Masculin-Feminin: One of Godard’s Masterpieces

The Criterion Collection edition of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 masterpiece, “Masculin-Feminin,” is a must-see for all film lovers, particularly those interested in the French New Wave, of which Godard was the most brilliant and innovative director.

Special Edition 

New, restored high-definition digital transfer;
Exclusive new video interviews, conducted in 2005, with actress Chantal Goya, cinematographer Willy Kurant, and Godard’s collaborator, Jean Pierre Gorin;
Theatrical trailer for the 2005 rerelease;
New and improved English subtitle translation;
New essays by film scholar Adrian Martin.

“A Woman Is a Woman,” “Two or Three Things I Know About Her,” and “Masculine-Feminine,” my three favorite Godard films, are some of the films that have motivated me to become a film scholar and critic. On a more personal level, the film’s French poster is placed is hung in honorable place in my bedroom, a reminder of the enduring artistic, emotional, and intellectual pleasure that some films have.

“Masculine-Feminine” was made during the most creative phase of Godard’s long and still productive career, from 1963 to 1968, an era that saw the making of “Contempt” (1963), “Band of Outsiders” and “The Married Woman” (both 1964), “Alphaville” and “Pierrot le Fou” (both 1965), “Masculine-Feminine (1966), “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” (1967), and “Weekend” (1968).

In her review, Pauline Kael has described “Masculine-Feminine” as “that rare achievement: a work of grace and beauty in a contemporary setting.” Forty years after it was made, the film is as fresh and as timely as it was back then.

In this film, Godard freed himself from the traditions of the American gangster and noir films, evident in his stunning debut “Breathless,” “Alphaville,” and “Band of Outsiders” (“Bande A Part”), a film that has influence numerous American directors, from Gregg Araki to Tarantino, whose production company is called Band A Part.

The original French poster states, above the title, “le sex et la jeunesse de la France daujourdhui,” which literally translates into, “sex and youth in today’s France.” The film, to use Godard’s words, is about “The children of Marx and Coca Cola,” a reflection of the zeitgeist of mid-1960s France, just a few years before the workers and students strikes of May 1968, recently celebrated in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers.” Godard, together with other New Wave directors, was instrumental in first disrupting and then shutting down completely the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, days after it began.

In “Masculine-Feminine,” and other films, Godard was the first to examine the impact of pop culture, particularly the American brand, and how it intersects with pop politics, such as the New Left and neo-Marxism, then riding high in France.

Borrowing Truffaut’s alter-ego in half-a dozen films beginning “The 400 Blows,” Jean-Pierre Leaud, lends “Masculine-Feminine” greater poignancy and intertextuality as comparison between the particular ways that Truffaut and Godard have cast and used Leaud as a screen hero are inevitable. Full of doubts, Leaud, is a surface revolutionary who searches for answers to some irresolvable questions. Every single cultural value is contested in the film, from rigid government policies to bourgeois culture to TV commercials.

The film’s heroine (Chantal Goya), a wannabe singer, represents an aggregate of several Godard heroines: American Jean Seberg of “Breathless,” Anna Karina’s prostitute in “To Live Her Life” and “Band of Outsiders.”

The movie is too lyrical to be described as a battle of the sexes expose, though it does contrast the great divide between the approach of young men and women toward courtship, romance, love, and sex. The romance is fractured by acts of aggression and martyrdom.

Celebrating youth, love, and romantic love, Godard continues the tradition of juxtaposing the young with the older generation. There is irreverence, rejection of, and contempt for anything and everything that the adult world stands for.

Representing an intriguing mix, the protagonists are as much Americanized (products of Coca Cola commercials and TV trash), as they are anti-American in their pop politics, a reflection of the fact that French youth, past and present, have always been more political and politicized than their American counterparts.

In Fact, Coca Cola is a symbol of the established middle-class culture, the equivalent of plastic in “The Graduate,” which was made a year later and forever changed the face of American cinema. Set in the 1960s, “Masculine-Feminine” addresses the new youth subculture, offering interesting national comparisons with quintessential American movies, such a “American Graffiti,” which was released in 1973 but revolves around high schoolers circa 1962.

Like the Americans, French youths form a subculture with its own values, norms, signals, and symbols, from the pop music played on jukeboxes to hairstyle and dress codes to social manners and sexual mores.

Defying evolutionary or any conventional narrative, “Masculine-Feminine consists of numerous episodes, incidents, vignettes, and details, some interrelated, others standing on their own. Indeed, fractured narratives and distractions from any recognizable conventional plot lines (with a clear beginning, middle and an end) characterize Godard’s unique strategies, as the first post-modern filmmaker of note. At the time, Godard was faulted by mainstream critics for the loose, fragmented, arbitrary, and episodic nature of his films, specifically their spatial and temporal dimensions of his films.

Among many “distractions,” the film offers a glimpse of Brigitte Bardot (who appeared in Gidard’s “Contempt), an interaction between a German boy and a prostitute, a parody of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Silence,” and numerous locales of the great Paris, the favorite local of most New Wave directors. As Kael noted, “you don’t need to understand every detail in order to experience the beauty of the work as it’s going on.” For lack of better word, experientialism—the pleasure of watching the film when it unfolds–is a key word in understanding and appreciating Godard’s innovative film aesthetics.

There is an Elizabthean song that won’t make much sense to many viewers, but it’s beautiful to listen to in its own right. In other words, Godard urges viewers to enjoy individual pieces even if they are not functionally integrated into a clear and progressive narrative form, the norm of most American pictures.

