Masculin féminin

Masculin féminin
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard (based on “Le femme de Paul” and “Le signe” by Guy de Maupassant)
Stars: Jean-Pierre Léaud (Paul), Chantal Goya (Madeleine), Marlène Jobert (Elisabeth), Michel Debord (Robert), Catherine-Isabelle Duport (Catherine-Isabelle), Eva-Britt Strandberg (Elle), Birger Malmsten (Lui)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1966
Country: France / Sweden
Masculin féminin Criterion Collection DVD
 Masculin féminin Masculin féminin marked a significant turning point for Jean-Luc Godard. One of the most iconoclastic of the French New Wave directors, Godard had made a name for himself throughout the early 1960s making stylistically unconventional, emotionally charged films that borrowed their tropes from Hollywood genres, particularly crime and gangster movies, although he also derived from melodrama, musicals, and even science fiction.

With Masculin féminin, he switched gears, focusing more intently on contemporary lived experience without a familiar genre les, which also led him into the realm of politics. Pre-Masculin féminin, Godard’s films were largely devoid of explicit politics, but it would come to consume his work throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period during which he and collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin founded the Dziga Vertov film collective, whose primary aim was “to make films politically.”

Masculin féminin contains some nascent stabs at integrating explicit Leftist politics into a romantic narrative, although they are often the weakest point of the film because Godard was not yet fully immersed in the ideology. There are mentions of American involvement in Vietnam, the impending 1965 elections that had given new hope to the political Left, and the disenfranchisement of skilled laborers. Much of the film takes the form of interviews, both explicit (in terms of taking a poll) and implicit (conversations that turn into probes of people’s beliefs). While this can be a tedious approach to ideological material (for example, see Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious films), Godard makes it work because he invests a great deal in his youthful characters, whom he famously dubs in the film “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.”

At its core, Masculin féminin is a film about the hollowness of youth and pop culture, which was sweeping France in the 1960s. His isolated, increasingly disillusioned hero is a young man named Paul, a romantic at heart who yearns for a pretty girl named Madeleine. Godard was both sly and brilliant in his casting choices for these characters, as the actors brought with them already formed personas that worked to the film’s advantage. Paul is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, well-known to audiences as Antoine Doinel, a character he had played in two of François Truffaut’s films, The 400 Blows (1959) and the “Antoine and Colette” segment of the film L’Amour à vingt ans (1962). Thus, Léaud already personified for many viewers a character of existential romantic angst. Madeleine, who is a burgeoning pop star in the film, is played by Chantal Goya, a famous yé-yé singer who began her career at 18 and had never acted in a film before.

Masculin féminin strikingly reflects life in Paris in the mid-1960s, with its coffee bars, pool halls, pinball machines, and recording and photo booths. Contemporary pop names and commercial products are dropped left and right, from Bob Dylan, to Marilyn Monroe, from to Pepsi, to Brigitte Bardot (who makes a jokey cameo appearance at one point). Godard even references his own film Pierrot le fou (1965), which had just come out the previous year. However, these pop references don’t dominate the film, but rather make up but one strand of the complex cultural tapestry it weaves, which is also inflected with political protest, romantic disillusionment, and random bursts of violence, some of which are depicted in full gore on-screen (a man inexplicably stabbing himself in the stomach), while others are left off-screen and only described (another man burning himself in protest of the Vietnam war in front of an American hospital).

As its subtitle “In 15 Acts” suggests, Masculin féminin doesn’t follow a traditional linear narrative, but is rather composed of brief, vaguely interconnected vignettes that follow the relationship of Paul and Madeline, as well as his friend Robert (Michel Debord) and her friends Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert) and Catherine-Isabelle (Catherine-Isabelle Duport).

Many of these acts consist of long conversations between two characters, which often emphasizes disconnect, rather than any connection. Godard stages the film’s conversations in deliberately non-Hollywood fashion by refusing to rely on shot/reverse-shot editing. Instead, he focuses his camera intently on one character for lengthy takes, which often denies us a view of the person talking, but gives us something that is often better: an unbroken view of the other person’s response. The dialogue is frank and revealing, much of it revolving around the twin match points of sex and politics. The film’s dialogue was so frank, in fact, that people under 18 weren’t allowed to see it in French theaters during its initial theatrical release, something the film’s ad campaigned mocked by saying “No one under 18 admitted … because it’s about them.” While obviously meant as a playfully subversive gag, that is as good a description as any of Masculin féminin. While it has its share of aesthetic self-consciousness, it is first and foremost a sharply emotional film, one that plants us squarely in the mindset of youth cut adrift in the modern world, unsure of what, if anything, to hold onto.

Masculin féminin Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • 1966 interview with actress Chantal Goya
  • Video interviews with actress Chantal Goya
  • Video interview with cinematographer Willy Kurant
  • Video interview with Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin
  • Video discussion of the film between French film scholars Freddy Buache and Dominique Païni
  • Swedish TV footage of Godard directing
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Re-release theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet with an essay by film critic Adrian Martin and a reprint of a report from the set by French journalist Philippe Labro
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 20, 2005

    Criterion’s new DVD gives us an absolutely beautiful new transfer of Masculin féminin in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The high-definition transfer, which was supervised by cinematographer Willy Kurant, was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. The image is extremely clean, with virtually no dirt or scratches anywhere. The film has a very heavily contrasted look (there is very little in the gray range), which is enhanced by the transfer’s sharpness and attention to detail.

    The original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the optical soundtrack master and digitally restored, also sounds excellent. Most of the film is composed of dialogue, although there are several instances of music on the track, including several recurring French pop songs.

    Jean-Luc Godard is largely absent from the supplements on this disc, although he does appear in a brief snippet of television footage from Sweden that shows him directing the film-within-a-film sequence in Sweden and bluntly avoiding most of an interviewers’ questions. The majority of the supplements are composed of interviews with those who worked with Godard. There is a pair of interviews with star Chantal Goya, one a fawning 1966 French TV interview in which she notes how scandalized her parents were when they saw the finished film, and a new interview conducted this year. There are also new video interviews with cinematographer Willy Kurant, who discusses the film’s aesthetic and technical qualities, and long-time Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin. For additional insight into the film’s social and political meanings, there is a lengthy video discussion between French film scholars Freddy Buache and Dominique Païni, who both admit to having dismissed the film as “shallow” when it first appeared. Bauche and Païni are passionate and eloquent in their arguments about the film, and the discussion doesn’t have the forced awkwardness that similar segments on other Criterion discs have had. Lastly, the disc contains both an original theatrical trailer and Rialto’s re-release trailer, as well as a 16-page insert booklet containing an essay by film critic Adrian Martin and a reprint of a report from the set by French journalist Philippe Labro.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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