An incredible treat arriving in the midst of the winter new-release doldrums is a restored print of Jean-Luc Godard's Masculine Feminine opening on February 11 in New York (Film Forum) and Los Angeles (Nuart) (other cities to follow).
Originally released in 1965 (on the heels of Pierrot le Fou), the film is a portrait of youth and youth culture, broken up into fifteen episodes (or "precise facts", as Godard calls them). The story centers around Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud, in one of his greatest performances), a young man recently returned from his mandatory military service, and Madeleine (yé yé girl Chantal Goya), an up and coming pop singer. A relationship ensues between the poet/pseudo-revolutionary and the chanteuse, but rather than offering a traditional narrative, Godard uses the relationship as a starting point for a series of extended dialogs between characters on topics such as politics, sex, and pop culture. Godard often films these scenes in long, single takes, with the camera fixed on the interviewee (usually in close-up). The film is also punctuated with scenes of meaningless violence (a girl and a gun, and more than once!) as well as various cinephile in-jokes.
The dichotomy that Godard presents is extremely straightforward -- the masculine world is dominated by political thought while the feminine one is about anything but. Paul and his friend Robert (Michel Debord) spend most of their time discussing Vietnam and Socialism, while Madeleine and her roommates are often shown primping, while discussing pop stars and being asked if they are part of the Pepsi generation. Yet Godard's men are still boys -- both will take turns reaching across a table for sugar just so that they can rub their arm against a woman's breasts. They will ride the metro (which goes by Madeleine's apartment) in hopes of catching her and her friends undressing. His female characters are more mature about matters of sex and relationships, yet throughout the film women will be portrayed as murderers, whores, and utterly clueless about world affairs. In one of the film's lengthiest sequences, Paul interviews a teenage model (Elsa Leroy) who was recently crowned "Miss 19" of 1965. (In real life she was voted Miss Tender Age (Mademoiselle Age Tendre) of 1965.) In the interview (which seems unscripted), Paul discovers that she loves America, has never heard of socialism, can't define reactionary, and has no idea where a war is currently being fought. (She does, however, know a bit about birth control, but is uncomfortable speaking about it.) Godard titles this chapter DIALOGUE WITH A CONSUMER PRODUCT. Might this be Godard's critique of the commodification of women in a capitalist society? Is Madeleine's dream to buy a Morris Cooper from the royalties from her records a statement about feminine tendencies towards consumerism, or has she, as a pop star, simply become part of some capitalist machine? Or is all of this less about differences between the sexes than it is about the indifferent attitude of youth as a whole?
Masculine Feminine is peppered with many comedic moments, and quite a few of the jokes refer to other films, including Pierrot le Fou, The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and The Rules of the Game. But the funniest moment occurs when Paul, Madeleine and some friends decide to see an erotic film (which happens to be a reworking of Godard's early short Une Femme Coquette). Paul, unable to enjoy it, runs up to the projection booth to lecture the disinterested projectionist about proper aspect ratio. (Something many cinephiles have no doubt dreamt about doing.)
The film takes a sudden shift in tone in the final minutes, ending on an almost tragic note. This is a technique Godard has used before, and it works here to great effect -- it doesn't come off as contrived. The characters are thrust into a reality that they had until this moment managed to avoid, and the circumstances behind it are perhaps Godard's strongest political statements in the film.
Masculine Feminine has been described as the realist counterpart to the romantic Pierrot le Fou, and this is a very astute reading of the film. Even the high contrast black and white is the polar opposite to the warm, natural colors of Godard's escapist fantasy. Masculine Feminine can also be viewed as a bridge (of sorts) between periods in Godard's career -- just one year after its release he would go on to direct La Chinoise, the start of his work with the Dziga Vertov group, and a radical new direction for him.
Don't miss this opportunity to see a beautiful print of a film that might very well be one of the best you'll see all year. Click here to watch the seductive trailer -- you'll want to see the film right away! Opens February 11 at the Film Forum in NYC and at the Nuart in Los Angeles.