Masculin Féminin

Masculin Féminin ★★★★½

So after blowing cinema to smithereens in Pierrot le fou, Godard begins to pick up the left over debris with this film. Based on the fiery rhetoric that I (and others) used to describe the previous film, one would anticipate something daring, bizarre, and inaccessible. What we actually get is Masculin Feminin, which might actually be the most accessible film in his entire oeuvre. If his films leading up to this point show him attempting to unlearn the syntax of cinema we've been conditioned to, it is here that he attempts to relearn certain elements in a new way. A more dismissive viewer could file this away as Eric Rohmer with pop music. Thankfully, for me, such a description sounds like an ideal film.

Returning to the cumbersome "Mitchell" camera, Masculin Feminin invites itself to comparison with perhaps the most "classical" of all Godard films, Vivre sa vie, but I think the connections don't extend beyond the use of a heavy camera. In that film, Godard attempted to craft a near-mythic tale of martyrdom. That film is often identified as a high mark in his depiction of women, whereas this one is frequently diagnosed as one of his more misogynist works. There's certainly more than a hint of truth to Adrian Martin's lament that the film depicts a world where "boys talk politics and paint slogans, while girls play with their hair and shop." More than the work of any other filmmaker, one needs to resist reading Godard as either feminist or a misogynist, as strains of both continuously crop up in unison. His moments where his condescension is thinly coded rub up against the ones where the presence of such power relations is challenged. Yes, Paul's aggressive flirting is illustrative of a certain entitled horny aspiring male intellectual* and it goes somewhat unchallenged, but you can't say Madeline doesn't match him wit for wit. Like Rohmer, Godard doesn't feel the need to go down the route of loudly indicting the bad boyfriend here. That said, there is a sense that, unlike Rohmer, Godard doesn't care too much for the people that populate his film.

Godard himself noticed this problem after the film's release, but I think it isn't much of the problem. Sure, he doesn't warmly embrace his characters, but he never really did. A certain distance, working from a space "outside" the characters was located as an interest by Godard himself as early as Vivre sa vie. For all the (somewhat justified) claims that the film is misanthropic, or condescending to youth, the actual experience of watching Masculin Feminin is pure joy. Godard had been distancing himself from an investment in the romanticized images of Paris for years at this point. He dipped his toes back in here - the film's lasting images are ones of a type of enviable, bohemian, energetic youth. Paul and Robert, the "boys who talk politics" (via Martin) are seen as passionate activists in one moment, and entirely indifferent in the next one. Paul is down for the cause, yet he quips with the weary experience of a professor that the Anti-Communists will vote the same as the Communists. Paul's few moments of political consciousness suggest that he is one of the children of Marx, and Madeline, an aspiring pop star, is one of the children of Coca-Cola.

To me, at least, the film shows these differences as constantly in flux. There are not two sets of children, but one group, equally inspired by high theory as they are by pop culture. Can one think of a more precise description of Godard himself, who evokes the low and the high with little regard of drawing out the differences. Sure, Paul is something of a stand-in for Godard, yet I'm not sure the filmmaker would have embraced the character's blowhard opinions on music. There's a sly wink that comes with most of the details about Paul, as if he is consciously aware of his own identity forming. It's a necessary to point out that this is possible because of Jean-Pierre Leaud, who is perhaps the greatest comedic actor Godard ever had. His viewpoint is privileged over the other characters in the film, but his knowledge is not. There is indeed something irksome about the women being portrayed as vapid consumers, but they also come as more honest than the men. Just like the protagonists in La chinoise, Paul's political posturing serves a social purpose. This isn't to say he's disingenuous or consciously faking it to come across as smart. Instead, his ideals are located as the tension in a young adult shaping their identity. In interviews leading up to the film, Godard repeatedly stressed that he still thought of himself as being 22. Like Paul, he was figuring himself out. That sounds kind of schmaltzy, but as you can see, the process isn't always flattering.

*I logged on to facebook following my rewatch and was confronted with a friend linking to a blog post about the awfulness of "soft boys." The accompanying image? Paul talking to Madeline in the bathroom.

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