Freud argues that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but Jean-Luc Godard would disagree when it comes to a lit cigarette. How else to explain the prolonged close-up of a burning smoke in the director's Two or Three Things I Know About Her? Like the movie's other famed close shot—a cup of coffee reminiscent of the cosmos—the sequence turns the mundane into the profound.
Godard's nominal plot follows a day in the life of Juliette (Marina Vlady), a Parisian housewife who moonlights as a prostitute. But by 1967 when this movie was released, the director was not concerned with narrative. This movie is about the dynamic between style and substance. "One might say that living in society today is almost like living in a vast comic strip," says the narrator (voiced by Godard). While the film's lush Technicolor photography recalls a comic book, the weighty, occasionally soporific interior monologues (covering the Vietnam war, laundry detergent advertisements and everything in between) it frames will not be serialized by Marvel anytime soon.
Despite its title declaration of familiarity, 2 or 3 Things... asks questions. What is language? "Language is the house man lives in," says Juliette. That is not a decent definition of language in a film that practically drowns in it. Then again, the many words in this wordy film are circuitous; they pose rhetorical questions and offer vague declarations ("I was the world; the world was me," Maria recalls feeling during a recent trick) but seldom resolution. What of modernity? 2 or 3 Things... does not tackle that subject in its dialogue, but it's a postmodern work that serves as a commentary on modernity's destabilizing influence.
Dubious progress is why the characters question language and art. It's why traditional family structures have collapsed to the point where a comfortable housewife drops her children off at a brothel's daycare center as she looks for johns. And it's why Godard's characters, despite retaining their own chic glamour, live far away from the quaint Rues of postcard Paris in monolithic apartment towers abutting construction cranes and freeways.
2 or 3 Things... is a distillation of Godard's favorite themes: nationality, self, advertising, color. A travel agency fronts as a whorehouse, its walls lined with splashy posters peddling a whole different sort of exotic product. Bangkok, India and Spain are sold through the sort of reductive imagery (a Buddhist temple, the Taj Mahal, a bullfighter) that promotes travel to this day. This is no less crude than the packaging of sex and flesh. A buffoonish American client wears a white t-shirt with the American flag emblazoned across it. He has his two hookers wear TWA and Pan Am luggage over their heads to avoid eye contact. Maria was mistaken in her earlier sexual reverie: people are products; products are people.
With art, Godard says, "the style is the man; therefore art is the humanizing of forms." It's the human touches in this movie—the brief swelling of classical music, Juliette reading a bedtime story to her son—that make 2 or 3 Things... more than a philosophy essay or advertisement itself. It's in these moments that the viewer remembers what Godard is defending.