Printed words fill the screen again: A L'ARRIVEE, signaling the delayed arrival of the film proper. Godard starts it off by noting that many kilometers away, the Vietcong are thinking about Saigon - while "three meters away, in this factory, you have to produce. Have to produce. But what to produce? And to go where?"
The notions of work, creation, and manufacture, here centered on the punning word "produce," will be central to Numero deux as it proceeds. For now, the words meaning ARRIVAL turn into THERE WILL BE, and the screen lights up again with a pair of video monitors, showing an old man at a stove and an old woman on a sofa. Looking distinctly unhappy in their domestic setting, they call out impatient phrases like "Always that!" and "No more of that!"
The word REPRODUCTION takes shape, and the video screens display a soccer match on the right and a household scene (grandparents, father,child) on the left. Reproduction has obviously taken place in this family - that is how families are made! - and reproduction now establishes itself as one of the film's subjects.
As the older folks sit in the background, the father leans down to talk with the young girl, then leaves with an abrupt swipe at her head, just as the sports announcer reports a penalty play on the sound track. Have we finally settled into an absorbing domestic drama? Evidently not, since the film's title appears again, and then we are back in Godard's studio, with two stacked-up video monitors dominating the screen. Godard is dimly visible, too, watching and occasionally adjusting the monitors. The upper one fast-forwards through the beginning of Vincent, Francois, Paul... and the Others, a French commercial drama (Claude Sautet, 1974) about male buddies whose hard knocks are softened by weekends of shared friendship. The lower one shows a news report on Southeast Asian developments (Saigon's name has changed to Ho Chi Minh City after a "pure and hard" revolution) and on Paris's traditional May Day parade, surely a poignant event for leftists like Godard seven years after the near-revolution of 1968. (May Day now focuses on conventional union demands, according to the report, but left-wing demonstrators are present, suggesting the continued possibility of radical change.) Occasionally the image is replaced by more printed words that change their messages one letter at a time, THIS SCREEN is transformed into A FILM THAT, foregrounding the movie as a material object. The capitalistic MERCHANDISE becomes the cultural MUSIC, calling attention to the Sautet film's lugubrious melody, as well as to the commodification of art in the commercial marketplace. Most important, WORK becomes SHIT and EQUALITY becomes LIBERTY - two pairings that foreshadow major themes of the film.
Numero deux then undergoes a larger transformation. We still see the video workplace with its two monitors juxtaposing news and entertainment, but we hear the voice of a new narrator: a character called Sandrine, adding her presence (invisible so far) to that of Godard, until now the film's dominating voice. Her delayed appearance suggests a subordinate status - she might be the "Number Two" of the title - but her position within the movie is not passive, as she shows by commenting on its content. "What about this film called Numero deux}9 ' she asks, competing for attention with continued sound from the TV monitors. "It shows incredible things. Ordinary things. Shitty things. Good things."
At about this point, the attentive viewer will notice that the Sautet movie on TV has been replaced by a different production: a hard-core sex picture with an emphasis on oral pleasures. "Pleasure isn't simple," observes Sandrine, ringing a less melancholy variation on Nana's discovery in My Life to Live that "pleasure is no fun." Printed words do another on-screen dance as CINEMA changes to POSSIBLE. "I think pain is simple," Sandrine goes on, ratifying Godard's earlier statement to that effect. "Not pleasure. Unemployment is simple. Not pleasure. I think that when unemployment is pleasurable, then fascism moves in." A sign in the porn movie reads "Dead End."
Sandrine then speaks again about the movie itself. "Numero deux is not a film of the left or the right," she informs us, "but a film 'before' or 'behind.' Before, there are children. Behind, there's the government... les enfants de la patrie .. . the nation. You learn that it's a factory." As she speaks the words "before or behind," the shot of Godard's audiovisual workshop is replaced with a jarring new image: a composite video picture that combines a little girl's face with a superimposed view of a couple having sexual intercourse; both partners are standing as the man (his pants around his knees) penetrates the woman (her skirt over her hips) from behind.
So much is going on here that again it is necessary to dwell in detail on one fleeting moment. By combining images of a child's face and two adults having intercourse, the composite shot strongly suggests that the girl is watching this sexual activity. This makes it a reenactment of what Sigmund Freud calls the "primal scene": the moment when a child witnesses (or fantasizes) intercourse between the parents, is seized with jealousy at being excluded from this intimate act - and also stunned with fear of such overwhelming physicality - and instantly represses the experience into the unconscious, where it will retain its haunting (and tantalizing) emotional energy forever after.
Heightening this moment in Numero deux is the image's interplay with Sandrine's narration. At first, her replacement of "left and right" with "before and behind" appears to be a whimsical example of the "word games" defended by Godard a little earlier. However, the sense of whimsy diminishes as her monologue continues: "Before, there are children. Behind, there's the government.. . ." If children are "before" or "in front," they must be in the position of the woman on the screen; and if the government is "behind," it must be in the position of the man, mechanically "screwing" its passive and possibly unwilling partner.
