Masculin-Feminin: 15 faits precis

(Masculin-Feminin, France - 1966)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Chantal Goya, Marlene Jobert, Michel Debord, Catherine-Isabelle Duport
Genre: Drama/Ethnography/Essay Film
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard from Guy de Maupassant's La Femme de Paul and Le Signe
Cinematography: Willy Kurant
Composer: Jean-Jacques Debout
Runtime: 110 minutes

“Give us a TV set and a car, but deliver us from liberty” - Catherine-Isabelle

My Life to Live showed Jean-Luc Godard’s interest in creating episodic faux documentary, but despite constant experimentation in every aspect it’s ultimately more a traditional film than Masculin-Feminin. Influenced by the ethnographical films of Jean Roach and the essay films of Chris Marker, Godard aimed to paint a picture of the French youth of 1965. Godard captured the direction the world was going in so exactly the film is still incredibly modern. Sadly, all the changes one would make to adapt it to the world of 2007 would be lessening if not entirely eliminating the things Godard considered to be the positives.

It’s easy to say the film is in Godard’s head since he scrapped the idea of writing a script, but for the most part only the questions and situations are. Godard knows the general ideas he’s trying to put across, but the specifics come from his actors. He has them answer questions truthfully rather than as their character might. He can be faulted for using stars rather than people off the street, but a major point is there’s no normal, no average, and no regular. Everyone believes they’re a star anyway.

Jean-Paul Belmondo never struck me as any kind of an intellectual, but you pretty much know what you’ll get from him in a given role. Jean-Pierre Leaud may not be as Godardian as Belmondo because he’s so unpredictable. Give Godard something that strikes him as real on take one and he’s happy to move on, even if it’s not the reality he’d choose. Godard makes Leaud incredibly uncomfortable. The fate of the Godard character is to understand everything and nothing, to hate what you see but want certain things (a woman) only to find them boring, inadequate, and intolerable. This is a restless character who is always looking, but rarely finding.

Leaud plays a pollster named Paul, asking Godard’s questions. He doesn’t like what he sees; it makes him sad, nervous, and scared. He’s Godard in that he’s alone in the world and trying to understand why. Of course, Paul is never actually alone, he’s always with people and talking to them, he just doesn’t relate. He’s a bad pollster because he doesn’t know what he’s looking for, and his awkwardness and inability to interact effect the integrity of the answers he receives.

Since this is Godard, rather than finding some answers perhaps the main thing Paul learns is his approach was entirely wrong. Polls are designed to manufacture false consensus by restricting choice and in most cases virtually eliminating thought. The questions limit freedom by predicating certain answers, ultimately bringing out what the pollster either wants or doesn’t want to hear rather than the ideas and opinions, the information the person being polled has to offer. Since Paul knows there’s a problem but can’t identify it much less see if his potential solutions would be accepted, he can't learn anything from the polls. Polling is a form of consumerism, so Godard denies Leaud personality and opinion while acting as pollster. All the info he’s ingested has inundated him, making him a blank. Like a picture in a magazine you can project anything onto him and never be wrong because, in theory he’s whatever you want him to be.

Paul is quite dodgy in his own right. He knows the answers to Madeline’s questions about his romantic intentions toward her, but doesn’t think it’s in his best interest to answer. This should show another fault in his poll, when you go in a certain direction people are leery because they either wonder what you are after or know and see how you could use it against them. Leaud is getting a judgment, at best, but you look at things differently when someone is asking you about them for some unknown reason. The truth is much more easily attained through observation.

The greatness in Leaud’s performance lies in his subtle ability to shift between pollster and romantic lead. Chantal Goya is the main subject of his polls, a real life ye-ye pop singer who plays herself other than going by the name Madeleine. She’s Paul’s girlfriend of a sort, though they have nothing in common and she’s more comfortable with her girlfriend Elisabeth (Marlene Jobert), potential lesbianism implied. Catherine-Isabelle (Duport) is the one who shows actual interest in Paul. Add Paul’s political activist friend Robert (Michel Debord), whose love for Catherine-Isabelle is unrequited like all the others, and you have the primary subjects of Paul’s polls.

The men are the children of Marx, while the women are the children of Coca-Cola. Godard seems to be as objective and non-judgmental as he can be, but that’s his trick. Masculin-Feminin is a Marxist criticism of consumerism attained by showing the scary reality. The French youth has been given the most basic knowledge about what is going on in the world, but no one has interested them in it, made it tangible and meaningful to them. Paul is horrified by the killing in Vietnam, but others either don’t know it’s happening at all or give the most emotionless yes to the fact the entire country is being burnt down with napalm.

