Time is being very good to Jean-Luc Godard, whose films reveal one of the great humanistic intelligences of the twentieth century. (Monsieur Godard is still going strong in another century.) While certainly his films provide sociopolitical snapshots of their particular day, they remain also fresh, contemporaneous to the moment as well as to their own moment. Masculin-Féminin (Masculin, Féminin), insofar as it explores the mysterious, ambiguous space where boys and girls interact, retains its relevance—and, somehow, Godard’s distinctive filmmaking remains cutting-edge. We used to be so particular in differentiating between “greater” and “lesser” Godard films, but the passage of time keeps shifting titles from the latter category to the former. Masculin-Féminin, however it may have once struck us, looks more and more like one of the nouvelle vague‘s masterpieces.
When asked if Masculin-Féminin was a film about youth, Godard described it instead as “more a film on the idea of youth. A philosophical idea, but not a practical one—a way of reacting to things. A young way, let us say.” The narrative is disjointed. Throughout 15 vignettes, a boy, Paul, and a girl, Madeleine, try to penetrate each other’s (and perhaps their own) image and defenses. The boy’s death, which may be a suicide, aborts this ongoing attempt of theirs at communication. Before the end, the boy pursues his Leftist politics and, a documentary filmmaker, conducts interviews, and the girl pursues her career as a pop singer while working at the magazine for which Paul also comes to work, and both more or less pursue sex.
Little, if anything, then, strikes us as “finished” about this film. Godard doesn’t make objets d’art. His films spill into our lives as much as our lives spill into his films, creating in fact a dialectic between life and art. Our own experience, including our reactions to both his films and what they show us, achieves the necessary synthesis. A Godard film doesn’t numb us into passivity. Masculin-Féminin certainly doesn’t. Alert, it keeps us alert; alive, it helps make us keenly, at times painfully, alert and alive.
Paul—dare I say Paul Baron? (more about which later)—is a 21-year-old who has just returned to civilian life, and Paris, after his stint in the army, which he describes in terms of deprivation: “sixteen months with no comforts, money, love or leisure.” Military service interrupted his life, putting his growing up on hold; Paul must now strike out to define himself. The cul in Masculin—ass—suggests the urgent biological motive of his life, as males, at least young males, tend to hew to this path as a lifeline; but the mask that’s also embedded in the word muddies the intent. Paul is (beneath antics) shy, as most boys in fact are, and just right now his priority is his radical Vietnam-era politics, a matter of deep conviction, to be sure, but at the same time another way for him to delay getting on with his life. Existing in a universe that’s never either-or or this-or-that, Godard knows that one lives many lives behind different “masks,” and one’s individual existence, whatever that means, competes with one’s social existence and political existence. Paul is a human work-in-progress; he plunges into activism and cinematic documentation because he knows precisely what he’s doing and because he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. Like Godard; like us.
Godard is the film’s scenarist. Nearly every film requires some sort of a script. Godard’s loosely qualifies. Let me quote from Michel Vianey’s Waiting for Godard about the “script” of this particular film: “The only working text [he] uses is a large sketch book . . . in which he writes a large series of notes, made up essentially of a summary of the principal sequences. . . . Dialogue written the night before or improvised on the spot eventually fills out the summary.” The film absolutely reflects this kind of preparation. It isn’t something we watch in the usual sense of our being cozily settled. We catch it as it catches us.
Nevertheless, Godard’s “original screenplay” has behind it, and presumably somewhere in it, two stories by Guy de Maupassant: “La femme de Paul” (1881) and “Le signe” (1886). Indeed, these two stories were supposed to be the film’s original impetus, that is, from the standpoint of those bankrolling the project the reason for the film’s being made in the first place. The time, the setting and the plot of these stories, though, claim little connection with the film that Godard did make; but something of their spirit contributes to the film’s emotional texture and thematic development. The first story is about a young man, Paul Baron, whose mistress forsakes him one night for a lesbian encounter, prompting his suicide. “Paul’s Wife” is the literal translation of the title, although, because Paul and Madeleine are unmarried lovers, the story has become known in English as “Paul’s Mistress.” Maupassant was a troubled man—syphilitic since youth and, as a result, increasingly unbalanced and eventually institutionalized (in 1892) after attempting suicide by cutting his throat; but he was no fool. Madeleine may not be married to Paul, but the point of the title is twofold: Paul’s sense of commitment to Madeleine is already based on his assumption of their spiritual union; and Madeleine, who ends up being comforted by her new lover, at the last feels like a bereaved widow, as though she had been Paul’s wife all along. Irony is the piercing delight of Maupassant at his best, here, the fact that sexual infidelity, given its unhappy consequence, can strengthen the girl’s one-way emotional bond with the deceased even as she seeks solace in someone else’s arms. (The oft-repeated comparison of Maupassant and North Carolina’s O. Henry—William Sidney Porter—is ridiculous. There’s nothing in O. Henry’s stories to match the psychological complexity I have just described. His “ironies” are nothing more than plot twists.) The slighter “Le signe”—“The Signal”—turns on an irony of almost mathematical complacency. A woman notices from her window a prostitute who, from her window, is giving men down in the street the beckoning look that she, Mrs. Respectability, feels compelled to try for herself. This leads to an adulterous encounter whose moral offensiveness, a friend of hers, another “respectable” lady, counsels can be neutralized by using the ill-gotten money to buy the cuckolded spouse a gift. From “La femme de Paul” Godard draws the devastating sense of a non-negotiable gap between lover and beloved, despite all their intimacies, and from “Le signe,” with its cunning exposure of bourgeois logic, he draws an equally compelling sense of the complacency into which lovers may retreat as a defense against both this omnipresent gap and the messy collision of their contrary impulses toward intimacy with their beloved and the maintenance of their own independence and individualism. “Le signe” also instances for him role-modeling, as one woman emulates and imitates another, even one of whom she is contemptuous, before in effect (by following her advice, it’s implied) copying yet another woman. Godard surely doesn’t seem to be paying Maupassant any notice, then, when in fact he is astutely engaging in literary criticism by drawing identifiable, interesting chords from the thematic heart of each story—chords that are, in the case of “La femme de Paul,” deeply moving besides.
Pauline Kael, in one of her best reviews, noted that Godard “gets the little things that people who have to follow scripts can’t get: the differences in the way girls are with each other and with boys, and boys with each other and with girls.” Indeed, the differences between “masculine” and “feminine,” as applied to these “children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” as Godard describes them, is very much what the film is about. These differences still apply, no matter the distance now between us and the 1960s, and the moderation of gender collision into a more desirable gender companionability as a result of both the “sexual revolution” in that decade and the press for recognition of gender equality in the “second wave” of the feminist movement also begun then. However more amiably, each gender has remained “the other” to the other. “Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus,” an American pop psychologist has opined, and although the schematic categorizing and the stereotyping point to oversimplification, an element of reality rings in the remark. Of course, such a statement presupposes the self-certainty, that people of either gender really have mastered issues of their own identity, which Godard’s sophisticated film everywhere contests. Godard’s characters slip into roles; they engage reality at the protective remove that one mask or another permits. As a result of its being implicit rather than sentimentally posited, vulnerability is shown the more exquisitely and poignantly to be at the core of human nature, but only fleetingly apparent.
Both Paul and Madeleine find role models in their popular culture, as young people still do today. When we first meet Paul he is seated in a café tossing and catching in his mouth a cigarette while composing a poem that seems (ambiguously) to anticipate his own death. It’s possible that there’s a slight hint here of the tradition of le poète maudit; but the much stronger, and contemporary, echo is that of the nouvelle vague itself, especially since the movement’s signature actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud—François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (1959)—is playing Paul. (In hommage to this glorious actor, another glorious actor, Keanu Reeves, thirty years hence does the cigarette toss in Steven Baigelman’s nouvelle vague-ish Feeling Minnesota. Please note, too, that Claude Chabrol’s 1959 New Wave Les cousins, like Godard’s film, owes something to Maupassant’s “La femme de Paul.”) This self-reflexivity is itself New Wave; the upshot is that we perceive that Paul is in some sense Jean-Pierre, and vice versa. (This facilitates rather than hampers the film because what we really know about Léaud, from his films, doesn’t measure up to what we think we know.* The distance between us and Léaud, for all our movie-house familiarity, becomes correlative to the distance between Paul and Madeleine.) By the same token, Madeleine draws upon the popular culture for her ambition and her image—but from singing rather than cinema. The Bulgarian-born Sylvie Vartan, an actual yé-yé singer of the day, appears on a billboard in the film, her blank expression matched by that of Madeleine. Moreover, one of Vartan’s fellow pop singers, Françoise Hardy, has a cameo in the film. (Brigitte Bardot, who starred in Godard’s 1963 Contempt, has another.) Finally, the casting of Madeleine’s role instances just as much self-reflexivity as does that of Paul’s. The actress playing her, Chantal Goya, was herself a pop singer who would sustain a career by singing songs for children composed and written by spouse Jean-Jacques Debout.
Paul’s death, again, is ambiguous. He may have taken an accidental spill off an apartment balcony. (That’s the official story. He fell back over the balcony while taking photographs of the new apartment he had bought with money he inherited from his mother.) It may be a suicide—a leap to pavement. This fatal choice may be the only means, Paul feels, for negotiating the perpetual distance between himself and Madeleine. Another means would be for him to have murdered Madeleine; but Paul is a gentle sort and, possibly beneath his adolescent insecurities, not so egoistic as he seems. The other possibility is that Madeleine—or, I suppose, someone else—gave the boy a push. The close of the film finds Madeleine pregnant and responding to a police officer in a seemingly evasive and suspicious manner. She plays with her hair and alternately looks at the man questioning her and then off to the left, as though half in the shared routine world and half in some reverie of her own. The film ends with the word féminin printed on the screen, out of which the first and last two letters are selected for another word: fin. It is the end of the film, to be sure, but the shortening of the first word to the second suggests that Madeleine, the female, has always contained within her, somehow, the end of her lover, Paul—that women (as the saying goes) will be the death of men, in the sense of the frustrating effort men make to understand the women they love and to come together with them. (Of course, given the terms of this particular film, this automatically means simultaneously that men will be the death of women.) A shot pierces the soundtrack; this is the ultimate note of a film that had begun with two kinds of sounds punctuating the opening credits: gunshots; someone off-screen whistling the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” We later assume that the whistler is Paul, and that the tune he is whistling bears three distinct and separate meanings. It is the residue of his just ended military service. It is irony, for the boy is opposed to the authoritarianism with which he identifies the state. It is heartfelt expression, for the boy loves the freedom with which he identifies France—the love of freedom he feels is ripe for betrayal by government. In any case, Godard, who I think to some degree identifies with Paul despite the objectivity of his filmmaking method, seems to have taken pains to give Paul a life beyond the limits of his onscreen character. We may say, perhaps, that Paul at least represents the spirit of restless, radical French youth.
But something else occurs to me of a deeply ironical nature. We never see the policeman; he is entirely off-screen, and as his questioning recalls Paul’s own interviewing we may in some sense interpret him as Paul’s reincarnation—to be precise, reconstitution—asking, for instance, about something wholly relevant to the deceased Paul, what Madeleine will do about the fetus she is carrying and nourishing. Her response is expressed in a coldly playful way: “curtain rods.” In context, this teasing contemplation of abortion, besides assaulting the authority of the Catholic Church in France and therefore, by metaphoric extension, all other authority such as the government, expresses as well Godard’s depth of concern for the future of France. Indeed, it is in this context that a part of the film’s anti-Americanism is best understood. (Summarily I will take up two other parts of it.) The protests in the film against American involvement in Vietnam, far from facilely promoting French superiority over the United States, bears instead the deeply troubled memory of France’s own quagmire in Indochina, that is, the mess there that the U.S. took over from the French, and more recently the Algerian War. Algeria had been colonized by the French in 1848, and Charles de Gaulle’s election as France’s president 110 years later was predicated on his keeping Algeria French. De Gaulle had his own contrary agenda, however, and he very slowly withdrew France from this bloody war, from Algeria, which became independent in 1962. This is my point: Paul’s transcendence of the limits of mortal characterization has something to do with his coming after—that is, having eluded—the war; his military service was in 1965 and 1966. Yet his radicalism seems to come out of France’s experiences in both Indochina and Algeria, the historical memory of which, borne as a subliminal burden, accounts for some aspect of his personal (psychological, behavioral) disarray. In a sense, Godard, nearly a generation older than Paul/Léaud, invests Paul with his own historical memory, thus making his own survival of Paul an indication of Paul’s (somehow) survival despite the narrative of the film that posits Paul’s death as a point of fact. (This death is never shown; we simply are told about it out of the blue, shortcircuiting our ability to attach to it any real emotional weight. Those put off by this Brechtian tendency in Godard betray the degree to which they are regrettably wedded to the manipulative sentimentalism of bogus Hollywood “filmmaking.”) Related to this, we may also say, I think, that Paul in some sense embodies humanity’s—and in particular Godard’s—concern over war. Paul in voiceover can be heard among people at a bookstore asking, “Do you know that a war is going on between the Iraqis and the Kurds?”
One more point needs to be made about the ambiguity of Paul’s death. In the Maupassant story, Paul’s suicide is a given. This might have grated Godard, with its strong sense of omniscient narration, because human death is more often than not ambiguous and complex. It often only appears simple.
There are at least two more aspects of the film’s anti-Americanism that are worth addressing. One again has to do with war. Why, it’s often asked, does Godard toss into this film a bit of the American play Dutchman, by LeRoi Jones (later, Amiri Baraka). Consider the play’s theme: waiting to explode, suppressed African-American rage against white America. Godard in passing gives voice to this black voice because he shares Jones’s sense of white American oppression of black Americans. What does this to do with Masculin-Féminin? It deepens by association the protests in the film against the U.S. in Vietnam by suggesting the racist basis of this bloody involvement. I love Godard’s coup of Brechtian Chinese boxes, for Dutchman itself is a play whose distancing techniques encourage thoughtful analysis on the part of the audience; the part that Godard selects likewise bears this Brechtianism, and the process of selection that takes out of context a part that can, as here, fairly and honestly represent the whole encloses the distanced material in another degree or dimension of distancing. Godard is never so difficult to understand as it is the case that certain viewers willfully find his work difficult to understand, although of course both their brilliance and open-endedness make his films inexhaustible—impossible ever to grasp fully, hence always ripe for fresh discoveries.
The other aspect of anti-Americanism in the film is its portrayal of that shallow and ubiquitous “pop culture” that’s America’s largest and most pernicious export. According to Kael, the film’s unifying theme is “the fresh beauty of youth amidst the flimsiness of Pop culture and Pop politics.” I agree in part. Godard takes a more generous view of youthful political activism than Kael’s remark suggests; he distinguishes between the personality, if not the sanctity, of its idealism and the frequent immaturity of its expression. He finds it both “fresh” and “flimsy,” as it were, and restless and messily groping. However, the classicist in him (which will especially come to the fore in the savagely satirical 1967 Weekend) finds it harder to accept a popular culture that, instead of forming a repository for a nation’s, or a continent’s, collective values, pursues consumerism in order to exploit a buying public and amass profits—although it just may be the case that greed is the only shared value of the corporate United States. Clearly, Coca-Cola is the symbol of this intrusion into France of American (pardon the pun) pop, and it’s the perfect symbol, too: something insubstantial that seduces and addicts especially the young, at once, paradoxically, fueling and sapping their energy—and rotting their teeth. When Paul cries out, “U.S., go home!” it’s clear, to us at least, that he wants the U.S. out of European, including French, culture as much as he wants the U.S. out of Vietnam.
Godard, of course, distinguishes between kinds of Americans and is, for example, in sympathy with those young Americans protesting their nation’s vicious rampages of slaughter in Southeast Asia. Godard is against tyranny. Thus he has Paul sing against Hitler, Stalin and Lyndon Johnson, the then-current U.S. president, all of whom, he concludes, should be killed—a remark obviously targeting tyrants in general since Hitler and Stalin were already both dead. Reasonably enough, Godard takes aim, though, only at those elements of intrusive popular culture—a form of economic neocolonialism where the politics remain hidden—that serve the interests of tyranny. Thus he provides a scene in a café (just before Paul’s merrily lethal ditty) where Robert, Paul’s friend, speaks of Bob Dylan, about whom Paul is ignorant, describing him as a “Vietnik,” a war protester being described by use of “an American word that comes from beatnik and Vietnam” and which, by the “nik” at the end, as in the case of the word “refusenik,” implies (for the moment, two years before Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia) a pro-Russian bias. In short, the film distinguishes between two forms of “pop culture,” the exploitive Coca-Cola kind, in pursuit of nothing but profits and control of markets, and what would become known at the end of the decade as the counter-culture, courtesy of Berkeley historian Theodore Roszak’s book The Making of a Counter Culture. It’s easy to see why the film implies that Madeleine’s lightweight singing belongs in the former category. It’s offensively inoffensive, this kind of pointless pop warbling, and, seducing girls to career ambitions facilitating political apathy, its sound seems wedded to the blank expression that so often occupies Madeleine’s pretty face—the expression that convinces us at the last that Madeleine may have murdered Paul.
Even so dark a possibility as that—and that’s all it is: a fleeting possibility—contributes to the openness and light-sensitive nature, if you will, the instability of youth from which Godard takes, creates the style of this amazing and irresistible film. This “style” brings together, mixes up and merges any number of styles, as is the wont of the nouvelle vague, whose films seek to share their possibilities with audiences rather than dictate to audiences what they should feel and how they should respond. There is romantic comedy, the behavioral comedy of the apartment scenes among Paul, Madeleine, Catherine and Elisabeth, the political patches including the political theater of the Dutchman episode, the sketches of friendship involving Paul and Robert, the screwball sexual-verbal sparring between Catherine and Robert, the parody of Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963) in a film-within-the-film throughout which Paul especially cannot stop talking (this, the sole survivor of the Swedish “half” of the film’s co-production with the French) and, of course, the lovely, open-ended incursions into cinéma-vérité in the interviews that Paul conducts. “Are you happy?” is the question that sociologist Edgar Morin asked passers-by in Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961), whose use of a lightweight portable camera—the “living camera”—has plainly inspired Paul, a budding Jean-Luc Godard. But certainly, through him, Godard has as much in mind Le joli Mai (1962), Chris Marker’s marvelous vignette-crammed Parisian essay on the occasion of the end of the Algerian War, marking France’s first breath of peace in nearly a quarter-century. Is there any “adult” event in (then) recent France as the end of this war that so matches the sense of possibilities that we and Godard’s film identify with the young?
Indeed, Paul’s inquiries, as the camera remains on his interviewee Elsa, draw together a stunning portrait of the openness and guardedness, the boldness and hesitancy, the certainty and uncertainty, the prosaic dullness and bewitching, all-flying lyricism and tenderness of the young. (Some of the conversations between Paul and Madeleine, incidentally, are shot in the same manner and arrive at the same effect.) Godard also, however, takes aim at what he perceives to be the imperiled nature of France’s young people. Elsa, a friend of Madeleine, discloses that the magazine for which she works, Mademoiselle 19, has named her its representative 19-year-old for the year—Godard’s witty and unexpectedly moving encapsulation of the lightness and fleeting nature of youth. Paul, typically off-camera, asks her why she wanted this title, and Elsa explains she hadn’t wanted it; rather, it befell her as a stroke of luck. But the title has apparently reinvented her identity, for its “advantages”—trips; gifts—have persuaded her not to go back to college to complete her degree. Paul asks, “So you like having your car more than your diploma?” to which Elsa replies, “I’m happy because I have both,” meaning a college degree is unnecessary now and her school diploma sufficient. (We later recall Paul’s mention of the car because his acquisition of a private apartment—his revulsion at being co-opted unexpectedly by materialism—offers a possible motive for suicide, if indeed he did choose to end his life.) But what about the value of education? Paul presses, “For you, does socialism still have a chance?” “Oh, you know, I’m not very qualified to answer that,” Elsa responds; “I don’t know anything about it.” She keeps dodging Paul’s attempts to get her to think and speak, explaining, “I’ll get confused,” but Paul is like a hound on a scent, in part because Godard, through this encounter, is implying that the possibility of socialism in France may depend on Elsa and on all the nation’s Elsas. Paul thus asks her about the difference between the American way and the socialist way of life, to which she expresses preference for the American way, preference even for the U.S. over France, because as Mademoiselle 19 she traveled to the U.S. and somehow found that women there “play the leading role, you know.” Without losing a jot of his objective manner, Paul then asks her whether she knows what the word reactionary—implicitly, the word that sums up the U.S.—means, and Elsa says, “it’s being in opposition, reacting against a lot of things, not accepting just anything that happens.” But the astounding comment of hers comes after when she pronounces reactionaryism a good thing. Her explanation: “I don’t like men who say ‘Amen’ to everything”—logic that scarcely supports or defends the position she has taken. Once we bring together these (and other) elements of the interview we are able to discern Godard’s indictment of American corruption of French youth, given here the additional slant that, while being young is identifiable with openness and possibilities, American influence cancels these, destroying young people in France and thus threatening to rob France of its future. Masculin-Féminin unfolds as a mostly very gentle film. Neither its tone nor its style suggests the apocalyptic Weekend ahead, but the content, once you think about it, is strong stuff.
Léaud, who won as best actor at Berlin, gives a terrific performance as Paul. Two years hence his third whack at Antoine Doinel for Truffaut, in Baisers volées (Stolen Kisses, 1968), suggests a depoliticized version of Paul. (Both boys, just out of the service, are suddenly looking for themselves and for romance.) It has often been noted that Paul in Masculin-Féminin, not Antoine in Stolen Kisses with his bourgeois ambitions, appears the truer continuation of the troubled 15-year-old Doinel in The 400 Blows, the finest portrait of working-class male adolescence in all of cinema. In any case, this last film—the first of the three—had already secured Léaud’s place in the pantheon of screen actors, but Masculin-Féminin elicited sighs of pleasure and relief: Léaud, it turned out, really could act; unlike certain other very young stars, he would have a career. Well, he still has a career, in the process of which he has become without doubt the single most beloved film actor in sound films. Over the years Léaud may have put on a few pounds, reminding us all what a stocky youngster he was when Truffaut introduced us to his own alter ego more than 45 years ago, but he remains a phenomenal actor. He has triumphed for both Godard (La Chinoise; Weekend; Detective) and Truffaut (Bed and Board; Two English Girls) on many occasions, but he has been no less amazing, perhaps even more so, for Jacques Rivette (Out 1: Spectre), Jean Eustache (The Mother and the Whore), Philippe Garrel (The Birth of Love) and Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep). I would not want to spend even ten minutes with anyone who doesn’t cherish the acting and screen persona of Jean-Pierre Léaud.
Apart from that, it’s left to us to celebrate Godard, one of the preeminent humanists of western cinema, the one classicist who was also a Romantic, the impossible rare exception to the rule that these designations and intellectual motives are mutually exclusive. Some have bemoaned the loss of political perspective in his films; it is simply the case that Godard, unlike some of his audience, has moved on—not to territory any better or worse than in the past, but to the territory most in need at the moment of his indefatigable exploration. Goodness! The man has made some 75 films. With his contradictory nature, Godard is, even Godard knows, a chore at times; his art can be difficult. But its rewards—well, see Masculin-Féminin for the first time or the fiftieth. In black and white, it remains one of the art form’s treasures.
* What do we know about film actors, even those we think we know? In the late 1980s film critic Andrew Sarris mistakenly wrote in the States that Jean-Pierre was dead. I remember telling two friends who also loved his work—“Oh no!” one of them uttered in sad disbelief—and later learned that, like me, the other two, all three of us independently, had surmised that Léaud’s death was a suicide. Léaud, of course, wasn’t dead at all; but all of us suspected the same cause for the death that Sarris (and, by way of him, I and others) had reported.
Thankfully, Jean-Pierre Léaud is still with us. But not with all of us. The one whose exclamation I have quoted above has sadly passed from this earth.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.