Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard, Guy de Maupassant (stories)
Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Chantal Goya, Marlene Jobert
BBFC Certification: 12
Out of all the European directors strongly associated with the cultural renaissance that dominated the 1960s cinematic landscape, including such luminaries as Fellini, Bergman or Truffaut, it is Jean-Luc Godard who surely has one of the most daunting reputations. An instigator of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) that revolutionised French Cinema in the early 1960s, the work of this cinematic wunderkind can be both exhilarating and alienating in equal measure. His films stand in stark contrast to his closest contemporary (and one time best friend) François Truffaut. Whereas both believed that cinema could match the depth and purity of the greatest works of art, Truffaut still made films with a recognisable cinematic language; Godard wanted to rip up the rule book in an attempt to reinvent cinema itself. And therein lies the problem. Truffaut was still making films for an audience. Almost right from the start, Godard was making films just for himself, to prove what could be done to change and revolutionise an aesthetic form that he believed had grown stale.
This desire means that his films can be a tough watch – even those from his earlier, more ‘conventional’ period in the early to late 1960s, before he became disillusioned with narrative cinema itself. Godard makes no concessions to the audience and plays with form and style almost in the same way a jazz musician improvises with their instrument. In this respect, this new release from Criterion of one of the director’s lesser known classics, Masculin Féminin, is no different. It is a film bursting with fresh creative ideas born out of a creative frustration, a desire to continually change, experiment and adapt in the search for something new, something modern and pulsing with life. This doesn’t make Masculin Féminin a conventional or an easy watch, but it does make it a fascinating and frequently rewarding one.
The plot, like many of Godard’s films, is deceptively simple. Paul (played by New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud, star of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows) an idealistic and politically charged young man, meets Madeleine, a sweet, pretty singer, in a coffee shop. The film follows their relationship, as well as examining the relationship of their closest friends, all set against the backdrop of mid 1960s Paris.
Using a turbulent relationship as a springboard to explore wider intellectual and aesthetic concerns ensures that Masculin Féminin follows the template that defines much of Godard’s early work. Yet the film differs quite dramatically from what came before. Eschewing the cool insouciance that defined Breathless or Bande à Part or even the more traditionally dramatic techniques used in Le Mépris, Masculin Féminin at times feels more like a documentary than a narrative film. In a way, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Madeleine, played by real life singer Chantal Goyer, had no prior acting experience, there was no written script and Godard frequently jumped at the chance to allow real life to bleed into his fictional narrative (when Madeline announces that her new single has just charted in Japan, that is because the same thing had happened to Goyer).
Yet the film’s most overtly documentarian flourish is reserved for three separate ‘interviews’ that take place over the course of the film. Ostensibly appearing as conversations with three female characters, Godard allows his narrative to grind to a halt and actually interviews the actresses himself (his improvised questions delivered via an earpiece through the male actors) with questions ranging from sex and politics, to war and relationships. As the actresses deliver a lot of their answers truthfully (i.e. not always in character) these segments can be seen as an attempt to capture youthful attitudes and feelings towards a society that was in the process of rapid, sometimes dizzying, change.
You would think that these segments would be jarring (not that it would have bothered Godard that much if they were) but they surprisingly feel like a coherent and indeed even integral part of the whole. Masculin Féminin isn’t just the study of a relationship; it’s a time capsule that stunningly captures a moment in history. The interview segments don’t detract from this. Instead, they help to add depth and authenticity to Godard’s exploration of a young generation that was heading towards a dark and uncertain future – the children, as the film puts it, ‘of Marx and Coca Cola.’
Perhaps it’s time I was slightly honest here…I have found quite a lot of Godard’s work, despite its technical accomplishments and revolutionary techniques, hard to love or even warm too. Yet I felt differently about Masculin Féminin. Somehow the detached, observational style of storytelling ensures that the film feels fresh and modern, even after fifty five years. Godard is still experimenting with form and technique, but he doesn’t allow (apart from a few, isolated instances) his desire to upend filmic convention to destabilise or detract from the core story and relationship, elements which in previous films have all too often taken a backseat. By adhering to a documentary aesthetic, the film feels more grounded and real, rarely taking the flights of smug fantasy that in some of his previous works prioritised playful spectacle over narrative coherence or character authenticity.
