“This film could be called the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” This intertitle shows up around three-quarters into Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece Masculin Feminin, and acts as a somewhat thesis to the film. As Godard puts it in yet another intertitle, “philosopher and filmmaker share an outlook on life that embodies a generation.” Godard, simultaneously a maverick philosopher and filmmaker, uses this film as a base to catapult his views on the cultural and political turmoil in 1960 ‘s France among a generation a little bit younger than his own. And indeed he goes beyond merely sketching a portrait of modern Parisian living to actually defining the generation he is portraying, and even more, defining what it means to be young and idealistic.
The film begins to the sound of whistling and gunshots, as if to call to arms the countless young urbanites who go see the film, although ironically the film was banned for people under 18 in France. We see Paul, an idealistic communist revolutionary (played by New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud,) writing an abstract poem in a cafe. He starts an awkward conversation with a pop singer named Madeline (played by real life singer Chantal Goya in her first film role). Next thing we know they’re dating, and the film is the story of their relationship, but it’s a Godard film so we know their relationship is just a backdrop to something much, much larger. It’s a melodramatic film with content found in the modern rom-com, but just like in Breathless, Godard uses this cheap subject as a base to create an essay-film, in return, to create art.
Soon they are interrogating each other, in a masterful scene filled with awkwardness, silence and simplicity, asking one another about their habits, past relationships and their activities. This conversation is filmed in a realistic manner in two shots, one close up of each character, which highlights the physical and emotional distance (since their lack of chemistry makes the viewer think they were never really in love). This cross-examination dissolves into existential banter such as “what do you think about when you look at me?” and “what is the center of the world?” She answers that she is the center of the world, while he thinks the answer is “love.” The difference in their answers highlights the difference in their viewpoints, or even more, the difference between their genders (hence the film’s name). Every woman in the film doesn’t care and knows nothing about politics, and instead worries about their own lives and the moment surrounding them. They spend their free time shopping, and except for Madeline’s roommate Catherine, they are unlikable. On the other hand, the men are abstract and only talk about politics. At one point, Paul’s womanizing communist friend Robert says that in the word “masculin” there are the words “mask” and “ass,” while in the word “feminin” there is nothing. It’s a chauvinistic generalization to believe that women are empty narcissists who shop all day, but that doesn’t mean men aren’t guilty either.
The two main male characters are both communists, or, when thinking about it in terms of the film’s “thesis,” they are more of a “Marx” than a “Coca-Cola.” They spend their time putting up posters and scribbling intellectual political statements on bathroom walls and on the cars of American diplomats. Regardless of the film’s sloppy gender typing, the film has a lot to say, especially when the “Marx and Coca-Cola” dichotomy comes to mind. Paul and Robert quixotically chatter about unions, worker struggles and Vietnam, so you could imagine that they would despise consumerism to correspond to their socialist personas. But it’s all a façade, because at the same time they’re obsessed with sex and women, maneuvering to get a peek at a busty woman’s chest, which is more of a “Coca-Cola” than a “Marx” thing to do. When a woman walks by, Paul says “she must wear ‘O Yes’ bras!” and as if on a cue that could only derive from a commercial, they say together “’O Yes’ what a pretty bust!” (O Yes was a real French bra company). Indeed the very idea that Paul loves Madeline is materialist, since, as a pop culture loving fashionista pop star, she is as commercial-bourgeois as it gets. The viewer never really feels that they ever loved each other, and Paul, when asked why he likes her, vainly admits that he thinks she’s pretty and wants to have sex with her. Once he beds her, he gets bored and decides to dump her, but inevitably doesn’t because he needs a place to sleep, and Madeline’s newfound fame doesn’t hurt. Remember that according to Robert’s analogy, men are “asses” and “masks,” a contention that rings true throughout the film.
Paul is a walking contradiction; he’s a proclaimed “Marx” but equally a “Coca-Cola.” When one realizes this contradiction, they’ve reached the heart of the film; it’s a story about a generation filled with naiveté, since no matter what they callowly believe, they are equally influenced by massacres in Vietnam than they are by the latest Pepsi commercial. This statement isn’t only about the starving artists and yuppies in 1965 France, but also about young people anywhere. For me, it’s a very personal film because it illustrates the inherent ethical dilemma of being young and naïve; we talk about abstract ideals such as morality and care deeply about tragedies half a world away, but at the same time, we listen to Gangnam Style and track Kim Kardashian’s every move. It’s certainly a dichotomy, but that’s what it’s like to be young and idealistic, to look forward to when your life settles down but at the same time worrying about the moment. As a young person, I hate commercial America (I prefer French art films like this one) and proclaim myself to be a leftist out to perfect the world. But I know that I don’t turn off Gangnam Style when it’s on the radio and I don’t mind TV commercials. I am an anti-Coca-Cola Marx that is also a Coca-Cola. But maybe I don’t have to choose between futile egoism and moral principles; maybe I can have both. No matter what we believe, we all want the same end result; we’re all just young idealists, everyday living in the moment, yearning to explore and discover, to laugh and to love.
