Godard dubbed the youth of the western world in 1966, "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola" and this film, Masculin, féminin, is a satirical look at what makes them worthy of that title and how one man struggles to come to terms with it and the resulting difficulty he has in accepting them as his peer group.
The story follows a young man in his early twenties named Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who has just gotten out of his required tenure in the French army. He finds himself having difficulty adjusting once more to civilian life, after all, the military was all that he really knew for the last few years of his life. To help find his way back into things, Paul takes up writing and he spends a lot of time putting his thoughts down on paper in a small French café. While killing time in the café one day, by chance Paul meets a beautiful young lady named Madeleine (Chantal Goya) and the two begin talking. As they get to know one another it turns out that she's an aspiring pop singer who works at a magazine that just so happens to have a use for someone like Paul who is handy with words so she gets him a job.
Soon enough, Paul has fallen for her and while Madeleine does show some hesitation initially, it isn't long before the two are an item. As is apt to happen with most couples, their small social circles become entwined and they begin hanging out in a group made up of Paul's old friend Robert (Michel Debord) and Madeleine's roommates, Elisabeth (Marlene Jobert) and Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport.).
As the central characters get to know one another better and better through various social activities, the divide between Paul and his friends becomes increasingly obvious. He shows great concern over various political issues that are completely irrelevant to his comrades and while he begins to lean towards activism, they seem content in their complacency. Even Madeleine, who he was initially so attracted to, seems void of concern for the relevant social problems that he tries to wrap his head around, and this divide that grows between the two lovers soon causes her to become quite emotional while he, on the other hand, becomes more withdrawn and, in a sense, antisocial.
Godard and cinematographer Willy Kurant shot the film without a lot of flashy camera work or striking angles instead relying on a very simple 'fly on the wall' approach to capturing the visuals. This allows us to almost feel like we're with the group as the tensions arise between them, which makes Masculin, féminin a very arresting film. The discussions between the characters, which is the heart of the bulk of the film (this movie is almost entirely dialogue driven), covers the same kind of ground that the youth of today talk about – sex, music, pop culture, and their social circle. Paul's attempts to interject some political discourse into things achieve mixed results, though his friends are willing to debate the merits of the Vietnam war. As the film plays out, we're treated to fifteen different takes on life, from the philosophical to the mundane and as such the film flows at a rather unusual pace but is structured in such an interesting way that it actually does make you wonder where it's going to go next, adding an element of intrigue to the otherwise rather pedestrian storyline. The way that this little barbs or points are punctuated in the film, with the sound of a pistol, is a nice and appropriate little touch.
The performances in the film are excellent in that nobody overplays their role at all, and everything flows nicely and as a result is quite believable because of it. Jean-Pierre Léaud does a fine job as the pensive and introspective male lead, and his alienation is understandable given the circumstances under which the story plays out. Chantal Goya is as cute as a button as the want-to-be pop singer, and perhaps her real life experience in that role helped her with the part as she fits it perfectly bringing no small amount of charm to her character. The irony of the way that Madeleine tries to look aloof and put so much effort into looking like she doesn't care how she looks is a nice touch, showing the emptiness of her hidden vanity. The difficulties that arise from the growth, or lack of growth, of their relationship is rather realistic made all the more so by the way that the movie handles some of the discussion scenes, choosing to focus more on one person than the pair or the group, again, giving it a 'you were there' feeling.
While the fact that Masculin, féminin is essentially an hour and forty minutes or so of dialogue might be a little difficult for some viewers to become involved in, those familiar with Godard's knack for writing wonderful characters and genuinely interesting discourse between the characters in his films should thoroughly enjoy this movie. It certainly isn't going to appeal to a massive, mainstream audience and in fact, it would likely be talking down to one, but for those who sometimes just don't get why everyone around them seems to be content in their ignorance of world events and social issues, they should find a kindred spirit in Paul and as such, enjoy his story even more. If that sounds like an elitist or snobby comment to make, so be it but the fact of the matter is that the majority of the world doesn't like to think for themselves, they're content to fall into place with the rest of the so called 'children of Marx and Coca-Cola.'