Regardless of how you feel about Godard as a storyteller (and that has never been his key concern, unlike his close friend and eventual rival, Truffaut) his films never feel less than audacious in their technique, from the handheld camera and elliptical editing in Breathless to the sudden music drop outs and frequent winks to camera in Une Femme est une Femme. Masculin Féminin feels no less influential and boundary breaking. You can feel Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson in a few of Godard’s dolly shots (especially the one that follows Paul and Madeleine around a cafe) Kubrick in the sharp and ironic use of bold inter-titles to break up the action or even Tarantino in the looseness and freedom of the dialogue. It is a film that feels as modern in its technique as it does in its loose, observational storytelling and it climaxes in a moment of brutal emotional coldness that eviscerates any notion of wooly 1960s optimism and aligns it presciently with the modern world.
Fans of Godard will no doubt already love this key work. For those of you who are still sitting on the fence or have always found his films to be alienating rather then engaging, then Masculin Féminin may end up changing your mind about the director. While this film is still challenging, disruptive, self conscious and at times perhaps too clever for its own good, it nevertheless captures both a relationship and a moment in time that is bewitching and moving in equal measure.
If Godard was looking (and, at 91 years old, possibly still is) to use his films as a way to disrupt cinematic artifice and convention in order to reach some kind of purer, more authentic truth, then Masculin Féminin, out of the films of his that I have seen, is the only time that he has succeeded.
Criterion are releasing Masculin Féminin on Blu Ray this May. Criterion are upgrading their old DVD with a new 4K restoration. The picture quality on the disc is fantastic – wonderfully sharp and with a lovely filmic grain, with some scenes looking like they could have been shot yesterday. Night time scenes on the streets of Paris boast wonderfully deep blacks and there are hardly any issues with stability or encoding. I’m sure this will be a significant upgrade over the old DVD. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is clear and punchy.
There are a few extras on the disc, all of which have been ported over from the old DVD.
- Interview from 1966 with actor Chantal Goya
- Interviews from 2004 and 2005 with Goya, Kurant, and Jean-Luc Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin
- Discussion of the film from 2004 between film critics Freddy Buache and Dominique Païni
- Footage from Swedish television of Godard directing the “film within the film” scene
- PLUS: An essay by film critic Adrian Martin and a 1966 report from the set by French journalist Philippe Labro
1966 Interview with Chantal Goyer: This is a short but sweet interview with Goyer filmed soon after the film’s release for French TV. There is not enough time to go into a huge amount of depth, but Goyer proves to be a fun and informal interview subject. Worth a watch.
2004 & 2005 Interviews with Goya, Kurant and Jean Pierre Gorin: The first of these three 15 minute interviews catches up with Goya who, goes into far more depth on her experiences of shooting Masculin Féminin, specifically recollecting how loose and informal it was. The second interview is with the film’s DoP Willy Kurant, who provides some fascinating insights into how he shot the film (his background as a news cameraman certainly helped with the film’s documentary aesthetic) and what it was like working with Godard. The last interview with Godard’s later collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin is far more of a critical analysis of the film. I found this to be less enjoyable than the other two but all three are certainly worth a watch.
2004 Discussion between Critics: Here two famous French critics (who gave unfavourable reviews to the film when it came out) reassess Masculin Féminin almost forty years later. They are both incredibly passionate as they discuss the film’s importance and relevance to modern society. Both get a little too swept up in their own rhetoric, but for anyone keen for a enthusiastic critical analysis of the film should absolutely give this a watch.
The rest of the package is rounded out with trailers and a booklet, a copy of which I unfortunately did not receive with my review copy.