By 1966, Jean-Luc Godard had established himself at the forefront of the French New Wave. Cinematically, he was experimenting with revolutionary techniques and politically, his films were in touch with the upsurge of youth revolution sweeping the country. To this day, many of the films he made in his first six years can be reeled off by even the laxest of cinephiles: À bout de soufflé (1960), Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Le Mépris (1963), Bande À Part (1964), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot Le Fou (1965), and others. Masculin Féminin fits very much in this revolutionary lineage.
It follows a small group of young Parisians, variously focused on Marxism and pop music. In particular, the film focuses on Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), his existential musings on life (e.g. wondering if he is the centre of the universe), his radical politics, and his romance with an up-and coming pop-star.
Masculin Féminin has many of tropes typical of Godard during this era. In the opening scene, there is a shooting outside a café. But it is ignored, as it isn’t relevant to our characters – Godard is only showing us want he wants us to see. Similarly, the background noise in the film comes and goes – we hear it only if Godard wants us to. During conversations, the camera remains steadfast, vérité-style, on one character.
There are other signs that are unmistakably Godard: the self-referentiality (a character mentions Pierrot Le Fou, his previous film); the giant capital letter inter-titles that appear with Western-style gunshots on screen. One of these inter-titles says “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola” – revolutionary politics and American culture feature heavily throughout.
The revolutionary atmosphere very much matched Godard’s own views of this time, and can be seen again in films such as Week-End (1967). He was making films that were riding a wave of passion on the streets; films that were incredibly relevant, if not ahead of their time. At their best, Godard’s films capture this energy and pace. The pop soundtrack helps this pace along, as we ride a culture crest of a wave.
On these grounds, there is much to acclaim Masculin Féminin for.
However, there are issues with the sexual politics of the film, and particularly with the central character of Paul. Trying to charm a woman he says, “I really like your kind of breasts. It matters.” He also shouts sexual comments at passing women and concocts ways to stare at a woman’s cleavage in a café.
Yet he is a politically active individual, a Marxist with a strong sense of right and wrong. But he cannot see his views and actions towards women being so vile. It is possible – nay, likely – that Godard has written this chauvinism into the script purposefully under the guise of satire. Godard’s anti-American sentiment appears to be blaming American and British popular culture for infecting France with this attitude. (There are shout-outs to James Bond, The Beatles and even Sandie Shaw in the film).
But sadly we can never escape the chauvinism itself, or the strong sense that Godard associates with Paul. When Paul defaces an American embassy car, Godard would have been cheering from behind the camera.
The female members in the group – Madeleine (Chantal Goya), Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport) and Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert) – have been fantastically developed in the writing, with performances to match. Some of the greatest moments of the film come in the scenes between Paul and Madeleine, when their romance feels at its most real: the tenderness when lying in bed together (albeit with a third person); and his pain when Madeleine walks off and leaves him alone in a bar. Madeleine, and Chantal Goya’s performance, has brought out a side in Paul the audience can relate to.
But sadly too often the two men of the group are arseholes with gut-wrenching chauvinism, and the apparent adoration from behind the camera only exacerbates this.
I do not wish to take away or detract from what is great, inventive or revolutionary about Masculin Féminin. But the sexism, which all too often surfaces, prevents it from being the first Godard film to unequivocally capture me.