Masculin Féminin

(Jean-Luc Godard, France/Sweden, 1966)


The Young Man for All Times

When I was a teenage cinephile, Masculin Féminin (1966) was enormously significant to me. It represented the entire output of France's Nouvelle Vague of the 1960s, with its youthful, anarchic spirit of freedom and spontaneity. It was in black-and-white, and featured icons like Jean-Pierre Léaud, and even (fleetingly) Brigitte Bardot. It spoke of love and sex and politics and work. It captured every teenager's dream of hanging out and fooling around in Parisian cafés. ("The bistro is synonymous with the Nouvelle Vague", wrote Serge Toubiana in 1991. "That's where people meet each other, cross paths, take leave of each other, exchange a few words.") (1) It spoke – way beyond its specific time-and-place of France in 1965 – to the confusions of any modern generation stranded between the no-longer-workable moral values of a vanishing world and the yet-to-appear arrangements of a new order.

Masculin Féminin also existed entirely in my head at the time – a perfectly imaginary object, a little like the ideal, perfect movie that Paul (Léaud) himself "secretly wanted to live" – thanks to the fact that my only access to it at the time was through a gorgeous fetish-object published by America's Grove Press in 1969, a transcription of the film's action and dialogue accompanied by many luminous frame-reproductions. Perhaps I was not so far from the characters in the film who (as Stig Björkman once wrote) live their passions and fantasise their Sartrean "engagement" in reality not just vicariously, but intravenously (2) – they are, after all, the "children of Marx and Coca-Cola" (as a famous intertitle describes them), carried along by the first great tidal wave of pop-culture consumption.

When I came, finally, to see Masculin Féminin on a big screen, it was in a roundabout way, after viewing other works that it surely influenced, including Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris (1972) and Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (1973), both featuring Léaud. But the film itself came as something of a shock: greyer than I imagined (Godard's regular cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, replaced for the occasion by Belgian-born Willy Kurant), less romantic and lyrical than his previous movies like Contempt (1963) or Pierrot le fou (1965) and, all up, rather serious and sad.

This places the movie at an intriguing, ambivalent juncture in Godard's career: on the one hand, it picks up the harsh tone and steely approach of several of his earlier movies that dealt with political subjects, Le Petit Soldat (1960) and Les Carabiniers (1963); on the other hand, it captures a mood of melancholy – moments of heartbreaking solitude caught, on the run, in the midst of a thoroughly mad and chaotic world – that return in force in the '80s with Sauve qui peut (1980), and continue right up to the present. The special aura of Masculin Féminin comes from its double focus: the sense that Godard is watching his characters from a great distance and judging them (for their venality and banality) is counterpointed by a secret empathy, a fleeting tenderness.

On its initial release, Godard presented Masculin Féminin as an act of réportage, an almost ethnographic account of the social climate in the period leading up to the presidential elections of December 1965 (de Gaulle beat Mitterrand). It was designed as a snapshot of the time in which it was made; Godard's key reference points were two films that helped build a bridge from old-fashioned, supposedly objective documentary to the more subjective and experimental form of the cinematic essay: Chronicle of a Summer (1961) by Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin; and Chris Marker's Le Joli mai (1963). This is why Masculin Féminin, like Godard's earlier A Married Woman (1964), contains so much rich and amusing detail about fashions, fads, pop music and international political events in the newspapers (especially Vietnam).

But it was particularly as a report on the "situation of French youth" that the film was received (both positively and negatively – the teenage Philippe Garrel, already on his way to becoming France's greatest unknown filmmaker, was solidly in the negative camp, rejecting the mirror Godard pretended to be holding up to his generation: "I felt that his opinions of young people were false, that it was all bullshit"). (3) In this period, Godard found himself able to step easily into a certain social milieu, and a youth-oriented pop culture, that was largely foreign to him, but which captured his imagination. It was François Truffaut who suggested that Godard buy his first television set – which is where he first laid eyes on Chantal Goya (who plays Madeleine), a model being groomed for success as a yé-yé pop singer. Goya also happened to be working in the editorial offices of the publisher Daniel Filipacchi who, alongside churning out such popular teenybopper magazines as Salut les copains and Mademoiselle âge tendre, also had a certain Cahiers du cinéma in his stable. (Later, in the political climate leading to May '68, Filipacchi and Cahiers would acrimoniously part ways.) But, as Godard's ex-wife Anna Karina has testified, he needed no infusion of television in order to appreciate French pop: "The more ridiculous the songs were, the more Jean-Luc adored them." (4) Godard was thus able to closely observe the professional habits, personal relationships and cultural interactions within this rather fluid milieu and to vividly capture these details in the finished film.

