Jean-Luc Godard, that living embodiment of the nouvelle vague who did so much to tear down and rebuild the relationship between cinema and its viewers, has kept pushing the boundaries of his art form well into his eighties. But even he had to start somewhere, and up until very recently indeed, Godard enthusiasts looked to his first film Opération béton, a short 1955 documentary on the construction of a Swiss dam that we featured a few years ago, as the starting point of his career as a filmmaker. But most of them surely had more interest in Un Femme coquette, Godard's second and no doubt more formative first fiction film, a nine-minute adaptation of a Maupassant story hardly ever seen until just last week.
"Une Femme coquette is the most elusive rarity of the French New Wave, and possibly the most difficult-to-see film by a name filmmaker that isn’t believed to be irretrievably lost," wrote A.V. Club critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky in a 2014 piece on his search for it. And so, for decades, nearly everyone who wanted to see Un Femme coquette had to make do with mere descriptions. In his Godard biography Everything Is Cinema, New Yorker critic Richard Brody highlights not only how the filmmaker, in adapting this "tale about a woman who, seeing a prostitute beckon to passing men, decides to try the gesture herself [ ... ] turns the necessity of filming cheaply and rapidly, without movie lights, into an aesthetic virtue," but also how this "film about watching, about trying to live with what one has watched, and about the inherent dangers of doing so" evokes "the perilous path [Godard] was taking as he sought to enter the cinema and anticipates the moral dangers that awaited him there."
The sudden appearance of Un Femme coquette on "the digital back channels frequented by obscure movie enthusiasts," as Vishnevetsky puts it, and complete with English subtitles at that, would thrill even a casual Godard fan. As for the Breathless, Alphaville, and Weekend director's die-hard exegetes, one can only imagine the feelings they, or at least the ones who've yet brought themselves to cast eyes upon this sacred text, have experienced while watching it. No matter our level of familiarity with Godard and his work, we can all feel the charge cinema history has given his shoestring-budgeted and at times rough-looking black-and-white short. But who, watching it at one of its sparse early screenings, could have imagined what an aesthetic revolutionary its director, screenwriter, and one-man crew would shortly become — who, that is, besides Jean-Luc Godard?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.