It was the 1960s, and revolution was in the air. For French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, cinema was the way to express ideas artistic, political and otherwise. He opened the decade with Breathless, a free-flowing anarchic take on cinematic language that was as steeped in form as it was liberated from it. Ten years and 20 features later, Godard ushered in the ’70s by turning his back on conventional narrative and cofounded a radical filmmaking collective. Along the way, he rewrote the cinematic playbook and made about a dozen masterpieces.
Among them is Masculin féminin from 1966, newly restored and now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.
Chantal Goya stars as Madeleine, a teen pop star of delicate beauty, in a rocky relationship with Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud). She likes him, and he likes her, but she also likes Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert). Surrounding them is a world embroiled in armed conflicts, social unrest, civil rights demonstrations, sacrificial protests — you name it. In two years, all three will be among the students who made May ’68 famous, but for now, all that seems to be on their minds is sex.
Godard, working from two short stories — Guy de Maupassant’s La femme de Paul and Le signe — and a journal full of notes he scribbled nightly, was wise in casting his leads. As a teen, Léaud had the look of an old soul, but as an adult he has the face of an adolescent. He’s still alive, 77 as of May 28, and he’s still got those mischievous eyes. They look beautiful in Willy Kurant’s low-contrast black and white cinematography. But so do Goya and Jobert and everything else in Masculin féminin. Kurant, who passed away on May 1, 2021, at the age of 87, was a master. Here, he employs a pseudo-documentary style to immortalize this particular time and place. In some ways, Masculin féminin is the photographic record of a collective consciousness in the process of awakening.
But in other ways, it’s about Paul — his frustration and his need to understand. He’s a public opinion pollster, and he’s loaded with questions. They’re pretty probing questions too, but they don’t seem to get him anywhere beyond this epiphany: “Gradually, over those three months, I came to realize that these questions did not reflect but instead betrayed and deformed the collective mentality.”
That’s Paul talking, but those are Godard’s words, and Masculin féminin finds the iconoclastic filmmaker in transitions. He was 35 and between wives when he made Masculin féminin, and his story of 20-somethings loose in Paris feels less liberated than a similar ménage à trois story he told two years prior. That might explain why Paul has a conservative bent in his beliefs. Or maybe he just feels left out. It certainly seems like everyone else is getting theirs.
Godard calls Paul’s generation “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” The belief in social equity is there, but so is the desire for material things. It’s been 55 years since Masculin féminin debuted, and the ideas of Marx are still around, though his name has taken a beating over the years. Coke, for its part, seems to be doing well.
“I don’t know why I’m laughing,” Paul says. “Actually, I’m really down.”