Number Two

Number Two
January 26th 2024

Two films compete for our attention in Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s 1975 Numéro deux. Neither quite sticks the landing. The first is a fictionalized account of a family in a housing complex; the second is a meta-commentary on the film Godard and his partner Miéville are trying to create. The first film is simple enough, though allegedly Godard tried to sell it to producers as a remake of Breathless (1960): a man and a wife have sex and their daughter ends up catching them in flagrante. Oops. Meanwhile, Godard and Miéville argue about modes of production, the inequality of marriage, and the labor of intercourse. These two narratives take turns swallowing the other, often being displayed on two television sets in a single dark room. Sometimes it’s unclear which monologues are diegetic and which are not. Miéville and the mother-wife character, played by Sandrine Battistella, both recite bits of Germaine Greer for the camera. So whose film is it? “This is not a political film,” we’re told. “It’s a film about sex.” Unless, the film sputters, “sex is political.”

It’s Godard’s, of course. Despite the incorporation of his partner's voice, Miéville rarely appears. He alone is the master of ceremonies, coming on screen to tweak the sound, turn TV monitors off and on, and discuss spreading the Good News of Communism. The theme becomes clear through such pointed interruptions—marriage, too, is a form of labor. Miéville is hardly allowed to mess with the screen. As the film ends she complains of being rushed off by Godard as the wife character is told to “keep scrubbing.” That’s the problem: despite Miéville’s eternal scrubbing at the film, she can hardly make a dent in Godard’s usual egotism. He only undresses in spite of himself, as when he turns off all the TVs in his studio at the end of the film. He looks forlorn, beaten down by the fragility of heterosexual partnership. Yet this can’t absolve him from smothering Miéville’s voice.

Sex is labor, capitalism enacts rape, the women of the film recite. It’s easy to see why the gospel of Greer would be so appealing to women trapped withering in wedlock. More interesting than the bits of feminism are the ways that Godard plays with video as a medium, a striking evolution from Tout va bien (1972), which focused on his typical Brechtian tableaux. Numéro deux disregards its audience even more than does Jane Fonda’s endless Brechtian radio propaganda. Numéro deux uses 16mm shown on low-res screens and refilmed again, split screens, and wipes. It’s primarily an opportunity for Godard to experiment with the electric joy of video in the wake of Nam June Paik and Joan Jonas. The crackle of green video intertitles supplies the film with its rhythm. ÉGALITÉ, HISTOIRE, MERDE, REPRODUCTION. All words are put in the blender marked labor.

One video bleeds into another. There are haunting shots of a child’s face seeping into a scene of a woman being slowly fucked in the ass. The tiny black and white face etches outlines in the oversaturated lovers, emphasizing the organic shapes their bodies make. These sex scenes are oddly beautiful despite the horror they try to evoke. The images ache. Men are often soft, failing to get hard as women half-heartedly play with their cocks. There’s no money shot of Brigitte Bardot here. Sly masochism unfolds gently over seafoam bedsheets. A man admits he feels gay because sometimes he likes a finger in ass, another man quietly sighs and tells us his cock isn’t cinema. The futility of man gives way to longing—even in the middle of a blowjob. “My mouth replaces your eyes,” a man says as he stares at his wife’s ass and compares it to a river. The film has the ability to startle us when tracing the futility of men in the presence of women. Not because women are castrating, but because men’s own egos are balloons ready to have holes poked in their ball sacks.

At one point in the film, the woman’s child asks her if the father touches her breasts. “Yes,” she replies. “It’s for both of us.” She pauses. “Though sometimes it hurts.”

Number Two screens tonight, January 26, and on January 31, at Film at Lincoln Center as part of the series “Never Look Away: Serge Daney’s Radical 1960s.”