The Bootleg Files: Une Femme Coquette

BOOTLEG FILES 578: “Une Femme Coquette” (1955 short directed by Jean-Luc Godard).

LAST SEEN:
A possible unauthorized video dupe is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The filmmaker never made it available for home entertainment release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely at this time.

Over the past week, cinephiles on the Internet were in a lather over the news that a long-unseen Jean-Luc Godard film mysteriously turned up on YouTube. Since I am not a Godard fan, my initial reaction was one of mild indifference. But because the film’s arrival online came through what appears to be a bootleg copy, and since it only runs a mere nine minutes, I felt duty bound to give it a viewing.

I can report that my first response of mild indifference was an accurate reaction. “Une Femme Coquette” is of no value to anyone except Godard completists. And even then, it offers little but a glimpse of the artist at the primitive beginnings of his career.

In the early 1950s, Godard was a struggling film critic who took a construction job on a dam project in Switzerland to earn money. He became convinced that the building of the dam would make a compelling documentary, and he convinced the construction company to finance a short called “Opération Béton.” The film was made in 1954 and Godard used his earnings from the project to move to Geneva and create another film.

The project Godard chose was a modern adaptation of the Guy de Maupassant short story “The Signal.” Working with no budget, Godard updated the story a contemporary setting and shot most of the footage on the street and in a park in 16mm. The resulting work, quite frankly, feels like a none-too-ambitious student project and not the work of someone on the verge of changing the language of cinema.

“Une Femme Coquette” begins with a woman writing a letter to a friend. She narrates the text of the correspondence, which begins to detail how she cheated on her new husband. “It wasn’t on purpose,” she insists, at which point the film goes into an extended flashback of what occurred.

The woman is walking down a Geneva street when she spots something curious: an attractive young lady perched from an apartment window trying to make eye contact with the men on the street. One man wearing a trench coat and sunglasses (Godard in his first on-camera appearance) notices the upstairs babe and checks his wallet to make sure that he can afford the pleasure of her company.

The narrator is both shocked and intrigued by what she witnessed, and then has a “crazy idea” to do the same thing. She goes to a park and finds a young man reading a newspaper on a bench. She does everything possible to gain his attention – she drops a glove and bends down provocatively to retrieve it, then walks back and forth in front of him, then sits by him on the bench – until he responds positively. She suddenly becomes terrified over what is happening and runs away, but he jumps in a car and drives after her.

The woman runs to her apartment building, but the stranger gets to her before she can safely get inside. He shoves 50 francs into her hand and the woman recalls in her narration, “The only way to get rid of this fool right away was to give in.” The film then returns to the woman writing her letter, in which she asks her friend for forgiveness.

At almost every level, “Une Femme Coquette” is amateurish. The endless narration is accompanied by a fussy classical music score, which quickly becomes monotonous. Godard did bulk of the dreary cinematography, billing himself as “Hans Lucas” in the credits. And the acting by Maria Lysandre as the woman and Roland Tolmatchoff (a car dealer whose vehicle is used in the chase), with their exaggerated expressions and gestures, seem to believe they are hamming it up for a home movie.

Godard clearly realized that “Une Femme Coquette” was a mess and he rarely allowed the film to be screened after the release of his groundbreaking 1960 masterwork “Breathless.” Film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky estimated that over the past half-century “Une Femme Coquette” was only publicly screened in 1968 and 1979 at Godard retrospectives held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, then in single screenings in Poland in 2010 and Toronto in 2014. Furthermore, according to Vishnevetsky, the only known 16mm print of this title supposedly belonged to a private collector who stored it in a European film archive, and the only way this film could be publicly shown was with Godard’s permission.

So how did it wind up on the Internet? Someone named David Heslin, an Australian who self-identifies as a “reputable film nerd, middling poet and poor university student,” posted a copy with English subtitles on his YouTube page. Heslin has offered no public comment on how he obtained a copy of this rare film or if he had permission to share it. To date, there has been no effort by Godard to have it removed from the Internet.

As with too many long-unavailable films, “Une Femme Coquette” is more interesting as an elusive mystery rather than an available commodity. But Godard fans who are curious about the beginnings of his narrative film work should be satisfied that this missing piece has finally come into view.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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