Criterion's 1.33.1 fullframe transfer presents the film in its original aspect ratio and as such it is not enhanced for anamorphic sets, but what a nice job they've done with the clean up job on this film. The black and white contrast levels are dead on, print damage has been all but completely eliminated and aside from some very natural fine film grain that you'll see more or less throughout the film, the picture is very, very clean looking. Black levels stay strong and deep and don't break up even in the slightest, and there's a very impressive level of both foreground and background detail present from start to finish. Sharpness is great, and for an older black and white film made on a fairly low budget, this transfer is quite a revelation – it's almost perfect, which is not surprising seeing as the cinematographer, Willy Kurant, apparently supervised the process.
The French language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is clean and clear and free from any major defects. The optional English subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors. For an older mono track, Masculin, féminin sounds fine. Dialogue is easy to follow and there are no issues to report in terms of distracting hiss or distortion. Obviously the limitations of the format prevent this from being all but a rather basic audio mix, but in this case basic works just fine and there's nothing wrong with presenting the film's audio as it was recorded as Criterion has done here. A fancy surround mix wouldn't have made anything any better nor would it have really made the film a more enjoyable experience than it already was.
The first of many supplements on this release is a vintage interview with Chantal Goya who played Madeline in the film. Recorded in 1966, this is an interesting look back at her career and her work on this film with Godard. Filmed for broadcast on a French television show entitled Au-Dela De L'Ecran it runs just a few seconds shy of five minutes. It's very nicely shot and edited, with Goya sitting outside answering questions about her past and what she hopes will come in her future and she's absolutely charming in this segment.
Up next is a brand new series of three interviews prepared specifically for this DVD release which contains video interviews recorded in 2005 with a few of the people who were involved in this production, namely Chantal Goya, cinematography Willy Kurant, and noted Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin. Goya talks for about fifteen minutes and she tells the story of how she met Godard and how working on the film ended up affecting her career. She also discusses the bedroom scene in a fair bit of detail, and it's quite interesting to hear her reflect back on her role in the film and compare it to the way she perceived things in the first interview. Kurant discusses the cameraman's position within the structure of making the film. He talks about the unique framing that was used for the film and how it ended up looking when it was projected and how the cinematographer is always at the mercy of the projectionist. Of course he talks about his working relationship with Godard and how his sense of humor was always interesting and bright. Kurant comes across as a very genuine and very intelligent man, and it's interesting to hear his take on things compared to Goya's as it is definitely more technical. Kurants interview lasts for just under twelve minutes. Gorin concludes the interviews as he talks about the first time he met Godard and how their relationship developed over the years. He also goes into some detail about how Godard had a knack for working on the actors' delivery of the dialogue in his films. At just over fifteen minutes, this interview gives a nice overview of what Gorin calls the two stages of Godard's career in filmmaking.
Moving right along, we're treated to an interesting video taped examination of the feature with a pair of French cinema scholars, Freddy Buache and Dominique Paini. Filmed in 2004, this is an intelligent and at times quite heavy discussion of the social implications of the director's body of work, most notably the feature contained on this DVD. The two men sit at a table enjoying some red wine together as they discuss not only critical reaction to the film but its important place within Godard's filmography. The point out how many of the characters that were unusual in this film are now quite commonplace in modern society, as well as the narcissism inherent in a lot of his movies. This segment clocks in at a hefty twenty five minutes or so in length and is quite an interesting dissection of the film.
The last of the more substantial extra features on this release is an interesting clip taken from a Swedish television broadcast that features some interesting footage of Jean-Luc Godard directing the 'film within a film' sequence from the feature.
Rounding out the supplements are a pair of trailers – the original theatrical trailer and a trailer for the 2005 theatrical re-release of the film and inside the keepcase we're of course treated to an insert containing an essay on the film from Adrian Martin and a reprint of a report made on the set of the film as it was being shot by French journalist, Philippe Labro which contains some nice still images from the feature itself. This is a great opportunity to watch Godard on the set doing his thing, making his vision come to life on the camera. This segment was filmed in Sweden and is considered by many people to by a parody of some of Ingmar Bergman's work, and it's kind of interesting to hear the brief interview that accompanies it to get Godard's take on what he's filming as well as his amusing take on sexual freedom in Sweden.
Criterion's release of Godard's Masculin, féminin scores high marks across the board! The video transfer is fantastic, the audio free of any problems, and the extras are both plentiful, and interesting. The film itself is a quirky and charming pop satire that holds up well even in today's world climate and without any hesitation whatsoever, this DVD comes highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.