If government = power and children = innocence, Sandrine and Godard clearly see modern society as corrupt, brutalizing, and sick. Moreover, the government is not some alien entity that exercises power through its own self-generated strength. Sandrine links government with les enfants de la patrie - the "children of the nation," as citizens are called in "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem. She then labels this hydra-headed monster a "factory," thus returning us to the film's opening words, about a factory and a landscape locked into close but uneasy coexistence.
By this point it is clear that Numero deux aims to analyze and criticize a number of interlocking phenomena: the home, where children must cope with such daunting existential challenges as the primal scene and other parental mysteries; the education system, which ill prepares them for present or future tasks; the industrial world, where people's lives are not their own; the government, which uses and abuses us; and the mass media, including the film and video technologies used to make Numero deux itself.
Continuing the latter thread, the shot of Godard's audiovisual workshop returns to the screen, its monitors still showing a commercial movie and a news report. "Film is also a factory," Sandrine observes, "a factory that manufactures images, like television." She then offers a sort of mediasavvy nursery rhyme, again confirming childhood (and its comparative innocence) as an organizing factor in the movie:
Once upon a time there was an image.
Once upon a time there were two images.
Twice upon a time there was a sound.
Once upon a time there were two sounds.
Number One and Number Two.
This leads (at last!) to the credits of Numero deux, which Sandrine recites aloud. But wait a moment - surprises are frequent in Godardian cinema, and this turns out to be not the credit sequence after all but a "coming attractions" teaser. "Numero deux: coming soon on this screen!" announces Sandrine, with typically deadpan delivery.
Has the film actually started, or are we still in some kind of preamble? Does Numero deux have an "official" beginning at all? It is probably better not to worry about such things, turning our attention to the momentby-moment progress of whatever it is we are watching.
Sandrine encourages us in precisely that direction. "This screen is on a wall," she notes, pointing out the obvious. Then she problematizes her simple statement by asking, "A wall between what and what?" We know from earlier films that Godard loves to challenge the commonsense borders, boundaries, and dividing lines - that is, the conceptual walls - that we customarily use to organize our everyday thoughts and activities. He is willing to grant that movies and videos materialize on screens, an these screens generally have walls behind them. What, however, do those (metaphorical) walls separate the movies and videos from? Is it the multitude of real-life problems continually thrust at us by families, governments, schools, factories, and the market forces that determine what cinema and television will comprise? If so, our fascination with screens and spectacles - our willingness to gaze at them without really thinking about them - ties in with far-from-ideal social situations that cry out for critical reflection.
The two-sided coin of separation and combination is a fundamental theme of Numero deux. The movie's interests range from common yet ambiguous categories like "before" and "behind" to such filmic phenomena as the juxtaposition of different shots, which are separated by "cuts" in conventional film, but can merge and combine in video composites like the "primal scene" image we've just watched.
Most profoundly, Numero deux is concerned with the hazy boundaries between different people - boundaries that are both affirmed and erased by sexual activity - and between different aspects of a single person. These aspects may be conflicting facets of the mind, forever split between conscious and unconscious, reason and unreason, influences of the past and imperatives of the present. Then again, they may be various parts of the unruly human body; we have noted Godard's tendency to see the body in fractured terms, using strings of words or images to represent bodies as collections of separate part-objects rather than coherent wholes.
All of which explains why Numero deux is itself simultaneously divided and unified in its interests and methodologies. "So another political film?" Sandrine asks rhetorically. "No, it's not political," she immediately answers, "it's pornographic. No, it's not pornographic, it's political. So is it pornographic or political? Why do you always ask either-or? Maybe it's both at once."
She then restates the phrase "twice upon a time," which is becoming an unofficial motto of the film, and another video screen lights up with a little girl writing on a blackboard. Sandrine proposes that we put aside "talk, talk" and attend to quiet looking and listening.
"Look at what?" she queries. "You don't always need to go far. There's a lot to see.... Your sex, for example. Have you ever looked at it? Did you let others know you looked at it? Honestly. Not like in commercials or adventure movies."
The idea of gazing at a part of one's own body, instead of at manufactured body-images in entertainments and advertisements, suggests that visual pleasure can be found by (a) distinguishing between two ways of seeing and (b) choosing the one that is most often overlooked. The overrated way is institutional, fabricated for consumption by a wide, lowestcommon-denominator audience. The underrated way is introspective, focused on the everyday and close at hand.
Another key metaphor of Numero deux then reappears in a new form, further blurring divisions between personal and public, animate and inanimate, natural and artificial. "Didn't you ever ask yourself if Papa is a factory or a landscape?" Sandrine asks. "And if Mama is a landscape or a factory? In my opinion, a factory.... Or maybe a power plant. It charges and discharges. And it hurts."
excerpt from the book: The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt