February 20, 2006
Masculin Feminin (1966) was seen as a radical departure for Jean-Luc Godard because of its overt political message and openness about sex. Up until then he was the critical darling with hits like À bout de souffle (1960), Bande à part (1964) and Pierrot le fou (1965). Masculin Feminin was an early prototype of the cinematic essay – not quite fictional, not quite documentary – and quite experimental in nature. It’s no wonder that so many critics hated the movie when they first saw it.
Ah, the heady days when you’re twentysomething and have your whole life in front of you. Godard captures the collegiate/bohemian vibe with this film. His characters hang out in cafes talking philosophy and politics while smoking cigarettes. The movie is a visual snapshot of Paris in the 1960s, a time when the country was becoming very politicized and Paris was a very hip place to be. As one character puts it, “It was the age of James Bond and Viet Nam.” Students wrote and signed petitions protesting the imprisonment of artists in Rio de Janeiro and spray-painted anti-war slogans condemning the United States’ involvement in Viet Nam on buildings.
There was a restless, volatile feeling in the air and Godard dramatizes this during a scene where Paul, sitting in a café, witnesses a couple fighting over their child. The husband takes the child and leaves. The wife follows and shoots him in the back with a gun. In a later scene, Paul passes a man playing pinball who then proceeds to pull a knife on him. However, instead of attacking Paul the man stabs himself. It is these irrational bursts of violence that keep the viewer on edge and give the film an unpredictable vibe.
Godard also captures the youthful exuberance of the times, when young people were open to anything and everything. This is epitomized by Madeleine (Goya) with her beautiful ‘60s Mod look. Her courtship with Paul (Leaud) is anything but conventionally depicted as Godard has him ask her out on a date as if she was an interview subject for a documentary. It is akin to some kind of perverse intellectual flirting.
Masculin Feminin is vintage Godard, made during the period of his career when he was still making youthful films that celebrated and playfully experimented with cinema. Ultimately, the film may be Godard’s disillusionment with conventional filmmaking and the character of Paul is his mouthpiece. Paul’s passion for the cinema has given way to disappointment as he says, “the images were dated and jumpy. Marilyn Monroe had aged badly. We felt sad. It wasn’t the movie of our dreams. It wasn’t that total film we carried inside ourselves. That film we would have liked to make, or, secretly, no doubt, the film we wanted to live.” Godard nails this timeless feeling of disillusionment. The notion that once you reach a certain age or had enough experiences you become so jaded that things no longer inspire you as they once did and you end up longing for the past, nostalgic for simpler times.
“Chantal Goya, 1966” is an interview done with the pop singer turned actress for the Au-dela de L’ecran TV show around the time that Godard’s film came out. She muses on quitting her singing career for movies and how shocked her parents were when they saw it. Goya even briefly talks about her dream of owning her own clothing store.
“Chantal Goya, 2005” is a nice contrast to the ’66 interview. She reflects on her career and Godard’s film. Goya talks about meeting him for the first time and how she got the role. She also gives her impressions of the man and what it was like to work on one of his movies.
“Willy Kurant” is an interview with the film’s cinematographer. He talks about the techniques he employed on the movie and recounts several interesting anecdotes. Kurant and Godard really experimented with traditional ways of shooting a movie and it resulted in a fascinating movie.
“Jean-Pierre Gorin” talks about Godard’s unique vision – the director believed that a movie should have a beginning, middle and an end just not necessarily in that order. Gorin describes Masculin Feminin as a film about banality and admires the absence of judgment – this is left up to the audience.
“Freddy Buache and Dominique Paini.” Buache was the founder of the Cinematheque Suisse and Paini the director of the Cinematheque Francaise. They talk about the critical reaction to the movie when it first came out. Many critics (Buache included) hated the movie because it was so different, so ahead of its time and such a departure for Godard that critics didn’t understand it. These gentlemen have a spirited conversation about the film’s themes.
“Godard on Swedish Television” features a TV crew visiting Godard on the set of his movie to watch him at work and interview him briefly. Godard is elusive and doesn’t give away too much, preferring to describe his movie as “sociological film about young people.”
Finally, there are original and re-release trailers.