of modern life and reforms, 'these meaningless symbols into his own personal philosophy that he demands we take as final truth, and one must remain continually aware that truth, like examination, has many shades of relativity.' (10

To conclude, we can view Godard’s film as a reflection of modernist values. By combining fiction with real issues and problems he interrogates the nature of objective reality and our assumptions about cinema. Rather than tell a story or make straight-forward statements he makes the viewer actively work to try to understand the film and its variety of meanings. We either try to make sense of the text or we sink in a sea of images and audio impressions; a problem that also confronts us in modern city life. The relation between viewer and text is no longer seen as clear-cut and banal surface details are examined for their deeper meanings. Even forms of communication are seen as problematic and subjective. Godard sees the world as fragmented and undergoing mutation and his film can be seen as a mixture of documentary and fiction that shows his subjective perception of the changes in our world. Indeed, his film examines, 'the double action - of analyzing society and how it works, and at the same time analyzing art and how it works.. '(11) He and the viewer are meant to contemplate their relation to the objective world and its influence on our subjective experience. Godard's views of modern life can be seen as essentially pessimistic but he does think that there might be hope in clearing away our current civilisation and notions of art and returning to zero. . The last words of the voice-over are, "Since you lead me back to zero, it's from there I must begin." 


1. Rhode, Eric. History of the Cinema. Its Origins to 1970, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1984, p. 546. Return.

2. Beh, Siew Hwa. 'Vivre sa vie' in Movies and Methods edited by Bill Nichols, University of California, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1976, pp. 180-185. Return.

3. ibid., p.185. Return.

4.  Allan, R.C & Gomery, D. Film History, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1985, p. 16. Return.

5. Halloran, J.D. 'The Social Effects of Television' in The Effects of Television edited by James Halloran, Panther, London, 1970, p. 46. Return.

6. Silverstein, Norman. 'Godard and Revolution' in Films and Filming Vol. 16 No. 9, June 1970, pp. 96-105. Return.

7. Kreidl, John. Jean-Luc Godard, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1980, pp. 166-7. Return.

8. Godard, Jean-Luc. ''One or Two Things' in Sight & Sound Vol. 36 No. 1, Winter 1966-67, pp. 3-6. Return.

9. Nichols, Bill. 'The Voice of Documentary' in Movies and Methods. Volume II, edited by Bill Nichols. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1985. Return.

10. Buckley, Peter. 'Two or Three Things I Know About Her' in Films and Filming, Vol. 17 No. 4, January 1971, pp. 51-52. Return.

11. Macbean, James Roy. Politics and Poetry in Two Recent Films by Godard, Film Quarterly, Vol. 21 No. 4, Summer 1968, pp. 14-20. Return.

Additional References

Bordwell, D. and Thompson, K. Film Art, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1986. 

Berger, Peter L. et al. The Homeless Mind, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973. 

Coutts-Smitb, Kenneth. The Dream of Icarus, Hutchinson, London, 1970. 

Hiller, Bevis. The Style of the Century. 1900-1980, The Herbert Press, London, 1983. 

Nichols, Bill. Ideology and the Image, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1981.

Search this site or the web        powered by FreeFind
Site searchWeb search

   Book Reviews | Features | Reviews
    News | About Us
Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson