Masculin Feminin (AKA: Masculine Feminine) – 1966
Director – Jean-Luc Godard
Starring – Chantal Goya, Jean-Pierre Leaud, and Marlene Jobert
Films by Jean-Luc Godard seem to play by a different set of rules than do other films from the French New Wave. Sure each of them relies on the real settings, the fresh, often non-actors filling out the roles, and the same sort of do-it-yourself aesthetic that embodies the style, but Godard seems more interested in holding up a mirror to his audience than in weaving them a story.
Godard’s commentary on the people, places, and events of 1960’s France, are often times quite contrary to some of his peers such as Francois Truffaut, Jacques Demy, Claude Chabrol, or Agnes Varda. Whereas these same ingredients played heavily on the stories of these other directors, Godard seems content to treat them AS the story with a loose narrative tying them together. While this can make his message a bit blatant, it does nothing to remove any of the impact.
Masculin Feminin follows the rocky relationship of Paul (Leaud) and Madeleine (Goya), through a series of encounters in seemingly mundane and everyday situations. The characters are vain and selfish at first, flitting from one topic to another at the drop of a hat, but over time these conversations lay bare the real issue, fear. Consumerism, politics, women’s rights, socialism, each topic is disscussed with a violent fervor, treated with the casual idealism of the Pepsi Generation before being discarded for the next cause. Importance is gauged on the here and now, the past is history, and in the future the present has become the past. Despite their posturing and opinions, Paul and Madeleine are afraid of what is to come, in both their relationship, and in their lives. Each does their best to keep themselves distracted to such a degree that they don’t have to deal with their worries.
The modesty of the settings is often times punctuated through fantastic sequences of sudden violence. A husband preventing his children from being taken by his estranged wife, gets gunned down outside of the cafe our main characters are sitting in, a man in an arcade knifes himself in the stomach after a confrontation with Paul, passengers on the same train as Paul are shot by one of the members of their own group. This violence references the tumult in France at the time. Mentioned at various points, the conflict in Vietnam (which in 1966 had started a year earlier in an official capacity for the Americans after being passed off by the French) must have played a huge role in defining the meaning of that violence, which was also being informed by issues as diverse as the re-election of Charles de Gaulle, the introduction of birth control, the end of WWII, and French women finally being given the vote.
One of my favorite parts of any movie from the French New Wave Era is the depiction of 1960s Paris. The tone of these films ride heavily on the unwritten character of city in which they are filmed. Seemingly, this Paris is perpetually wet, active, and alive. The somewhat nostalgic black and white photography allows for a depth and dimension that partially comes from the guerrilla filmmaking methods of filming real people in real locations, and partially from the new-found mobility that comes with lighter and more portable camera gear of the time. Another element unique to the 1960s is the merging of future and past design elements in everything from clothing, to cars.
Godard is a love-him or hate-him kind of director. His work was definitely his own vision, and often times flies directly in the face of commonly accepted practices in terms of movie making. Each plays with it’s medium, editing, sound, plot, or character, to punctuate and draw attention to the fact that you are watching a movie. Masculin Feminin is an example of all of these, often referencing itself, it’s director, and it’s actors outside of the story and the characters. If you’re intrigued by this, you’ll probably love it. If, however, the thought of this annoys you, it’s probably not your cup of tea.