Godard was in his thirties when he made “Masculine-Feminine,” but he was still close enough in age to his protagonists to remember the ache of transient beauty, the joys of being young and restless, the impossibility of men to really understand women and the “feminine mystique.” Men can possess women sexually but they can never understand their innermost feelings and libido.

Though less beautiful than Anna Karina (Godards’ muse and wife in the early 1960s), Chantal Goya is suitable her part. She registers emptiness and boredom, and her singing also lacks emotion and gravity. In “My Life to Live,” Godard tried to penetrate into the mind and thoughts of a prostitute, but he looked at her from the outside. In contrast, “Masculine-Feminine” is done from an inside male POV. The mystery that women present for men would continue to preoccupy Godard in his later work, most explicitly in “First Name Carmen” and “Hail Mary!” both made in the 1980s.

It is a known fact that the French New Wave directors cultivated the notion of cinema as text, as ecriture, a concept that goes back to Alexander Astruc’s “camera-stylo and Andre Bazin’s auteurist writings. Godard, who began his career as a critic for Bazin’s “Cahiers du Cinema, claimed that he was already making films when he was writing criticism, and that he continued to do criticism by making films.

This preoccupation with ecriture, as scholar Robert Stam pointed out, is translated in New Wave films by a proliferation of writing imagery. In Godard’s work, people write in notebooks (“Two or Three Things”), cars (“Maculine-Feminin”), and diaries (“Pierrot le Fou”).

Charlotte in “The Married Woman” obsessively compares her breasts to those of models in women’s magazines, while pondering the questions of media advertising: “Is your bustHow far can a woman go” As a screen character, Charlotte anticipates Mademoiselle Dix-Neuf Ans in “Masculine-Feminine”, whom Godard labels “a consumer product.

Godrad’s very subversion of bourgeois pleasure in bourgeois cinema is itself intensely pleasurable. He illuminates the comic underside of film’s intersubjectivity by showing us spectators watching films. Hence the “porn-film sequence” in Masculine-Feminine depicts a movie theater suffused with eroticism, where usherettes kiss strangers and homosexuals cruise in the restrooms. The film, a parody of Bergman’s “The Silence” (it’s Swedish and involves impersonal sexual encounters in an unidentified country) is prefaced by an ironic intertitle in ersatz Swedish, “4x Ein Senitiv and Rapid Film.” The film-within-film mirrors “Masculine-Feminine as a whole, since both movies are about the relations between the sexes.

Paul and Madeline, while aware of the porn film’s stupidity, are unable to leave, thus demonstrating the ease with which spectators become passive-aggressive consumers of their own desire. The appeal of films, like that of advertising, is irresistible in both direct and subliminal ways. In an interior monologue, Paul says: “we control our thoughts but not our emotions, which are everything.” Since feelings always lag behind rational knowledge, we need to reconcile what we feel with what we know. “M. Monroe has aged terribly. It mad us sad. It wasn’t the film we had dreamed of, the total film we carried within ourselves.

The novelty of “Masculine-Feminine,” like that of most Godard film, is into mixing and combining various genre conventions into new hybrid narrative. “Masculine-Feminine” is a socio-political romance, “Breathless” is an existential gangster flick In all of Godard’s work, genres are contested and combined with other genres, resulting in new types of films—and film experiences.

The banalization of atrocious acts of violence is also noteworthy, since the film was made during the Vietnam War and would escalate in Godard’s future movies. The random urban violence in “Masculine-Feminine,” like the moral apathy of “Alaphaville,” in which murder is greeted with polite applause, would become more explicit in Godrad’s “Weekend” (1968).

Yet Godard’s approach toward the mass media is more complex than it appears to be on the surface. Many of his revolutionary innovations are inspired by and stem directly from TV. For instance, the alternation of the staged and the improvisational in “Masculine-Feminine,” is routine procedure in TV land. The brevity of the dialogue, the one-liners, the two-sentence news, the prevalence of sound bites, are typical of TV’s natural domain.

Finally, though Godard draws on classic music in his films–Mozart in “Masculine-Feminine”–the treatment of music is modernist, even Brechtian. The music interrupts and is itself interrupted, no longer serving its dominant function in mainstream cinema, namely, guiding and heightening our emotions in a conscious or subliminal way.

After half-a-century of making films, Godard is still a filmmaker who can shock, outrage, and stir controversy, as was evident in his latest films, “In Praise of Love” and “Notre Musique.” Godard was the great movie modernist, mixing tropes out of old American traditions with contemporary fads in a poetic and allusive style. His 1960s films boast playfulness, spontaneity, and lyricism. Godard suggested that only through systematic deconstruction of film grammar and syntax can films liberate themselves from the burden of nineteenth century literature and drama.

Stripped of conventional dramatic form, Godard’s films of the 1960s are lyrical essay-poems. A free-form exploration of the sexual and political mores of Parisian youth in the 1960s, “Masculine-Feminine” is a fragmented narrative that presents a bewildering kaleidoscopic commentary on life, art, and reality, and the intricate relationships among them.

In light of the above, Stam’s suggestion that Godard’ decisive break in cinema is on par with Picasso’s in painting and Schoenberg in music is fully warranted. Picasso shattered perspectival realism and Schoenberg favored atonality and rupture over tonal and aural texture. Godard shattered the codes of visual depth and narrative coherence in a full-frontal attack on illusionist representation.