Masculin féminin (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

At the end of “Masculin féminin,” our hero Paul observes that the questions he’s been asking French people as a census taker, that’re supposed to glean insight into how men interact with women, how they interact with one another, and how people just think, reveal nothing, that it’s the natural observation of behavior, not answers to some questions, that truly reveal such things.  Then why oh why, you might ask, is so much of “Masculin féminin” devoted to not even back-and-forth dialogue (of which the movie has plenty, anyway), but one-way questioning: man asks the questions, this or that beautiful girl gives the answers, on such topics like birth control and the Vietnam war?  There’s a lot of contradictions like that in “Masculin féminin”: Paul decries the value of learning about human interaction through one-way questioning, yet we see it in all its glory; Paul, the militant anti-American, anti-capitalist, starts a relationship with the flashy, polar opposite singer Madeleine; deep and involved conversations between characters reveal much about their mindsets, yet those mindsets are composed of banalities and dullness the likes of which I’ve rarely seen; the film itself, trying for utter realism one moment, delves into the surreal and the bizarrely satirical with sarcastic intertitles and unexpected moments of violence the next.  All in all, it’s a mess – I don’t know what to make of it, and I’m not sure what the film itself thinks it is, so with that, some things I really like, some things I really don’t.

I liked the conversations…for once some Godard conversations actually felt genuine to me.  They still had that air of pretentious pseudo-philosophy that’s driven me crazy in other Godard films, but then again that’s probably how irritating youths like Paul and Madeleine would talk during the tumultuous 60s in France, so it works.  The film’s a series of loosely connected vignettes concerning Paul and Madeleine, and Paul’s friends and Madeleine’s roommates, and how all of them, and hell, some random people around them for good measure, interact.  The film’s best scenes involve Paul’s unlikely courtship of Madeleine, particularly one in a public bathroom of all places.  I can’t say I liked these characters – Paul looking like a deer caught in headlights and acting like a grating punk who thinks he’s a lot smarter and more observant than he really is, and Madeleine, as gorgeous as Chantal Goya is (and boy is she ever), being vapidity defined – but their long conversation on the benefits and detriments of starting a relationship despite their differences, and whether it would be for the sake of love or sex, and the benefits and detriments of each of those, is great, and thought provoking.  One vignette, like Paul’s long interview with a beautiful model on taboo subjects like Vietnam and birth control, goes on too long, and frankly it’s painful to watch this poor girl stumble through subjects she has no knowledge of, but still, her fake cheeriness and uncomfortable body language, trying to act the part of something she’s not, is pretty fascinating.  Other moments, like Paul and his buddy analyzing the breasts of the girl at the next table, or that slimy buddy quizzing Madeleine’s shy roommate on her sexual history, also get into the crux of how psychological constructs like the libido and love play into the daily lives of young men and women.  If Godard is trying to highlight the differences and the nature of interactions between men and women, between the masculine and the feminine, scenes like these do just that, especially with the stationary camera that often focuses on just one participant in a two-way conversation, both highlighting that person’s mannerisms and making the conversation cold and distant at the same time.  Those moments are the polar opposite of the stylized jump cut orgy that is Godard’s first feature, “Breathless,” and signify a much-matured filmmaker, despite this being released just six years after “Breathless.”

If these moments of “Masculin Féminin” are much more subtle and toned down in terms of style and are interesting to watch, then why in the name of Charles de Gaulle’s dirty underpants is Godard splicing those scenes of semi-realism with the utterly bizarre: those intertitles between the vignettes that’re supposed to go for laughs but fall flat, those random moments of violence that punctuate some of the vignettes, like the wife shooting the husband, the ominous guy with the knife stabbing…himself, or the gun-toting racist women with the two black men on the train in a scene right out of LeRoi Jones’s “Dutchman”…and then Brigitte Bardot appearing as herself in a restaurant for some reason, I dunno.  If Godard wanted to examine every aspect of how young men and women act towards and amongst each other, in terms of both the eye-opening and the utterly banal, what’s with the TERRIBLY pretentious intertitle/sarcastic political statement stating that “this film could be called the Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.”  It’s moments like that, or the film-within-a-film that Paul and Madeleine and friends go to see that’s literally nothing more than a man chasing a woman around a hotel room while grunting with lust, where Godard tries to shove his message about the irreconcilable differences between men and women, capitalism and communism, and every little bit of duality in-between, down your fucking throat.  It was apparent by this point in his career that Godard was something of a cinematic prankster, especially here, with that film-within-a-film, those dumb intertitles that break the fourth wall with Godard’s overly-sarcastic commentary, and the moments of violence and crimes of passion that are over in a second and aren’t paid a second glance by the characters or the camera, and indeed, those moments of the bizarre are attention-grabbing.  And maybe that’s the whole point, that the moments of relative realism and moments of the truly bizarre do clash severely, just like the differing ideologies of capitalists and communists, and men and women, in which case I’m totally missing the boat with my criticism.  But the way I see it, Godard had a good thing going by showing the slow rise and the just as slow festering of an unlikely relationship through the portrayal of natural behavior by way of unnatural (but believable) dialogue (to the point that I was drawn into and utterly fascinated by the conversations of characters I otherwise couldn’t stand!).  With that being the case, I think that the restrained Godard, the one with an ear for dialogue and an eye for body language and a fixed and focused camera, should’ve taken a cue from this film about the differences within pairs of people and ideologies and left the prankster Godard at home.


3 comments so far

  1. ShotgunAndy on

    For the most part, I agree with this review, particularly on your acclaim for the dialogue.

  2. bob on

    this is shit i dont aggree wid any of it the guy who wrote it is a stupid bitch

  3. Simon M. on

    well, appreciate the feedback…

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