Though the ads no doubt sell you on how unique and special spending your money on conforming to the latest corporate manufactured fashions, trends, and ideas will make you, Godard shows the purpose is to hide by blending in. Anytime someone is singled out they become very uncomfortable. Paul interviews the current “Miss 19” (Elsa Leroy), typically smug and full of herself. She throws out some words like great and fascinating, but they have no meaning when she uses them. They don’t explain anything, like the culture they are empty. There’s no qualifying, and no in between. She can’t or misanswers every question, showing she knows nothing about the world, yet she’s the chosen representative for her generation, as she knows what those who choose her want her to. She’s a cute airhead, a perfect consumerist role model who won’t question anything important and wouldn’t care to take the time to comprehend even if you did try to explain it to her.

Coming off his breakup with Anna Karina, Godard was that much more misogynistic than usual. Women are basically pea brains that play with their hair, shop, get pettycures, and look at pictures. Consumerism works because guys get horny, so they find a woman and since she’s clueless about politics and literature they get sucked into some frivolous endeavor or conversation.

Godard shows the selfishness of these kids, the idea they are the only one that matters in many ways, but most effectively through the violence. When you only care about yourself nothing makes you bat an eye, and those in power can do whatever they want. Gunshots that sound like they are out of a spaghetti western are regularly heard and sometimes seen, but violence is merely an interruption. Death may be remembered in passing, but doesn’t generate any emotional response.

Submission should obviously be seen as the motif of a soldier’s life. R. Lee Ermey is going to be in your face screaming at you until you give in or he has to take more drastic measures. What Godard shows is pop culture is simply a more subtle way of getting everyone to tap out. It emphasizes a purchased uniformity, while ignoring any meaningful topic. Pertinent information is just present enough that you can’t say it’s entirely absent, but people aren’t informed enough to have a solid basis for their opinion, and even the faux discussions do at least as much to distract as to inform. Pop culture ignores the supposed subject through diversions such as what someone is or isn’t wearing, all the better if it’s a celebrity. Even most people who associate themselves with politics do little more than the one thing they are encouraged to do, vote once a year. Fashion gets far more specific days, but TV finds a way to make every day, if not every moment, a subtle fashion day. Fashion is allowed to share the news with politics as if it has some importance outside of making the sponsors rich, and it's politics that's rarely allowed to branch out.

The film was far ahead of its time in its willingness to deal with taboo subjects such as birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and lesbianism. Godard puts out these issues as if to say why are we always viewing false images rather than having a legitimate discourse on issues that actually effect people’s lives?

Godard talks a lot about freedom, but what separates him is he’s willing to make movies that are free to go anywhere, anytime. There’s more to life than just his few characters, so in the midst of their activities a husband and wife might have a fight, a man might ask directions, a celebrity might enter the cafe. It doesn’t have a bearing on the non-existent plot, but when someone asks you about your day don’t you often find yourself saying something about someone who exited your life almost as quickly as they entered it? You’ll never know their name, but they’ll forever be remembered as that guy who did this to help you, hurt you, or make you laugh.

Godard often seems to have a second film going on in the periphery. This greatly adds to the realism. The intrusions seem random and haphazard, but eventually have a purpose, even if in a few cases it’s clear only to Godard. Part of the general point is to show how much we ignore. There’s always other people and various noises in real life, but they are eliminated from 99.9% of the other movies due to being an unnecessary distraction (or rather for adding to the cost and taking more time).

Masculin-Feminin is a film about the banality of modern life. That’s how everyone hooks you, any change from the monotony seems like it might be a good idea until you try it and see it doesn’t make any difference toward fulfilling your life. The changes are almost always in the direction of conformity and uniformity, even if they are usually sold as the opposite. The trick with a film on boredom is to make it interesting, and that’s what all the gags and random actions and asides accomplish. The jokes sometimes seem flagrantly awful, but they are Godard sending up some of the mass consumption cliches. He does it in such an absurd way it may seem stupid, but then you see it’s a demonstration on how idiotic the saying is. Sure, the people who say “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” don’t mean mimic another person, but Godard’s point is it’s foolish to suppose these cliches are less ridiculous when they are taken the way they are supposed to.




* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *