Sunday, October 27, 2013

Jean-Luc Godard | Masculin Féminin: 15 fraits précis (Masculine Feminine: 15 Specific Events)

between worlds
by Douglas Messerli
Jean-Luc Godard (writer and director) Masculin Féminin: 15 fraits précis (Masculine Feminine: 15 Specific Events) / 1966

I might never have thought of Jean-Luc Godard’s comic murder mystery as consisting of any “specific” events, suggested by his subtitle, although the innovative visuals of the work do nicely divide it into 15 parts. But those parts consist each of several somewhat vague interactions: some consisting of faux interviews, others of young characters, masculine and feminine, attempting to interrelate to one another with, and, at other moments, slightly pretentious philosophical maxims (“We control our thoughts which mean nothing, and not our emotions which mean everything” of “Kill a man and you’re a murderer, kill thousand and you’re a conqueror, kill everyone and you’re a god” or “Man’s conscience doesn’t determine his existence. His social being determines his conscience.”)  Throughout, with simple youthful desire, the figures of this work find themselves surrounded by strange unexplained events.       

     The pretense of these interchanges is the growing and waning love between a young idealistic Marxist, Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and a budding pop singer, a constantly hair-combing “Coca-Cola” girl, Madeleine (Chantal Goya). The two have little in common except their attraction to one another, and the director’s desire to explore in his essay-like filmmaking the difficulties a younger generation caught between two worlds.

      Indeed, almost everyone in this film is caught between two extremes, man and woman, young and old, political values and consumerism, and numerous other oppositions. As Paul begins to make a pass for Madeleine, she is caught between her child-like pleasures of hairdos, new clothes, and girl-talk with her friends, and the increasing pressure to have sex. When Paul eventually moves in with her and her two girlfriends, he, in turn, is caught between all three women, Madeleine, Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport), and Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert) as, at times they share a single bed, go on group-dates to the local movie theater (playing a kind of musical chairs as they rearrange their allegiances to each other), and move through the dialogue filled with both pop names (James Bond, Bob Dylan, Brigitte Bardot—the latter of whom makes a brief appearance in Godard’s film—and leftist and political icons and events such as Malraux, LeRoi Jones and the Vietnam War.

     Their experiences in this world of the mid-1960s, moreover, veers between a freshness of youth and the violence and prostitution (in several forms) surrounding them. At several moments in the film, older women suddenly shoot and kill their lovers and prostitutes berate their customers, actions without even seeming to register on those around them. But the men equally maltreat and misunderstand their women, with both Paul and his friend Robert admitting that they occasionally have sought out the company of sexual prostitutes and Paul outwardly stating his determination to bed Madeleine. Robert, himself, divides up his days into periods of time where everything is terrible or is just fine:
                         Paul: How’s it going?
                         Robert: [Seated at café table] Terrible!
                         Paul: What’s wrong?
                         Robert: I’m saying things are terrible until 10:00
                         Paul: [To the waiter] An espresso.
                         [To Robert]
                         Paul: It’s 10:05 now.
                         Robert: Really? Then everything’s all right.

      In her review of Godard’s film, critic Pauline Kael gushed over the director’s ability to catch the romantic problems of youth “precisely and essentially”; but I would argue that—even with the film’s lovely veneer of lyrical satire that certainly seemed to define the era even as it was occurring—that this entertaining and quite joyous film-essay does not truly attempt to answer anything, let alone give us “precise” and “essential” perceptions about it. In Masculine Feminine we never do discover the significant issues of gender or sex; we never learn whether either Paul or Madeline might be able to learn from each other or whether the Marxist culture (which Godard would later more deeply explore) and the Coca-Cola consumerism of the film’s women can find any way to co-exist. This young politico is so clearly isolated that he does not even know, or, at least, pretends not to know who Bob Dylan is, and when accidentally encountering a homosexual rendezvous between two men, is clearly disconcerted—if also a bit intrigued.

     By film’s end it becomes quite apparent that faced as he is constantly with the lies and silences of the members of the feminine sex he interviews, that the handsome, brooding, desperately-seeking sad-sack Paul cannot survive in such a world, made apparent by the ambiguous description of his death during an interview in which he kept moving back and further back before his “fall.” Was the interview, we can only ask, held on a rooftop or the edge of a cliff? What we do know, in hindsight, is that Godard, always slightly misogynistic in his works, would, at least temporarily, follow his young hero’s action, turning away from the yé-ye world of Madeline’s mindless ditties to ask and pronounce assessments of culture not so very unlike Paul’s. Certainly most critics argued that the director’s “Maoist” period ended in his own “fall.”

     There are few answers provided in Masculine Feminine, but then Godard’s brilliance has always been in the questions he asks. And the very fact that some of questions are unanswerable by those asked, speaks volumes.

Los Angeles, October 26, 2013

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