Twelve years after making it, Godard's (slightly hazy) reminiscence again emphasised the project's documentary nature – particularly the fact that the majority of dialogues in the film are constructed, almost surreally, as interviews, question-and-answer sessions between the characters delivered in shot/counter-shot volleys that are edited with machine-gun precision. "This was not written dialogue, it was real interviews with the actors—me doing a real interview with the actors­—which were partly fictional because when I spoke to them about the character in the film they were supposed to reply in a certain way, the way the character would. But sometimes I spoke to them as themselves. […] Afterwards I mixed the interviews up. […] I simply edited them so people would think they were talking to each other." (5) Other eyewitness accounts establish more reliably that Godard in fact whispered questions to his actors via an earphone for them to speak to each other as the camera rolled. (Goya recalls thinking that Godard would have liked to ask the questions himself.) This was no doubt the case in one notorious scene – the interview with an unidentified "Miss 19" (actually Elsa Leroy who, like Goya, cut a pop record) – where Godard drops the dialogue pretext altogether (instead, he suddenly gives Paul a job as a sociological investigator) and, in a long (almost six-and-half minute) and painful sequence-shot (shot four times over, according to Kurant), grills this poor girl on every pressing real-world subject she knows next to nothing about. (Godard may well have been remembering here Bertrand Blier's 1963 documentary Hitler – Never Heard of Him, an earlier "investigation into youth" that portrayed Zouzou, the iconic "twister of Saint Germain-des-près", as an apolitical airhead.) Whatever the method employed, it is clear that Godard in Masculin Féminin was spearheading experiments on the uncertain border between documentary and fiction, of a kind that Abbas Kiarostami would take further a quarter of a century later in films such as Ten (2002).

Masculin Féminin was spookily prophetic in some of its observations. This is especially so in relation to its central stars – Godard always following the intuition that any film is, at some level, really "about" the actors rather than the parts they are playing. Toubiana has remarked that Léaud and Goya "are contrasted in every possible way and, moreover, their respective subsequent careers prove the truth" of Godard's observation. (6) For Léaud, at the age of twenty-one, it was a crucial role – closer to his work with radical, hard-edge directors like Eustache, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Glauber Rocha than to the charm school provided by Truffaut in the Antoine Doinel series (the name of Paul's best friend, Robert [Michel Debord], seems a mocking allusion to Truffaut's real-life childhood companion, Robert Lachenay). Truffaut was, in fact, disturbed by Godard's handling of Léaud, recalling in a famous 1973 fuck-you letter to Godard: "It was in Masculin Féminin that I noticed for the first time how he could be filled with anxiety rather than pleasure at the notion of finding himself in front of a camera ... that first scene, in the café, was a painful experience for anyone looking at him with affection and not with an entomologist's eye." (7)

In Léaud's curiously bifurcated career, he would proceed from Masculin Féminin to parlay comfortable Doinel variations alongside further excursions into the palpable anxiety generated in him by autobiographical, neurotic and psychodramatic roles for out-there directors including Garrel, Jacques Rivette and Bertrand Bonello. For Goya, the path was simpler. Her pop debut levelled out into a lucrative career as a children's entertainer – staging theatrical and television spectaculars and making records where she accompanied (among other pop-culture icons) famous Disney characters. So Léaud, in a sense, stuck with Marx while Goya definitely opted for Coca-Cola. In another notable fiction-documentary crossover, Goya – playing a character who is nervous about contraception throughout and finally falls pregnant – was in fact really pregnant during filming, to the man who kick-started her musical career and is still her husband, Jean-Jacques Debout.

However, taking Masculin Féminin as primarily a chronicle of the '60s obscures the film's achievement, both as a work of art and as a personal testament.

