[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.
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