The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Masculin Feminin (1966/France/dir. Jean-Luc Godard) appeared at #1 on my original list. Most entries are only a couple paragraphs; this one, to conclude the series, is much longer.
What it is • It is autumn, and an important election is on the horizon. Against a background of looming violence and repression, there is also a sense of determined, restless energy amongst the nation's youth, a dissatisfaction with the status quo and desire for change that is finding expression in a reinvigorated left...accompanied by absorption in a pop culture that celebrates consumption and pleasure dissociated from any sense of deeper meaning. But Masculin Feminin is not a present-day documentary and these "children of Marx and Coca-Cola" are not millennials. The country is France and the year is 1965. The film focuses on five young people - three boys, five girls (in their late teens or early twenties, living independent lives, yet still free-spirited, and uncertain, enough to seem more like "boys and girls" rather than "men and women"). Though Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and his buddy Robert Packard (Michel Debord) hew to a more orthodox Communist Party line than the fashionable Maoists and anarchists emerging at the forefront of the New Left, they are definitely plugged into the zeitgeist: joining in strikes from their factory jobs, petitioning the Brazilian government, and protesting the Vietnam War and the Gaullist government up for re-election. However, they appear to be rather clueless about the youth counterculture, Paul especially (watching him "sing" Bob Dylan's lyrics is one of the more amusing moments in the movie).
On the other hand, Madeleine Zimmer (Chantal Goya), a (seemingly) cheerful, cute, somewhat aloof pop singer, is more interested in her own career than current events, working at a fashion magazine and recording in a studio, headphones isolating her from the rest of the world - including her boyfriend Paul who stands in front of her, waving forlornly. Her roommate Elisabeth Choquet (Marlene Jobert), never mentions politics and when Madeleine's other roommate Catherine-Isabelle (Catherine-Isabelle Duport) makes a snide offhand comment about "the bourgeoisie" her friends laugh at her and accuse her of imitating Robert. In other words, the two words of the title are divided by a yawning gap, and there's little doubt which side is which in the "children of Marx and Coca-Cola" formulation; this politico-cultural split is deeply gendered (echoing the director's tendency in early works to paint the male characters as more "serious", a quality with both positive and negative implications). Interestingly, a year later the same filmmaker would reverse this dynamic, with his soon-to-be-wife Anne Wiazamesky schooling the other characters in Maoist praxis, just as she was initiating her new boyfriend into Maoism in real life. And within a year of that, any politico-cultural divide would seem to miss the point entirely; political and cultural revolution went hand in hand in the late sixties, in the form of a cultural revolution far less conducive to capitalism (at least initially) than the one onscreen in Masculin Feminin.
That's an awful lot about the historical context of the film, which might make Masculin Feminin seem like a straightforward, didactic sociological exploration. But this is a Godard movie. It's stuffed full of amusing, absorbing activities and anecdotes, seemingly improvised; bold titles interrupting the action and preceding each section of the film with a number accompanied by the zing of a bullet; reflective social analysis delivered as poetic narration over real-life bustling streets; jagged cutting and arrestingly off-kilter sound design reminding us this is a movie; long, unscripted takes reminding us this is reality too; even, in this fairly locked-down film, camera movements that seem to pull away from the action with a mind of their own (usually as winsome pop music fills the air). Visually, the film may have a more grounded, less startling style than many of Godard's other films (perhaps because he was working with German photographer Willy Kurant instead of his usual collaborator Raoul Coutard). Narratively, however, it is one of his most unconventional works up to this point, with no clear plot mechanics guiding us from scene to scene. Instead, the fictional storytelling flows much more like cinema verite nonfiction, dipping at times into straight-up documentary as the actors spontaneously ask each other questions (prompted by Godard speaking to them through a hidden earpiece) and are forced to laugh, fall silent, or deliver unprepared answers on the spot. Knowing this, we sometimes get the sense they are doing so as themselves rather than whoever they are playing (a porous boundary to be sure).
One of the most famous examples has Leaud, offscreen, aggressively firing off survey questions to a woman dubbed "Miss 19" (Elsa Leroy), who is hesitant to engage with questions about socialism or birth control, preferring to talk lightly about her travels as a goodwill ambassador for the glossy magazine. This can - and has - been read variously as the just skewering of a superficial teenager (how Goya herself read it; she knew this woman and didn't like her), or as the firm, good-humored resistance of a self-assured young woman in the face of vaguely sexist, condescending inquiry. That ambiguity is key. The patient observational approach (which Godard himself, through Leaud, questions in the climactic narration) yields a far more even-handed take on the "masculine/feminine" split than the script might suggest, leaving much of the film's meaning to whatever the viewer him or herself is able - or willing - to pick up on.
I discovered a fresh perspective on an old favorite earlier this year, when I watched Cristina Álvarez López's and Adrian Martin's twelve-minute video essay Queer Godard. Masculin Feminin feels like one of Godard's least bound pre-'68 films, toying with no particular genre and immersing itself entirely in contemporary Parisian reality rather than playing with Hollywood conventions. Yet it is actually an adaptation (however loose) of the short story Paul's Mistress (1881) by Guy de Maupassant, a story that explicitly foregrounds lesbianism. Using quotes from Maupassant and - most importantly - visual evidence from the film itself, the essayists chip away at one aspect of the movie to reveal another, hiding in plain sight. Regardless of how one interprets them, the film is full of moments shifting the balance of perspective from Paul, played by the film's big star and a charismatic if abrasive analogue for Godard's offscreen persona, to Madeleine and the women he despairs of understanding. His eyes are closed as Elisabeth warmly caresses Madeleine's face. He wanders offscreen while the two giggle amongst themselves. And he isn't even present in the closing scene - for reasons that become obvious as soon as it begins - giving Elisabeth and Madeleine the last word. In fact, that last word is given in more ways than one; early in the movie, the arrogant Robert tells Paul that "masculin" contains two other (French) words, including "mask" (a term that would actually suit the more guarded females in the movie), but that "feminin" contains "nothing." The last words onscreen? "Feminin", shortened with the ping of gunfire on the soundtrack, to "F in".
