MASCULIN FEMININ (1966)
A romance between young Parisians, shown through a series of vignettes.
Brigitte Bardot had already acted in a Jean-Luc Goddard’s Contempt (1963), when she appeared for a one-scene cameo in Masculin Féminin. The icon of 1960s cool is unmistakable—particularly to the other people in the scene. “She looks like Bridget Bardot,” one says. She sits with a cigarette in a cafe (where else?) next to a director who’s agonising over a screenplay. She certainly talks and looks like Bardot, but is it really her?
That question of identity and performance is core to Masculin Féminin, a film which takes a form you recognise and subverts it to the point of unfamiliarity. Central, too, is the desire to see a person for who they really are, and to hear what they really think. Is Brigette playing herself? Are any of us?
The film loosely follows a young and bratty romantic called Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), through a series of vignettes in which he dates a hopeful pop star, Madeleine (Chantal Goya). Most of the segments take the form of rambling conversations, while some present scenarios with a surreal bent; there are men who stab themselves in the chest, handguns on metro trains, and, of course, screen icons sipping coffee.
Before we’re introduced to Paul or Madeleine, we meet someone else. We might not see Jean-Luc Goddard on screen, but his presence is impossible to ignore. Title cards blast onto the screen with the sound of a gunshot. “One of the 121 french films of which only 3 of 4 get made,” the screen-engulfing words tell us. Throughout the film, Goddard places other carefully chosen titles—often they’re quotes or insights. One reads, in all capitals, “HUMAN LABOUR RESURRECTS THINGS FROM THE DEAD.” They begin to function as editorials from the director, and they’re as intriguing as they are intrusive.
Goddard does not hide his authorial input, nor does he balk at the idea of making direct statements to his audience. It’s a bold and sometimes overbearing hallmark of the director. His films, such as the superior Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), are often essayistic in their form, and Masculin Féminin is no different in that regard. But while the film mostly enlivens the essay approach with humour and playful formalism (his jump cuts and visual non-sequiturs are on full display here), the tendency for navel-gazing can make the film feel exasperatingly inward-facing.
Paul sits reading stiltedly at a cafe. It’s the film’s first scene, and the text all but outright tells the viewer what to expect from the film. He speaks of coldness and separation, and the need for tenderness. But is he reading to himself, or to the viewer? Has he written these words, or is he reading the script Goddard has given to him? Paul has plenty of his own questions too.
One episode sees Paul and Madeleine in a dingy bathroom. It’s an unusual place to make conversation, but it’s here that Paul unloads a series of questions on the unsuspecting woman. He becomes something of an interviewer, while Goddard’s camera stays closely trained on her face. A blending of drama and documentary unfolds in a long take, a formula that replays throughout the film and provides some of its strongest (and sometimes most indulgent) sequences. And that’s because it isn’t really Madeleine we’re getting to know in these interviews… it’s Paul. The interviewer reveals himself by the questions he asks—about sex, politics, and beliefs.
Sometimes Goddard cuts back to Paul and we see his boyishness and insecurities in an instant. His eyes are often downcast and nervous, while he’s usually working on a cigarette—that most dependable of props. In performance and in casting (Léaud is perhaps best known for his performance as the teenage tearaway in 1959’s The 400 Blows), Paul’s the pinnacle of a particular kind of young anxiety, one that is concerned about the beliefs of his acquaintances and how they reflect on him. As he tries to get to the bottom of who the women in his life are, he dodges further and further away from the question: who am I? Like Goddard’s films, Paul’s life is often an academic exercise, to be thought about before being felt.
Preventing the film from becoming staid under the weight of such rambling conversations is that identity anxiety, externalised in Goddard’s fragmented glances at life in 1966. Like Dziga Vertov’s groundbreaking Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Goddard’s montaging of city life is interested in everything, particularly the things that you might think of as nothing. At one point, Paul and Madeleine enter a cafe, going from table to table and overhearing snatches of conversations from adjacent patrons. They decide to leave, the segments of disjointed conversations presumably too distracting for them to carry out a conversation of their own. Such is life in the city—you’re perpetually looking for solitude but undeniably integrated with the strangers around you, all part of the same tapestry.
