Jean-Luc Godard is a famous French film-maker. I really like his films. His first film was a documentary about the making of a dam in Switzerland. After that, he made a few short (10 minute) fictional films, and then started making feature films.
One of Godard’s early short films was called Une femme coquette (1955), which translates as A Flirtacious Woman. It was made on a low budget – Godard appears in the film himself. It was based on a story written by the French author Guy de Maupassant, Le signe (The Signal).
The plot of the story is as follows. A woman who is not a prostitute watches female prostitutes beckoning to male clients from their windows. She decides to try this, and instantly gets a response from a male passer-by. The man is insistent. The woman gives in, afraid of being accused of being a real prostitute, which, of course, was a crime. In the film version, the action happens outdoors, and finishes with a chase scene, the woman running in the dark while the man pursues her in a car.
Richard Brody, in his biography and cinematographic review of Godard’s work, Everything Is Cinema, writes: “Une Femme coquette is the story of someone who wants to try out a gesture she has seen, who is enticed by what she observes into imitation of it, and who, from the imitation, takes on the reality. It is a film about watching, about trying to live what one has watched, and about the inherent dangers of doing so. It is about fear and embarrassment, and about living with yourself after doing something you regret; it is about money and what to do with ill-gotten gains; it is about prostitution – about doing for money what is properly done for love – and how someone unintentionally practices it by merely imitating the gestures of a professional. ”
Impressive that all of these serious issues could be addressed in a short film. I like Brody’s description: doing for money what is properly done for love.
Let me say that I don’t want anyone reading this to interpret the theme of this blog post as an attack on sex workers. Because it’s not. Prostitution is always present in Western culture as a more or less tolerated, more or less denigrated activity. Even as a metaphor, we can use it to suggest something bad. “Media whore” is a common expression nowadays.
The interesting thing, really, is that sex workers are honest where the rest of us may not be so honest. They have sex for money. The rest of us who work are also – mostly – selling ourselves for money, but somehow we like to think of ourselves as morally superior to sex workers. Are we?
Doing for money what is properly done for love. And what should we be doing for love? Taking care of our children. Our household chores. Gardening maybe. Our hobbies. And our jobs? Is it a problem that we are paid to work? Does that reduce our work experience to service-for-money transaction, a bit like a hand job from a sex worker in the cab of a truck? Are we fooling ourselves that our work is meaningful, in the same way that the sex worker’s client might fool himself if he thought he was having a love affair? In a world where everything is measured by money, where every relationship and interaction is regarded as an opportunity to be harnessed to “create wealth”, have we all become – not sex workers, who at least know what they are doing – but “prostitutes”? Is there any alternative?