Why I like it •
Breathless was my first Godard, as it was for many. I didn't like it. The "innovations" seemed dated, the charm second or thirdhand, the casual filmmaking was too flimsy, and it seemed to be coasting on attitude rather than anything I could get my hands around. I think it was less than a year later that I watched a few more Godards, after watching clips that suggested I shouldn't give up. Weekend, with its apocalyptic hook and conceptual setpieces, had a more immediate appeal for me. My Life to Live seemed admirable, but left me somewhat cold. And the third video I borrowed from my local library, Masculin Feminin, instantly crystallized everything I'd hoped for - and not even known I was hoping for - from the still-controversial, still-divisive, deeply misunderstood auteur of the French New Wave. First of all, it was frequently hilarious in its casual absurdity. This was something I noticed both Godard's fans and detractors never seemed to comment on: his ability to undercut (and thus, somehow, strengthen) his unapologetically blunt portentousness with winking, goofy gestures. I particularly remember laughing out loud when the block-letter title card about "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola" was immediately followed by a shot of a passerby slinking in front of a wall, their own face covered by the one on a slick magazine. Godard has never been afraid of silly, playful gags.
Most of all - and this is what elevated the film to my all-time favorite after a few years of frequent rewatches - Masculin Feminin existed, at every moment, in the service of cinema. What the hell does that mean? For me it meant the film operated as pure style and not just in some flashy, obvious way (it is pared-down, even for Godard), but deep in its bones so that every shot, cut, and gesture was powered not by what it was documenting but the very excitement inherent in documenting anything. The subject of the movie almost seemed secondary, because the rhythm of the movie's movements, the liveliness of the action or dialogue, even the pent-up tension in the moments when "nothing" was happening, crackled with electric energy, conveying Godard's conscious excitement in the act of filmmaking. The documentary-fiction hybrid assisted in this impression; at any moment, the movie was capable of slipping back and forth between the Lumiere-Melies poles. That I was shooting things of my own at the time certainly helped me appreciate the film in this light (the whole New Wave thrives on the gap and overlap between the processes of watching and making movies). But it also helped that I was coming off a period more obsessed with music than movies. Masculin Feminin was like an album I listened to for the flow of its music, losing the lyrics in the shuffle.
I've had experiences, though, where I've listened to albums dozens of times, lived with them inside-out, and only then randomly picked up on those ignored verses and realized what the song was "saying" all along. Masculin Feminin is a bit like that too. Reading reviews of the movie that focused more on the content, definitely watching that video I described above, pointed me to glaring qualities I had missed in my obsession with the film's form (likewise, I'm sure I cottoned to qualities these reviewers may themselves have neglected; the movie contains multitudes). Furthermore, as I grow older - either due to maturity or just random changes in taste and perspective, or some combination of both - I shift back to an appreciation of character, theme, and story; certainly my yearlong engagement with Twin Peaks pointed me very firmly in the direction of narrative, or at least a more holistic union of form and content than I was geared toward ten years ago. Watching Masculin Feminin again today, I think I am more aware of the film's what as well as its how, though it's always been, and remains, the how that rockets it up so highly for me. And the film will continue to grow and evolve as I do, and yes, contract or close off too (because as life goes on, we often lose as well as gain).
Probably the most famous scene in the movie, the one I've sampled and celebrated and quoted over and over, as a personal touchstone for my own journey with "the movies," shows the characters themselves sitting in the audience of a movie. Paul narrates a paraphrase from a novel, lamenting that the movie was slightly disappointing because it wasn't the one they imagined, the one they secretly wanted to live. That idea of cinema as an all-consuming lens through which to view life itself appealed to me greatly when I first called Masculin Feminin my favorite movie of all time. Now I'm inclined to put a slightly different spin on it. That idealized movie, that whole notion of cinema as a unified whole of which each individual film is but a small fragment is a beautiful, albeit sometimes overwhelming, dream and perhaps a necessary one. It also doesn't really exist. What does exist is each movie, each moment in a movie, and the experiences conveyed therein which are a part of something bigger (and something much bigger than cinema). That reality is even more valuable than whatever shape we imagine in our heads. I'm not sure Paul ever does realize this, while I suspect Madeleine does, but cannot decide where to go with it. I think I do, and I hope I can.
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More from me • In 2012, I reprinted an IMDb comment from several years before I had a blog, which contrasted Masculin Feminin with Tout va Bien (favorably for the former). A clip from the film spans two chapters in my video clip series "32 Days of Movies" (the only film to do so): appearing at 3:08 to close out "That Total Film" and then kicking off "There's Something Happening Here..."
How you can see it • Masculin Feminin streams on Hulu and is available for DVD rental from Netflix. I can't find a digital rental/purchase in the U.S. but it is on iTunes UK.
What do you think? • Do you sympathize with certain characters more than others in this film? Are there other films that have worked for you primarily in terms of style, rather than story, without necessarily "lacking" narrative/thematic qualities too?
And what is your favorite film of all time?
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