Aesthetically, Masculin Féminin can easily seem like one of Godard's more casual efforts: a collection of fragments, notes, observations, improvisations, ideas and scene-sketches (or notional scenes as Raymond Durgnat called them: "a symbolic sketch, a sort of live-action cartoon ... symbolic indications of other actions and abstractions"). (8) Looked at closely, it coheres into a tight pattern that is, coming from this freest of filmmakers, surprisingly classical and balanced. (9) Although Godard plays fast and loose with the on-screen numbering of the "fifteen precise facts" of the story, the film nonetheless rigorously alternates extended "tableau" units with transitional flurries (street views – some filmed by Kurant purely to test the film stock – accompanied by multiple voice-overs), and the intimate personal story (private) with explosively social intrusions of violence (public). Scenes answer, complement or reverse each other (record production/movie consumption). The film holds even to the most classical device of all: the opening shot of the opening scene (Paul writing in a café) is reprised just before the end.

As in Vivre sa vie (1962), Godard tries out all the available techniques (long takes vs. extensive editing, static camera vs. moving camera) as he experiments with different ways of rendering the verbal exchanges between his characters – demonstrating that truth can never be simply filmed in a singular, transparent way, while trying, all the same, to reach and express that truth through a mosaic or collage structure. Compare, for example, the virtuosic passage in which Paul and Madeleine keep moving around a bistro to find a quiet spot to talk – long take, restless camera movement – with the heavily chopped-up, statically framed kitchen dialogue between Robert and Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport). This Cubist-like form creates striking effects: as, for instance, in the scene where a parodic close-up portrait of Madeleine (who poses narcissistically as Paul reads at top speed, off-screen, a pop magazine's blurb about her) is flipped, shortly after, by the truly soulful image of her in bed, almost glowing in the darkness as she recites a poem about the loneliness experienced during lovemaking.

The film's sound, recorded and organised by René Levert, is just as remarkable as its images: the inescapable barrage from off-screen of street noise or office chatter; the violent mixing in and out of scraps of pop music and radio broadcasts; the faltering, thin voices ... and the gunshots! Those harsh aural interruptions, firing at unpredictable points, seem to come from the same tape-library pillaged by Sergio Leone for his Italian Westerns: loud, exaggerated, booming in an echo-chamber. An enormous amount of violence is condensed in these gunshots: the violence of everyday, modern, urban life that is everywhere in this film (and yet everywhere ignored, or instantly forgotten), on street corners and in trains, playing itself out next to the central characters in bars, suddenly confronting them at the "Bus Palladium" entertainment centre, or occurring just off-screen (the man who sets himself alight in political protest). And they also seem to hint at a violence within Godard-the-artist himself, "taking aim" at his targets for analysis – the first two gunshots on the film's soundtrack (replacing Léaud's mock whistling of "La Marseillaise") coinciding precisely with both the "masculin" and the "féminin" in the opening credits.

One of the most memorable – and endlessly analysable – set-pieces in Masculin Féminin is the complex sequence (over eight minutes long) in which Paul, Madeleine, Catherine and Elizabeth (Marlène Jobert, mother of current starlet Eva Green) go to the cinema. Most often, the scene is cited for its touching conclusion: Paul's inner monologue about how movies were inevitably a disappointment, because they could not present the ideal reality of which they dream. But, taken in its entirety, this is an odd scene in many respects – beginning with the bizarre "Swedish art film" playing at the cinema. Even the substance of Paul's voice-over remarks – about deteriorating film prints, and Marilyn Monroe getting old – bear no logical relation to the screening that seems to prompt them. And, during filming in the theatre, Godard told Goya to imagine that the blank screen before her was playing Gone with the Wind!

Critics sometimes regard the scene as merely the pretext for Godard to slip in a parody of Ingmar Bergman (Madeleine's hilariously curtailed plot synopsis – "There's a man and a woman in a foreign city, and ..." – especially evokes The Silence [1963]). This may be so, but in the first place Godard is simply – as he was to do many times in his career – finding an ingenious (indeed, excessive) way to honour the terms of his initial contract: Masculin Féminin is a Franco-Swedish co-production (and hence, like Bresson's Au hasard, Balthazar in the same year, obliged to use some Swedish cast and crew), and its starting-point was an adaptation of two de Maupassant stories. One of these, "The Signal", is the tale of a woman who one day pretends, out of curiosity and whimsy, to act as a prostitute – and then has to submit to rough sex with a stranger in her own home; incredibly enough, it had already served as the basis for Godard's early short film, Une Femme coquette, in 1955.

The ways in which Godard incorporates this embedded film – weaving snatches of scenes situated in and out of the theatre, as well as in the less-than-perfectionist projectionist's booth – testify to the extent to which the entire sequence is a thoroughly self-deconstructed spectacle. Systematic ambiguities of image-sound relation abound: note the strange snatch of pop music as the gang enters the cinema, the highly artificial lighting effects once the projection begins, and the overlaps of sound from the Swedish film (in which the performers only grunt, never speak) over the snippets of Paul in the toilet (stumbling upon gay lovers) and outside, spraying graffiti. Everything seems "in process" here: after all, this film-within-the-film – which simply jumps into a "sample scene" (as it were) without any prior narrative exposition – has the same credits lettering as Masculin Féminin itself, and even that familiar gunshot sound-effect! (Much later, but still in the same vein, Olga's DVD packaging will boast the same computer lettering and design of Godard's video work, while borrowing the very title of the film in which it appears: Notre musique [2004].)

More profoundly, as Nicole Brenez has proposed, this cinema sequence can stand (again, prophetically) for the peculiar, interrogative temporality that will later characterise all of Godard's major films that in some direct way reference the filmmaking process, such as Passion (1982) and Grandeur and Decadence (1985). In those works, there hazily exists, in a brain-teasing superimposition or mise en abyme: a film in the process of being made (auditions are ran, equipment is checked, sets are built, tests are shot); a film that will never be made (or begun, or finished); and a film that is "immortal" and omnipresent in the manner of Orson Welles' The Immortal Story (1968) – it has already been made and has, indeed, existed forever, and thus only flashes up for us in disconnected flashes or apparitions (as was already the case for Fritz Lang's strange, statue-filled version of The Odyssey embedded within Contempt). (10) All this constitutive uncertainty of status impacts, of course, upon the actual film we are watching – which, in the case of Masculin Féminin, announces itself in the opening titles as "one of the 121 films not made in France" that year, and thus the mere "virtual" exemplar of an imaginary series. (11)

Masculin Féminin has to be taken, ultimately, as something more than a document of its time, or even a sinuously Godardian demonstration of deconstructive paradox. The film has a secretive, highly personal dimension. It came at a transitional moment for Godard, who turned thirty-five during its production: after the marital break-up from Karina, before the hook-up with the much younger (and highly politicised) Anne Wiazemsky and her radical student milieu (vividly refracted in La Chinoise, 1967). Only two years later Ian Cameron would describe Godard as having plunged into a "second adolescence and become the victim of all adolescence's confusions and fears". (12) In 1966, however, Masculin Féminin expressed a suspicious wariness on Godard's part toward the young – and offered him a way to project some of the misanthropy, even misogyny, he may have been feeling at the time. This is nowhere clearer than in the film's rather sour typing of gender. Although no one really comes off well in the film – all the characters are alienated poseurs of one kind or another – the masculine/feminine divide signalled in the title (Godard borrowed it from the wording on a unisex hairdresser's) is laid out relentlessly: boys talk politics and paint slogans, while girls play with their hair and shop. Even their musical tastes are opposed: Paul's classical picks and Robert's Bob Dylan interest versus the all-girl yé-yé trend. (13)

However, one can go deeper into the emotions of the film. Godard remarked in 1978 that "in Masculin Féminin I effectively began, I believe, what people call my political period". (14) Yet if it is true that the film marks, somewhat tentatively, a new beginning for Godard (much more aggressively pursued throughout the following, frenetic year with Made in USA, Two or Three Things I Know About Her and La Chinoise), it also marks the definitive end of one aspect of his work. It is striking to realise, in this regard, that Masculin Féminin is Godard's final film to employ a relatively conventional model of character psychology. From Made in USA (1966) to Notre musique, Godard's characters become ciphers, mouthpieces, emblems, allegories – figures in the strong, conceptual sense. This is not to say that these films are (always) stridently anti-humanist, that the actors lack presence, or that the loose stories conjured are bereft of emotion – quite the contrary – but rather that their human content, and their reserves of feeling, are systematically displaced from the traditional vessel of fictional characters rendered as living, breathing, three-dimensional persons.

In Masculin Féminin, things are different. There is a great deal unsaid, a theatrical subtext haunting the interactions of the five central characters. This is true even of those merciless interview-conversations, in which (as Scott Burton observed) "question-and-answer, stimulus and response, are out of synchronisation, cause and result unrelated" (15) – note all the personal queries that are not answered at all, or are handled cagily, or which return unexpectedly at other moments in these fraught exchanges. In this regard, Masculin Féminin is close, in Godard's career, to Contempt with its themes of uncertainty and betrayal in intimate relationships, and Bande à part (1964) with its young heroine (Karina) between two guys.