Goddard repeats sections of the same songs over and over after moments of silence on the soundtrack. It gives the effect of being asleep and caught in a dream which repeats until you awake, just as Paul has his repetitions. For one, he seems desperate to learn a simple trick in which he flips a cigarette into his mouth. Sometimes he manages it, other times he doesn’t. It might be something he’d seen in a film once; it is doubtlessly the affectation of a young man eager to lift himself out of homogeny and appear to be perhaps what matters most: cool.
Goddard’s focus on Paul’s youngness doesn’t ever undermine his beliefs. He’s a spirited leftist who sprays anti-war slogans on the side of an army car and attends protests. And crucially, he is not the product of 1960s American Cool, just as Goddard is not the product of 1960s American cinema. There is an irreverence to American culture throughout; a journalist soullessly asks if Madeleine likes Pepsi, while Paul has never heard of Bob Dylan. Paul is eager to define himself by what he is not, and he certainly isn’t American. Goddard’s cinema would of course influence a swath of American Directors, but Masculin Féminin is obstinate in its refusal to adhere to the rules of traditional American cinema.
For one, Goddard’s pleasing refusal to explain, or even depict certain events remains a highlight. When a woman shoots her husband, Paul’s just frustrated that she’s left the cafe door open. When a man borrows matches from him and lights himself on fire, we only hear about it. Goddard’s camera never pans over to it. There is a detachment from events, a strange sense of narrative separation—just because you share a table at a coffee shop with a stranger, it doesn’t mean you are a part of their day. Paul, a self-positioned man of the people, doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with them most of the time. What results is a strange contradiction in action: Goddard is interested in the random events—particularly violence—that occur through the city, yet he presents them without consequence or impact, resulting in something that feels frighteningly random and meaningless.
One scene midway through the film feels particularly pertinent. Paul and Madeleine sit at home quoting Marquis de Sade, while sliding a miniature figurine into a toy guillotine. After a couple of drops of the blade, the figure’s head pops off. It is something significant recreated and rendered silly and meaningless, and isn’t that what Goddard’s films are? They’re jokes: wars and violence and sex and relationships and commerce, acted out and miniaturised on the screen to highlight their absurdity.
Goddard’s self-reflexiveness continues in a scene in which Paul, Madeleine and two of their friends go to see a film. Two of them can’t stand it, Madeleine likes it, and Paul stays for her sake. They’re taking issue with the sex scenes, complaining that it isn’t realistic. They don’t see real life in the film, or anything to connect to. But what might be inconsequential to one person might be of great interest to another, and art does not exist to please every person who encounters it. Goddard certainly knows that, and would rather connect deeply to a few rather than superficially interact with many.
Masculin Féminin can be an alienating experience, a film that is clearly the work of a trailblazing director committed to his own vision, regardless of whether that vision links up with the way each viewer sees the world. It isn’t universal but is specific, and all the better for it. For better or worse, it allows for art that challenges and frustrates and does not satisfy in the traditional sense. And when moments or people do coalesce in the film, they’re all the more striking.
“Never do two gazes meet,” Paul reads in the first scene. Then later, when leaving a cafe, in a moment of connection and confrontation, he makes eye contact with Goddard’s camera. As he walks past the camera—or, indeed, us—his gaze remains fixed. It does so until he crosses the street and the scene ends. His expression seems to ask why we’re watching him. In reality, we may not be able to look at each other without feeling self-conscious, and we might each inhabit our own private world, the outside world just a montage of sounds and faces. But, Goddard suggests, we can gaze at faces in a film all we like, and sometimes we might just have the gaze met.
FRANCE | 1966 | 104 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | FRENCH
writer & director: Jean-Luc Godard.
starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Chantal Goya, Marlène Jobert & Michel Debord.