But the young person who most embodies Paul is named Jean-Luc Godard, who just so happens to be the auteur who made this film. Godard was entering a new stage in his life at the time of this film’s production, one in which his commercial appeal began to vanish and his love affair with American movies ceased with moral imperative that came with the Vietnam War. It was also at the time when his relationship with his muse Anna Karina ended, which could have led to the film’s misogynistic tendencies. After this movie, he would become a secluded misanthropic Maoist, disaffected by the consumerism and oppression he saw in society. But it was during the production of Masculin Feminin that he felt most conflicted between the teachings of Marx and the Coca-Cola world that made him a celebrity. The Marx side eventually won the battle for Godard’s heart, but thankfully he made a film about that internal battle first.
The film isn’t only auteurist on a personal and emotion level, but also on a structural and an aesthetic level. This film is Godard at his most non-linear and non-traditional. Godard had no intention to care about the story, and important plot points such as Paul quitting his job and becoming a pollster happens without a scene being devoted to it. The typical meet-cute sequences found in a relationship film are totally disregarded, and even when we find out in the end that Paul died is totally devoid of suspense. But Godard’s experimental narrative structure goes beyond the plot points; when it comes to structure, Masculin Feminin is one of Godard’s most radical accomplishments. This is best epitomized in a scene that reminds us of Hitchcock’s constructive genius when Paul and Robert go on the above-ground subway that passes by Madeline’s apartment hoping to catch a glimpse of her naked. But Godard doesn’t focus on this plot point; the focus is actually on the Paul observing the people on the train. One conversation we see is of a woman in an argument with a black person. Naturally, it ends with a murder, since like the constant car wrecks in Weekend there are four random inexplicable deaths that occur throughout the course of the film. But what is fascinating is the way Godard shows this; we see a shot of the gun, a shot of the moving train superimposed with the sound of a gun, and a title card that says “Nothing Left but a Woman a Man and an Ocean of Spilled Blood.” No other director would be willing to depict this scene this way, choosing instead to actually show the murder take place, and he probably wouldn’t even have the irrelevant murder scene in the film in the first place. Godard is the filmmaker that most experiments with cinema, exploring the way a narrative is structured, what he shows and what he doesn’t show, what we hear and what we don’t hear, and this is why he is, for me, the greatest director to ever live. He is willing to let the film’s content loose and run wild, while at the same time he is tightening his auteurist grip on the film’s production and aesthetic.
Another experimental aspect of the film’s structure is the use of the documentary; just as in Breathless, Godard employs a cinema-vérité style that resembles a documentary. But in Masculin Feminin, Godard adds a new dimension to his documentary form, as a large portion of the film consists of interviews. The most notable one is a 6 and half minute shot of a woman who was voted “Miss 19” (the scene begins with a title that reads “dialogue with a consumer product”). He quizzes her on topics ranging from socialism, Vietnam, love and birth control (like all the women of this film, her low IQ is apparent). What is perhaps most interesting about this interview is that fact that Godard asked the questions himself to the real-life “Miss 19” asking her real opinions, and dubbed in Leaud’s voice later. Actually, Godard used earphones to tell his actors what to say in scenes like this, bringing his auteurist presence to a new level since he is literally putting his actor’s words in their mouths.
Masculin Feminin is the first of his films to utilize the repeated use of intertitles, but even more interesting is Godard’s use of music, which ranges from Bach to Madeline’s pop tunes. The music is randomized, erratic, almost improvised, found in montages where the music plays in one shot and stops for the next one. Godard also used essay-style narration that is irrelevant to the plot to relevant to the theme.
More than any other Godard film, this one most resembles Breathless in both style and production. Just like Breathless, the film has the freedom of handheld camera and the realism of natural lighting, and even at one point there are a few jump cuts. In both films, Godard writes the film as he goes along, adding an improvised spirit that reflects the spontaneity that is inherent to being young.
It doesn’t have the pioneering style or the postmodernism in Breathless, the enigmatic charm of Pierrot Le Fou, or even the lyricism of Contempt, but Masculin Feminin has something of its own; it’s thematically dense and defines not only a whole generation but also an entire lifestyle. For me, it’s the most personal film made by Godard, my favorite director of all time, because it’s a moral dilemma that I face and it depicts a milieu I dream of one day living in, one that exists in the city and the café, populated by activists and romantics. It’s about young people trying to find themselves in a big city, and in an even bigger world. A Godard film is an essay on ideas and cinema; it’s never about a story, but rather about exploring and experimenting with a world, a world of cinema. While Breathless is my favorite movie of all time, and Pierrot Le Fou is in my top 5, Masculin Feminin most certainly makes my top 20.