Masculin Féminin is, in fact, not far below its surface, a pure melodrama, a daisy-chain of unrequited love: Robert wants Catherine who wants Paul who wants Madeleine who sleeps with Paul but seems to have far less inhibited fun with Elizabeth. This lesbian intrigue, entirely explicit but often strangely overlooked by commentators (note the bathroom cavorting, the caressing whenever Paul's gaze is averted, the disembodied hand that enters the frame to fondle Madeleine in the cinema ... ), is taken more or less directly from the Guy de Maupassant short story, "Paul's Mistress," that served as Godard's launching pad. And the film's sudden ending is a more ambiguous rendering of de Maupassant's conclusion: in the story, a man kills himself when he is confronted with the evidence of his lover's lesbian affair; in the film, we are told that Paul fell out the window of his new apartment after arguing with Madeleine about her wish to have Elizabeth move in with them!

A lively and intriguing extended footnote to Masculin Féminin's melodramatic tangle is provided by Jerzy Skolimowski's Le départ (1967), also shot by Kurant, which casts Léaud and Duport in a Belgium-set story that, according to Michael Walker, "develops the one potentially fruitful relationship" in Godard's film. (16) There, but not in Masculin Féminin, heterosexuality works out OK. An elder statesman of French culture, the eminent film and literary critic Claude Mauriac (Wiazemsky's uncle), intuited perhaps more than he realised when he wrote in 1966 that Paul "stood out as the image of the young man for all times – nervous, worried, unhappy, despondent," adding as an afterthought: "No doubt he also represents the image of Godard himself". Mauriac was right: Masculin Féminin is a film in which its maker's "inhibitions, his sadness and his personal distress are so simply and so seriously expressed." (17)

© Adrian Martin August 2005

MORE Godard: À bout de souffle, Aria, Hélas pour moi, Soigne ta droite, Histoire(s) du cinéma 1A & 1B, For Ever Mozart, Éloge de l’amour, Film Socialism, Tout va bien, Alphaville


1. Serge Toubiana, "Masculin Féminin", Spécial Godard: trente ans depuis (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma hors-série, August 1991), p. 117. Note that, probably due to Godard's typically jazzy cut-up of the title in the opening credits, the film tends to be referred to interchangeably as both Masculin Féminin and Masculin-Féminin. back

2. Stig Björkman, "Masculin-Féminin", in Ian Cameron (ed.), The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (London: Studio Vista, 1969), p. 120. back

3. Thierry Jousse, "Entretien avec Philippe Garrel", Spécial Godard, p. 99. back

4. Jousse, "Entretien avec Anna Karina", Spécial Godard, p. 20. back

5. Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television (Montreal: Caboose, 2014), pp. 213-214. back

6. Toubiana, "Masculin Féminin", p. 117. back

7. François Truffaut (trans. Gilbert Adair), Correspondence 1945-1984 (New York: The Noonday Press, 1990), p. 385. back

8. Raymond Durgnat, "Jean-Luc Godard: His Crucifixion and Resurrection", Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 620 (September 1985), p. 270. back

9. For excellent accounts of the film along these lines, cf. Richard Roud, Godard (London: Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute, 1968), pp. 93-99; and Scott Burton, "'The Film We Secretly Wanted to Live: A Study of Masculin-Féminin", in Toby Mussman (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968), pp. 261-273. back

10. Nicole Brenez, "The Forms of the Question", in M. Temple, J. Williams & M. Witt (eds.), For Ever Godard (London: Black Dog, 2004), pp. 160-177. back

11. The precise number here used by Godard refers to the famous "Manifesto of the 121" against the Algerian War circulated in France in Fall 1960 – which Godard (unlike many of his compatriots) did not sign. He was criticised at the time of Masculin Féminin's release for this dilettantish citation of a prior political gesture. back

12. Cameron, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, p. 177. back

13. For an excellent discussion of gender relations in the film, cf. Douglas Morrey, Jean-Luc Godard (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 49-54. back

14. Godard, Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma, p. 170. back

15. Burton, "'The Film We Secretly Wanted to Live'", p. 263. back

16. Michael Walker, "Jerzy Skolimowski", in Ian Cameron (ed.), Second Wave (London: Studio Vista, 1970), p. 57. back

17. Claude Mauriac, "Masculin-Féminin", in Royal S. Brown (ed.), Focus on Godard (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972), pp. 71-72. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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