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Monday, June 7, 2021

New from Criterion: Masculine Féminin

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya in Masculine Féminin (1966).

Between 1960 and 1967 Jean-Luc Godard made fifteen features, all of them vibrant, provocative and almost impossibly innovative, many of them masterpieces. What filmmakers in the history of movies had streaks that were in any way comparable? I can think of only five: D.W. Griffith in the teens and early twenties, Buster Keaton in the twenties, Jean Renoir in the thirties, Satyajit Ray between the mid-1950s and the mid-1980s (his lasted the longest) and Robert Altman between 1970 and 1975 (his was the most concentrated). Masculin Féminin, which Criterion has just released on Blu-Ray and DVD in an immaculately restored print, was the eleventh of these pictures; it came right after Pierrot le Fou (which is referenced in this movie) and before Made in U.S.A. It’s one of my favorite Godards but I realized as I sat down to watch the Blu-Ray that the last time I saw it was thirty years ago, on a drab videotape. Viewing it again with the black-and-white images returned to their original, tactile quality – showcasing Godard’s ability to make contemporary Paris look newly minted – is a revelation. He isn’t working here with his greatest cinematographer, Raoul Coutard; Willy Kurant’s lighting doesn’t knock your eye out the way Coutard’s does, but the movie still looks terrific.

Godard’s subject is – to quote his most famous intertitle – “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” His hero, Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), is a leftist in his early twenties who attends cell meetings and spray-paints anti-Vietnam slogans on walls and the sides of automobiles but is as obsessed with sex as any adolescent. Over espressos and cigarettes, he and his pal Robert (Michel Debord), both baby-faced, generally start off talking about politics but wind up discussing the possibilities of getting laid. Léaud, just seven years past playing Antoine Doinel, the most famous troubled kid in world cinema, in Godard’s fellow New Wave icon François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, still has that wide-eyed bluntness, though he’s lost the mischievousness and bravado; he still doesn’t seem quite comfortable in his body. He smokes in almost every scene but somehow manages to look as if he’d just taken it up. Chantal Goya plays his girlfriend Madeleine, who works at the same magazine but is trying to forge a career as a singer. If he’s the Marx part, she’s the Coke part – though she prefers Pepsi. When a radio journalist catches her on the way out of the recording studio and asks her to comment on the phrase “the Pepsi generation,” she enthuses, “I adore Pepsi!” Madeleine isn’t an idiot, but she’s superficial. She’s constantly checking her looks in the mirror, and at the end, after someone she cares about has died and she’s called to answer questions at the police station, when the cop identifies her by name she smiles coyly at him, as if he were a fan who recognized her in the street. (That’s the smile that graces the Criterion box.)

The first serious conversation (though it’s also funny) between these two takes place over a sink in the bathroom at their common workplace, and it’s one of the most extraordinary exchanges between a young woman and a young man ever put on film; perhaps the only director who has ever gone farther in getting the temperature of young people feeling each other out is Richard Linklater in Before Sunrise – though in that movie the two about-to-be lovers, played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, are an intellectual match. Paul and Madeleine are tentative, curious, exploratory, alternately evasive and direct. I can certainly think of movies where romance is set against the backdrop of explosive political eras, but has anyone ever mixed sex and politics in a way that simultaneously honors the contemporary issues and satirizes the way in which the inescapable – eternal – preoccupation with sex keeps edging politics to the sidelines?

Madeleine has two roommates, Élisabeth (Marlène Jobert) and Catherine-Isabelle (Catherine-Isabelle Duport), both of whom are also interested in him – and he in them – even though they usually pretend the opposite is the case. And in another marvelous masculine-feminine scene Catherine and Robert flirt with each other, though she’s noticed that he’s been eyeing Madeleine and he’s jealous that she’s sleeping with his best friend. When Paul loses his apartment because his landlady has promised it to her nephew, he moves in with the trio of young women, literally sharing a bed with Catherine and Madeleine, who lies in the middle and lets Paul feel her up while Catherine complains, “Oh, give me a break!”

There’s a stunning sequence where Paul, who has to conduct opinion polls for the magazine, interviews the winner of a “Miss 19” contest (Elsa Leroy) who has nothing to say about current events – she can’t even say where in the world wars are taking place – but the empty warmth of whose smile tells us exactly why she was chosen. Nothing that has ever happened to her or evidently ever could happen to her is more important than being Miss 19, but when Paul asks her why all she can say is that she received a lot of gifts (swag, that is) and free travel. She loves the United States, she tells him, because it’s fast-paced; she cherishes her independence, but she doesn’t seem to have a thought in her head to lavish that independence on. I suspect that if I taught Masculine Féminin to my undergraduates I’d get complaints from some of the students that it’s misogynistic because Godard presents Miss 19 and the other women as insubstantial, but Godard is taking a man’s limited point of view to them, and I think that’s perfectly fair. Besides, Paul and Robert are not profound either; Godard is very sympathetic to the members of both sexes here, and presents them in a way that both has fun with them and is poignant in its depiction of them.

Godard’s style is Brechtian: the narrative is interrupted by playful intertitles and different sorts of interludes at cafés – the characters appear to live in cafés more than they do in their flats – where strangers enact vivid, sometimes violent scenarios. In one scene Paul rides the subway with one of the young women while nearby a white woman and a black man play out the climax of LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman (produced off-Broadway just two years earlier). But his version of Brechtianism is unique, because the commentary they offer isn’t pointed; they have a rambling, shaggy-dog quality. No one has ever made movies like Godard.  Pauline Kael wrote about him – after he released Weekend, which turned out to be the last of his great visions – “Other filmmakers see the rashness and speed and flamboyance of his complexity; they’re conscious of it all the time, and they love it, and of course, they’re right to love it.  But they can’t walk behind him.  They’ve got to find other ways, because he’s burned up the ground.” That’s why Masculine Féminin – like Breathless and Band of Outsiders – still feels so fresh: no one who came after him could ever replicate what he’d accomplished.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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