The differences between the Male and the Female may be obvious, according to Judge Bill Gibron, but you've never really understood the dichotomy until you've seen it shifted through French New Wave wizard Jean-Luc Godard's deranged perspective.
Robert: Ever notice there's the word "mask" in masculine? And also
It's perhaps the most misunderstood of the developmental phases. More perplexing than puberty and frequently more flummoxing than those bouts of college self-discovery, that awkward middle stage between adolescence and assumption of adult responsibility can often be the most miserable for an individual. All our lives, we are taught to be our own person, to pursue our own dreams, and secure our own place in the hierarchy of humanity. Sure, as we age, parents try to push us in certain directions, and society scoffs at our naive optimism. But we are bound and determined to become the thing that we feel we are deep inside. Unfortunately, this process usually comes with a price, and said cost does provide a good label for this juncture—the "asshole" phase.
That's right, as we make it into our twenties, it starts to happen. We dismantle our childhood memories and file them away for later familial ammunition. We forget what we were taught, and focus on fulfilling even the baser needs of our being. And in doing so, we turn into indescribable jerks. We pontificate with regularity and frequency, treating the entire universe as our own personal Hyde Park speaker's square. We experiment with philosophy and ideology, looking to see what arcane (or average) belief system we'll use to foster our first grown-up steps. We translate small imagined needs—sex, job, and material wealth—into big-picture pronouncements on love, happiness, and security. And we do it all in the open spaces and public forums of the social order. Like wild animals marking their territory, we stain the surroundings with ideas both half-baked and brilliant, shouting our slogans and expressing our faith in embarrassing, aggravating ways. We're grating and dull, arrogant and self-righteous…in essence, assholes.
In his masterful 1966 film Masculin Feminin, French New Wave maverick Jean-Luc Godard decided to cast his cinema-shattering lens on the laborious, illogical lives and loves of a group of incredibly restless kids as they move from minority to majority, wards to the workplace. Trapped inside their insular ideas and selfish focus, we see the failings of parents, the problems of society, and the atrophy of the world. Within their walled-off worries are streaks of brilliance and fragments of farce. Godard may be arguing that all human interaction is a balance between disproportionate sources. Or he could be speaking of the decline in commitment as replaced by talk. But what is clear about this startling, engaging film is that it has something very real to say about the asshole stage of growing up. For the filmmaker, it is as necessary as birth and as final as death. How we come out of it will determine who we are for the rest of our lives.
Facts of the Case
Paul is a young man, fresh from his national military, and ready to make something of his life. While working at the local factory, he becomes interested in Communist party politics. While sitting at a local bistro, he becomes fascinated with Madeleine. She works at a local teen magazine, and through some connections, Paul ends up there as well. Madeleine wants to make a go of it as a ye-ye singer and starts making records. Paul, unfulfilled at the publication, starts hanging around with Robert, a fellow factory worker who is now a labor boss. Together, they spend hours examining the power structure in France and developing ideological stances on various subjects. Eventually, Paul and Madeleine make that big leap towards a relationship. But both are so wrapped up in themselves that they can't see how ill fated their pairing will become. As friends of the couple circle and whisper, we wait for the inevitable implosion, the detonation of the fragile mix which is the meeting of Masculin Feminin. Sadly, it happens.
Like standing outside of the student union during a prickly day in the life of ungrateful undergraduates, Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin Feminin is a manifesto of utter meaninglessness. It's all talk and no action, a big movie of even bigger ideas played out by characters that are so underqualified to comment that their words seem like the couplets found in bad books of baroque poetry. It's a brazen, broken argument for love unrequited and politics ill defined. Using the director's all too familiar deconstructionist style, we are faced with a fairly simple story told in a challenging and happenstance manner. Story elements are buried in an improvised and fragmented "script." Instead of being told in a completely linear mode, the film is broken up into individual vignettes (the movie is even subtitled "15 faits precis"—in 15 acts). Some are plot driven, others appear pointless. But Godard's true message within the amalgamation of immaturity is loud and clear. In the early '60s, France finds itself in a moral and social morass—and it is the youth of the day that bear the brunt of the director's hostility.
Godard does not actually hate the characters in Masculin Feminin. He treats them too well, and glamorizes their life too expertly to make us find fault in their freethinking frivolity. No, the director is aiming his critical celluloid pointer at the rest of French society, a confused cacophony of concepts that have taught the young adults to think with their wallets first and their wits last. Madeleine, caught up in the pop culture frenzy known as the Ye-Ye movement (like a more banal Britney, heaven forbid), is glued to fashion and public face. For her, emotion is confusing and contradictory. Men say they love you, but all they want is physical affection. When you return the advances, they act as if you're soiled and spoiled. So naturally she turns to the music charts and the shopping centers to find her purpose. Looking like an ad for a pop-art acne cream, Madeleine (in the ginchy guise of the pert and perky Chantal Goya) is all merchandising and materialism.
Paul is her polar opposite, a boy trying to be a man in a fool's paradise. He desperately wants the connections he thinks will label him as mature—the right job, the right girl, the right philosophical stand. He spends endless hours rewriting his naive missive about love and honor, debating his fellow factory worker and friend over political and labor movements that both are too young to know anything substantial about. This is growing up as a game, a chance to put on airs and try on temperaments to see what fits. As played by French New Wave heartthrob Jean-Pierre Léaud (the star of Truffaut's The 400 Blows), Paul is all outward attitude and choreographed suaveness. He tosses his cigarette into his mouth with a movie star's flair. He dresses in the style of an important, impeccable social climber. He's proud to know the cinematic law regarding proper aspect ratio (he has a standoff with a projectionist who ruins the porno he and his friends are watching) and reduces all feeling down to want, desire, and need. His is a singular and selfish persona as well, a near-perfect metaphysical match for the equally insular Madeleine.
That they end up together is not a surprise—Godard lets us know it will happen from the very first minutes of the movie. That they stay together and try to make things work is where the real revelations begin. In Paul and Madeleine, we envision a filmic version of those famous Hollywood marriages, where both parties lead separate and independent lives while clinging to the cover story that they can't live without the other. Naturally, interests swarm all around them like bees to a new source of nectar, but neither is really interested in pursuing passion beyond their chosen mate. Looking at love like some manner of social providence, Godard dismisses the notion of class creating differences in the way people respond to one another. Since our protagonists are young, and still capable of life affirming/condemning changes, Godard sees the events that occur in Masculin Feminin like life training school, the course you have to pass once graduation is over and maturity comes calling. How we respond says more about our future than we would like to believe.
Indeed, Godard pushes the concept of interpersonal interrogation to dizzying heights in this film. Most of the scenes between the characters, the conversations that they share, are handled in a very stilted, Q&A style, the off-camera party pressing the on-screen subject for more and more information. Paul is guilty of this approach twice—once with Madeleine, and once with a model who has recently won a magazine cover contest. The dimwitted girl, her body permanently posed and her brain at half-mast, responds to repeated inquiries about current affairs and personal ideology with a series of sloppy non-answers. She avoids controversy and will not be led down a path of personal (and in this case, professional) self-destruction. Madeleine is not so lucky. Paul corrals her in a bathroom, and with desperation to make a date, places everything about the young girl up for question. Madeleine—fortunately or unfortunately for her inquisitor—is forthright and plain. She looks at love as a joke, will not sleep with a man because of what it says about her, and views the world with glasses both rose colored and frighteningly crystal clear.
By placing these people together, Godard is asking a series of questions. He wants to understand how lovers interact and why relationships fail. He wants to know what leads to the heights of ardor (we get a startling example of this concept during a deadly domestic argument in the bistro that Paul and Madeleine frequent), and what possesses couples to part. He is interested in the inner workings of affection, how emotion can be drawn from little looks, and clever sayings. But mostly he is manipulating his meaning, getting us to care about both, and then neither, of his main characters before the essence of his artistic expression comes to the forefront. In between each vignette, the director dashes off clever little sayings—"the mole may be blind, but he digs in a decided direction" and "these are the children of Marx and Coca-Cola"—but to read too much into these obvious pieces of propaganda is antithetical to what he is attempting. These title cards are setups for jokes that never arrive. They are concepts that Godard takes as a given, before showing you how wrong those maxims can be.
Paul is by no means centered and focused. One day he's a poet, the next he's a journalist, the next he's working to organize union activities. Madeleine is no better. She moves from magazine worker to singer to model within the span of a few passing fancies, and often switches between the choices at will. If they are sightless—either internally or externally—as Godard would have us believe, then they certainly play the part well. There is no decided direction in their lives, just meaningless meandering that awaits eventual happiness…or disaster. Equally, to argue that these are the offspring of politics and advertising (or media manipulation, or Western pop culture influences) is shortsighted. Madeleine may appear to be a walking, talking example of Carnaby Street cool, but she's really an unformed youth at heart. To her, love is like a recording session. You try it out, and if you don't get the "tune" right the first time, you scrap the attempt and work on it later. Paul is equally unstuck in his countercultural time. His ideology is pieced together from slogans and books he read in school. His opinions are formed out of nicotine and late-night barhopping. He wants commitment and consideration, but also understands that there's a wealth of unspent bullshit in his bravado, and has to find ways of expressing it to its fullest.
Perhaps a better parentage for these kids would be "Freud and Unchecked Freedom." Like most of the world during the '60s, France was facing a kind of crisis of tradition. As a nation, its certain way of life had lived for countless eons, not the pair of centuries of its American cousin. The old-fashioned facets of this existence were tolerated and treasured, linked unequivocally to the people and the place. But the '60s wanted to remove all that, to radicalize and revamp it. Unlike the parents in America who feared their kids were turning their backs on the Establishment, the French feared that the youth movement wanted to destroy the country from the inside out. Thus the political push and the romanticized lure of revolution (something France knows all too well). While Godard obviously championed change, he sees the wasted, wounded ways these unborn bastards of liberty pursue their rebellion, and scoffs in their freshly scrubbed faces. His point is not to pick on Communism, or consumerism. His point is to argue for the invalid vortex in which these untamed adolescents exist. The combination of Coke and Karl Marx is a volatile brew indeed. The resulting combination is what intrigues the filmmaker most.
As with most of his films, Godard proves that disassembling the typical cinematic idyll and putting it through a series of shifts and reevaluations is the only way to get to truth. Since the basics of motion picture production—scripting, casting, filming, editing, performance, lighting, and marketing are all facets of creation, there is an inherent fiction in the final formation. And since all are important to the process, film is founded on the cover-up of fact. Godard hopes that by misplacing his filmic sensibilities, by scrambling the story, forgetting written lines, approaching each scene like an inquest, and avoiding the obvious sentimentality that comes from tone and ambience, he will expose these bored and baffled brats for what they really are—a complete reflection of the society which shakes their head at them. Indeed, Paul can be seen as every French man—pseudo-suave, conscientiously self-important and ready to fall back into the bosom of tradition when all other approaches fail. Madeleine is the perfect Parisian Miss. She is fashionable and sexual, articulate and coy, and combines all these factors into something that is both elusive and alluring, free, and frightening. Godard is not arguing that Man is Woman and Woman is Man. He understands very clearly that there are distinct points of demarcation between the sexes—otherwise, there would be no battle. Otherwise, he would have no real war to witness.
Indeed, Masculin Feminin is like watching the opening volley in the upcoming gender controversies that would come to color the late '60s and all of the '70s. It is Madeleine, not Paul, who views a spouse as an anchor, a baby as a way of "cheating" her out of future fun. Paul is the macho male discovering his newly categorized position as sensitive and sharing. They are surrounded by friends who highlight the potential problems and pitfalls. For Madeleine, her gal pals are frigid and/or slutty, neither one finding the beneficial balance that she believes she's achieved. For Paul, his buddy is a big talking tank who has very little to show for his assaults on the social order. He is lonely, without a girlfriend, and speaking of party positions and platforms like he heard them through the grapevine, not as an actual participant.
This emerging dichotomy becomes too much for one of the characters, leading to a final act that, while defiant and definitive, comes as a shocking climax to this crazy, chaotic story. It really shouldn't have, though. Godard has warned us all along. A lover spurned will turn to a gun. A nation embarrassed will turn to napalm. A union disrespected will turn to strong-arm tactics. And an asshole faced with the truth will usually turn and run. Thus Godard offers this final act, one of insolence and cowardice, of maturity and pettiness. While the sexes may be separated by chromosomes and social roles, and the genders rage on for prominence and respect, the meaning of their representative categorization is crystal clear. Masculin really is indicative of men. The male is an ass who cover his emotions with masks of hubris and pride. And in the case of the women, they only lead to one consequence. The end. Maybe the end of loneliness, or the end of bachelorhood, but Godard wants it known that the female of the species is a barricade. Sometimes it is for good…and, on occasion, for something very fatalistic indeed.
As they do with most of their titles, Criterion sets out to offer a decisive presentation of a classic motion picture, and Masculin Feminin is no exception. The brand new 1.33:1 full-frame image is amazing. It is an absolute masterwork of monochrome filmmaking. The darks are black and bleak, and the lights shimmer with a wholesome and blinding whiteness. There are no defects here, no dirt or grain to get in the way of enjoying this aesthetic exploration of opposites and contradictions. As close to perfection as you can get in the black-and-white arena, the transfer of Masculin Feminin is magnificent. Sonically, the movie moves between occasional distortion (Godard loves to mix the sound of a gunshot with that of a door slamming to introduce each "act") to a controlled and crystalline sonic palette. The dialogue is easily understandable, and the English translation is accurate and simple to read. Music does not make a big impression in this film, but when he uses it, the remastery is modulated and practically pristine. Though Mono has a very limited aural scope, this is still a very good sounding auditory presentation.
Interviews are the main added feature here. Criterion culls material from foreign vaults, as well as conducting current Q&As to give us a look at how Godard approached filmmaking, and the specific circumstances that guided Masculin Feminin. First up is a double feature from Chantal Goya. The first clip is from the mid-'60s, and shows the attractive girl discussing life, her singing career, and the effect of being in one of Godard's films. A more recent interview, from 2005, features an older and wiser Goya commenting on the legendary director, how the cast got around the lack of a script (hint: earpieces and a director feeding them lines), and how wonderful Jean-Pierre Léaud was to work with. Cinematographer Willy Kurant also offers his insights into the making of the movie. He explains how the stark black-and-white look was achieved, and discusses the difficulty of filming in some of Godard's found locations. Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin is up next, and he waxes poetic about the politics and the philosophy behind the film. His is a dissertation filled with fascinating ideals.
Adding to the erudition, French film scholars Freddy Buache and Dominique Paini take part in a 30-minute overview of Godard's importance to world cinema, and the subtleties and insularities of Masculin Feminin. They can get a little esoteric at times, but the conversation is clear and does illustrate the underlying themes that Godard wanted to explore here. Speaking of the director, Swedish television provides footage of him helming a scene from the movie. It is short but sweet. Finally, we are treated to trailers, and a nice booklet with an essay and an on-the-set report from a French journalist. While a tad on the talky side, this is still a fine collection of extras that really add clarity and context to what Godard was trying to say, both with his filmmaking and with this movie in particular.
Truth be told, we'd be nothing without the asshole phase of adolescence. When we arrive from the womb, we are unformed and raw. Our parents break out the child-rearing chisels and start sculpting us, removing individuality and idiosyncrasies in an attempt to form socially acceptable and aesthetically pleasing offspring. But no matter how much fine work they do, no matter the visage they manage to carve, we are destined to break out of that false form and show our true self. Call it rebellion or teen angst, but the result is the same. Who we really are inside is revealed, and then we begin the process of molding and shaping all over again. Learning how hard it is, and how much our mothers and fathers cushioned us from the pain of growing up, turns us bitter and bilious. Self-importance takes over and the jerk is born. Thankfully, most of us survive the phase with little or no damage. But for others like Paul (Masculin) and Madeleine (Feminin), it seems the antisocial chapter in their life will be the most defining. Instead of learning to be themselves, they tried on every jacket in the cultural sweat shop—and the result was some ill-fitting clothes indeed.
Not guilty. All parties are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Archival 1966 Interview with Actress Chantal Goya
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