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‘Masculin Feminin’ is a film on a precipice

Masculin Feminin

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

France, Sweden, 1966

Godard’s Masculin Feminin is a film on a precipice.  Behind the great director are the carefree films of the first part of the decade: Breathless, A Woman is a Woman, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville.  In front lie those more politically disparate films La Chinoise, Week End, Tout va bien.

Of course it’s too much of a simplification to place the divide right at 1966, yet with de Gaulle’s defeat of the leftist Mitterand in 1965, the time was ripe for Godard’s conversion to Maoism.

Masculin Feminin is a film framed by two deaths.  At the beginning Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Madeleine (Chantal Goya) witness a lovers’ spat in a café that results in the man being shot to death on the street outside.  Neither witness seems particularly concerned.  In fact, all Paul can think to do, even after seeing the gun, is yell at the woman to close the door.

The end of the film, as with other parts, is shot in documentary style with a character answering an offscreen inquisitor.  Absent here, however, are the sociological implications of earlier scenes.  The ending is a police interrogation where Madeleine and her friend Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport) are asked about Paul’s death.  Catherine claims, somewhat absently, that it wasn’t suicide.  Madeleine seems largely disinterested.

These bookends make up the thematic point of Godard’s self-proclaimed “sociological experiment”: the French youth of the mid-60s are unaffected.  A pall of malaise covers the jump-cut-fun of earlier in the decade.

Indeed, even Godard’s camera seems to have matured.  Fluid movements, blocking that might actually be called traditional, less obscure framing, all dominate what amounts to a semi-tragic love story.

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This is not to say that Godard’s film is any less radical than those preceding or following it.  The soundtrack cuts in and out, and gunshots frequently interrupt, pointing to the violence that is seen both on and offscreen.  In the opening scene Godard cements his anti-classical form by cutting from the conversation between Paul and Madeleine in close-up to a wide-shot, revealing the arguing lovers behind the two protagonists.  Though Paul and Madeleine are still closer to camera, the argument is suddenly illogically louder.  This is Godard’s way of giving precedence to what is narratively convenient.  It’s a wink at the ducking audio technique in other films.

While Paul may be the character who proclaims the most purpose in the film – he sprays anti-Vietnam graffiti and peppers a young woman with political questions – his character too seems adrift.  In the obligatory cinema scene in Masculin Feminin he goes out of his way (literally outside of the theater) to tell the projectionist to correct the aspect ratio.  Upon reentering however, he whistles and talks loudly and wants to leave early.  As in his life, his purpose is split between real action and seeing the result of that action through.

The fun of the film-within-the film in this cinema scene – a purported homage to Bergman’s The Silence – is that it feels very much like an exact reflection of the world that Paul and Madeleine live in.  Their world of Coca-Cola and Marxism, as an intertitle suggests, is one also of meaningless conversation and interaction.  Godard boils this down to primitive status by replacing the dialogue within his Bergman-tribute to mere grunts.

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– Neal Dhand