Jean-Luc Godard's first feature after his genre takeoffs Alphaville and Pierrot le fou returns to the streets of Paris on a different stylistic track than earlier pictures like Band of Outsiders. Masculin féminin directly addresses the politics of a youthful generation divided between activism and consumerism. The boys in Godard's equation show a keen interest in the issues of the day but are self-centered troublemakers unlikely to be taken seriously by anyone. The girls are far more civilized but also oblivious to politics beyond their individual careers and fashion images. The film's famous quote comes courtesy of one of Godard's jarring inter-titles, which proclaims the young generation as "The children of Marx & