[Originally published for the University of Washington Continuing Education Film Series, February 15, 1983]
It used to be complained of Jean-Luc Godard that his movies were all over the map. Masculin-Féminin (1966) suggests, better than any other single movie he’s made, that such complaints had it turned around. What Godard was really up to was mapping all over.
At a glance, Masculin-Féminin seems fragmented and arbitrary beyond any hope of yielding a coherent viewing experience, let alone a conventionally passive entertainment about some youthful Parisians during the mid-Sixties. Its subtitle proposes that the film will consist of “15 precise facts” (or “acts” — already precision begins to generate ambiguity), but determining the dividing lines among the 15 is problematical. Occasionally the director vouchsafes a chapter number, à la Vivre sa vie, but just when we might begin to feel cozy about this, “fait” number 4 gives way to 4A. Shortly thereafter, a numerical 7 is followed by the single, screen-filling word MAIS, which is followed in turn by a numeral 8: fait 7, it would appear, is one large “but”. Okay, sure, why not! And if the question still persists why, surely the answer is that this is Godard’s way of proposing that chapters, categories, the notion of precise and discrete facts/acts, are unreliable epistemological baggage we should do well to jettison. But in so proposing, he also knows that none of us, least of all Jean-Luc Godard, can forswear trying to make organized sense of the teeming phenomena around us.
Masculin-Féminin teems thrillingly. No other filmmaker has ever looked at streets, passersby, traffic, graffiti, the exultantly grungy multifariousness of modern urban life, with such a sharp and hungry eye as Godard’s. Of course, all the French New Wavers played that game to some degree. A lot of the excitement and challenge of the nouvelle vague films had to do with their demonstration that anywhere could become a movie set and any life a movie. You live in these rooms, you work in that office, you go out at night to those cinemas and cafés? Then that is where your movie should happen. One of my favorite scenes in Masculin-Féminin is the one wherein Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) meets Madeleine (Chantal Goya) in a café for the purpose of proposing marriage. Godard shoots this whole desperate, can’t-get-started encounter in a single take that peregrinates up and down the length of the place, around and among tables and chairs, the camera and the couple ever seizing at new angles of approach. I’m sure Godard and cameraman Willy Kurant didn’t move a stick of furniture, but rather made the inefficient randomness of the environment part of the dynamics of the scene; the broken-field trajectories dictated by the ambient décor are as important to, and determinative of, the tenderly comic desperation of the action as the oddball characters Godard plants around the café to frustrate Paul’s design.
Those characters — the widower speaking to a shy young woman about his needs, the pair of Chabrolian sleazes savoring a porno magazine — are unmistakably relevant to the proposal scene. More often, though, “relevance” in this highly politicized film is elusive. We are constantly being given something to look at (or listen to) without being sure what to do with it. In a conventionally well-made movie, we are conditioned to believe, everything has its point. I think it does in Masculin-Féminin, too, a very unconventionally well-made movie. But “the point” is often precisely that the pointedness is obscure, or slanted in from an eccentric angle, or, well, beside the point that we would expect to be made. When Paul spraypaints a political slogan on a movie theater’s outside wall, we hear a shout offscreen and Godard cuts to several workmen (the operative U.S. term at the time would have been hardhats) pausing to look across the street from their construction site. I say “look across the street,” but there’s no guarantee that that site is across the street from Paul’s location, or that Godard didn’t shoot it a month earlier or later, or that the workmen are reacting to what this punk is spraying on a wall. Indeed, the way the sequence is cut, we don’t even know what Paul has sprayed (except that it involves DeGaulle, whose name almost gets misspelled). Yet the moment surges with volatility, with the potential for explosiveness. A potential, too, for irrelevance: surely it is the point of some of Godard’s cutaways in the film, to other workmen, shoppers, consumers, that the sociopolitical issues which activist types like Paul worry about are not even recognized by the majority of the citizenry whose lives are being affected. But the reverse is also true. While Paul and Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport) are walking off their dissatisfaction about their respective lovelives, an anonymous passerby drifts through the frame to bum a match off Paul, walks away with the entire box, and, after a perfunctory suburbanite’s-farewell to the wife in the family car, goes off about his day’s business: setting himself on fire to protest the war in Vietnam. Truly, relevance is an elusive thing. Even when someone is dying of it, he does so offscreen.
A lot of dying goes on in Masculin-Féminin, a lot of violence. You might say it’s the very fiber of the film, inherent in the logic of the film’s itinerary. Paul and Madeleine are first seen together in a café scene (though, framed and edited as the scene is, they scarcely are seen together) which unexpectedly shifts its focus to a family squabble in another part of the room. Even more unexpectedly, the family squabble is “resolved” by the wife’s drawing a gun from her purse and shooting down her departing spouse in the street. The movie seems to go into shock at this point, in sympathy with the startled viewer: disconnected images appear — our first street scenes, buildings, traffic — and then we begin to get reoriented as Paul steps into view. Not clear view, though: he is passing outside the steamed-up window of yet another coffee bar. Moreover, the soundtrack is also in shock — there is no sound (for no naturalistic reason) for a few seconds, until it cuts in with Paul’s entry into this new café. Where is he, where are we, now? How long has it been since the conjugal gunplay? What was the outcome of that event anyway? À bout de souffle, the Godardian — the one in the movie and the one watching the movie — can only keep moving, playing catch-up.
The itinerary does make sense, if only accidental cinematic sense. Consider the progression of images and action a little later in the movie when Godard treats us to some random city-by-night scenes. Suddenly we recognize Paul stepping out of a crowded store — and staring right into the camera. He walks around it, still staring; the camera pans, loses him; then he reenters the shot, but no longer disturbing the customary I’ll-pretend-to-be-an-ordinary-citizen-not-an-actor-in-a-movie relationship with the camera. As he wanders off into the night, we notice the lights of the Métro twinkling in the distance. Hmm, Métro … and we’re on the train. But so is Paul. Cut to Madeleine in her apartment; elevated trains are passing right outside the window. Cut back to Paul, lowering a train window and looking out. Madeleine; another train passing. Cut back to Paul, closing the window — was it his train that just passed? was he hoping to catch a glimpse of his girl? Wonder about that for a moment. Notice a glum little guy, utterly unknown to us, elsewhere in the train compartment; he glances about him as (the soundtrack tells us) the train stops at a station; train resumes its journey, we cut away. (Never see that little guy again.) Paul and his pal Robert on the train some more. Voices distract them and us: two black men sitting with, maybe quarreling with, a white woman. A bit of cutting back and forth between that threesome and our guys; after a moment one of the blacks, the principal speaker, seems to be looking toward (the offscreen) Paul and Robert more than the woman he’s ostensibly addressing. An eerie tension builds (the black slips into declaiming race-hate dialogue from LeRoi Jones’s race-hate-on-a-train play Dutchman), with the other black and the woman also becoming aware of Paul and Robert. Once again in this film, a woman’s hand dips into a purse and comes out with a gun; it’s a closeup image — just the gun, apparently pointing at the outspoken black man, who is himself “pointed” at Paul and Robert. Paul shouts a warning. Exterior view of train lights as the Métro roars by. Gunfire, very canned-sounding. Big bold poster titles slam onscreen with each gunshot: NOTHING LEFT BUT A WOMAN / AND A MAN / AND AN OCEAN / OF SPILLED BLOOD. And nothing left of that sequence either.
Now, that‘s a violent sequence. Not just violent because some race rhetoric and some gunfire get loose but, much more, because of the ferocity of the dis-locations it contains. It comes at us from every angle and we don’t know how to defend against it, don’t even know what we’re defending against — very like Paul’s own state in his personal and political life. Godard had been doing this kind of violence to movies and moviewatchers from the beginning, to be sure: Shots with pieces jumpcut out of them. Imagery that gives way, without warning, to printed titles. Absurdist chaos that careens into movie-poster melodrama. Offscreen noise that drowns out what may be key dialogue — an effect that isn’t even reliably sinister, may simply be inadvertent (this truck went by outside the window and for a minute you couldn’t hear anything else). It is Godard’s genius that he takes this stylistic violence and makes it part and parcel of a vision of modern life — life always impinged on, always at risk, with no retakes, no option for rewinding and starting over fresh. (And by the way, if you missed the Sixties, Masculin-Féminin is all the time capsule you need in order to put yourself in the picture.)
