wed 23/06/2021

Blu-ray: Masculin Féminin | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Masculin Féminin

Blu-ray: Masculin Féminin

Godard's playful and philosophical cinema

Bewitched by cinema: Jean-Pierre Léaud (Paul) and Chantal Goya (Madeleine) watching the film within the film

Jean-Luc Godard’s film-making career, a restless quest for a cinema that questions the medium as well as its place in the social and political context, is both astonishingly prolific and unique.

Rarely drawing directly on autobiographical themes, sometimes refusing to be credited as the sole director, he nevertheless remains the most personally driven of all the stars of the French New Wave. His 1966 Masculin Féminin is a kind of hologram of the thematic obsessions and stylistic tropes that characterise many of his best-known films.

Although very loosely inspired by two Maupassant short stories, this is a film without clear narrative. From early on Godard had rebelled against the conventions of Hollywood cinema. His philosophical films derive an almost perverse strength from the art of the non sequitur, constantly undermining the audience’s expectations and demanding reflection rather than compliance and escape. Films like Masculin Féminin, as his former collaborator the academic Jean-Pierre Gorin, explains in one of the illuminating extras on this Criterion release, are above all essays, in the style of one of Godard’s favourites, the French writer and philosopher Montaigne. The film explores the behaviour and attitudes of French youth on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood, between potentially creative disorientation and the comfort of certainty. But also – and here Godard demonstrates how much in touch he’s always been with the Zeitgeist of his time – this is a generation shaken up by the Algerian war of independence and the first phase of the Vietnam war. These are the young who will soon be making barricades of the cobble stones in the Paris boulevards.

Narrative cinema works within the comfort zone of a linear plot. In so far as this film has a plot, it's mostly about the rather adolescent romance between Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Madeleine (Chantal Goya). Godard works with the discontinuities of real life – exaggerating them at times to create effect, and to jolt the audience out a passive compliance. The only predictable element in Godard is the almost surreal unexpected: in Masculin Féminin, for instance, a wife murdering her husband outside the café where they have been arguing, as Paul and Madeleine look on fascinated and perplexed.

Blu-ray: Masculin Féminin

As the actress and pop singer Chantal Goya (Madeleine) explains in an enchanting bonus interview, Godard played with the space between actor and character. For Godard the make-believe at the heart of cinema is always brought in question. He worked, as she explains, with a mixture of strong direction and improvisation – casting his actors with intuitive flair, for their own stories. This would produce material that was never scripted. In the case of Paul, the film’s main character, he chose Jean-Pierre Léaud, Truffaut’s alter ego as “Antoine Doinel” in a series of autobiographical films, starting with Les 400 coups (The 400 Blows) in 1959.

This reference – Paul at one point claims the name "Doinel" – is characteristic of a film which asks, over and over, questions about cinema’s relationship to the truth. The film consists, indeed, of a series of questions: Paul and his friend Robert, with whom he's engaged in minor anti-American "actions", submit the young women in the film to a barrage of questions about sex and politics. Paul gives up his job as a journalist and starts to work as a pollster. once again asking questions.

The young women – girls really – are more hedonistic, not as concerned with the Vietnam war or other contemporary events. Madeleine records typically French yé-yé pop songs, with an American producer. As one of the film’s frequent titles announces, the young people at the heart of the film are “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola". The obsession with asking questions comes from a sense of disorientation and alienation, which Godard recognises as an expression of the times, caught as they were then (as today's youth still are) between slavish consumerism and idealistic radicalism. Godard was a remarkably prescient film-maker, always on the edge, taking creative risks inspired by strong intuitions concerning the way society was moving. Masculin Féminin is also a remarkable document of its time, as well as a period piece, with women discussing contraction and abortion at the dawn of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, as well as tuning into the mood that would explode in 1968.

Flirting with ideas about revolution, the film is also characterised by a certain pessimism – perhaps the melancholy shadow that often accompanies radical idealism. Suicide is very present: a man stabs himself in the stomach for no apparent reason, another self-immolates himself off stage, and Paul throws himself from the window of a high-rise building (both "off-stage" in the style of Greek tragedy).

Of the directors who had sharpened their critical teeth on Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard is probably the most concerned with film theory. Masculin Féminin isn't just a piece of pop sociology, but an essay in film theory, often playful, but at times a little tiresome, as if Godard were trapped in his own need to constantly deconstruct, an almost adolescent addiction to rebellion and questioning of accepted values and behaviours. Melancholy and alienated, and yet idealistic and romantic, Paul – never far from the Antoine Doinel made iconic in Truffaut’s films by Léaud – kills himself. Godard attempted suicide twice himself. His films may not be overtly autobiographical, but Masculin Féminin reflects something essential to the director – like a hologram that concentrates essence within a single multi-dimensional work of art.

Godard reveals in this hymn to teenage spirit a deep affinity with revolt that runs through all his films. He grew up in the comfort of the French and Swiss haute-bourgeoisie. The vitality and vibrancy of his films comes from a perpetual questioning, and yet reflects as well a psychology caught in an atttitude of rebellion, or as the French would put it  'la contestation'.  He is, in this respect, the most French of the directors of his generation.

Flirting with ideas about revolution, the film is also characterised by a certain pessimism

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Editor Rating: 
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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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