In other words, yes, Masculin-Féminin seems fragmented, arbitrary, helter-skelter. And no, it isn’t really any of those things. It’s the new classicism, the perfect form, the perfect artifact, to deal with a world and a world-view no previous cinematic style could have adequately and truly encompassed. With the human race wrenched between apathy and violence, and people putting on magazine covers for faces, and lovers realizing that the more they touch each other the less there’s anybody there, an artist like Godard has no choice but to perform radical surgery on our consciousness, and on his art.
In a sense, Paul is Godard’s surrogate artist within the film. Surrogate consciousness, at any rate. When first we encounter him he’s making entries in a philosophical/autobiographical journal. He wants somehow to explain and contain the frustrations of the life, or death-in-life, around him, but his efforts are, besides being comically pompous, quite futile. Paul speaks the words he is writing, more or less in time with writing them. Ideas trying to get born whole are dragged right back into separate phrases — some evocative, some quite barren of meaning. There is even an exquisitely isolated de — the essence of connection, with nothing to connect. Madeleine appears, she and Paul fall to chatting, but when Madeleine asks how life in the army was, Paul’s offscreen voice shifts from conversation to the breathless, self-involved cadences of the speechmaker and we realize he has taken the opportunity to read one of his journal entries aloud. Paul’s a bit of a jerk at this point. Moreover, his petulant “La porte!” whenever someone else passes through the area and disturbs his comfort suggests that he’s not nearly as involved with “the world” as with his own precious posture of involvement. Yet Paul grows over the course of the film. The only-slightly-older philosophe who is last seen again making a journal entry has realized the limitations of his inquiries, the self-defeating, partializing, falsifying nature of the process itself. “Wisdom would be seeing things entire” — something impossible to achieve, for an inquiring reporter or a filmmaker, and fatally painful to try.
Godard erodes partialization wherever he can. Safe distinctions break down: a conversation will turn into an interview, or a sudden, perfectly “accidental” portrait of Madeleine against a lamp in her apartment will stimulate a fan-magazine rhapsody of her charms. Documentary and fiction trade off constantly: Chantal Goya is the pop singer Madeleine Zimmer is supposed to be; her own voice is the tiny thing whispering raptly into the studio microphone and coming out of the control-room speakers salably enhanced. Mademoiselle Dix-neuf Ans — God bless her, God help her — is everything she appears to be in her cruel six-minute-take interview, because she isn’t appearing at all. Nor is the method restricted to such targets of documentary opportunity as that produit de consommation. Godard will set his characters to talking, according to the general dictates of his scenario, then implicate his actors in the evolving dynamics of the film’s argument. At times you can even hear the director murmuring questions for one of the players/characters (usually offscreen) to put to another; Jean-Pierre Léaud the actor may be as startled (and delighted) as he — that is, as Paul — appears to be when Madeleine asks him what’s the center of his world. “The center of my world? First time we talk and you ask me such a question!” Translation: Jean-Luc, I didn’t know you were going to pull that one!
Léaud handles the challenge beautifully (nowhere more dazzlingly than during the long, single-take arcade sequence, in the middle of which he must improvise an in-character love letter, Paul-to-Madeleine, that will time out to the mechanical dictates of a public recording booth). He’s to the movies born, or at least tested and proven: the child picked to be François Truffaut’s youthful alter ego in Les Quatre Cents Coups, he literally grew up onscreen. Masculin-Féminin would be unthinkable without him, and Godard’s fiercely ambivalent vision of féminin would seem wantonly cruel without the palpable genuineness of his masculin principal’s commitment to tendresse.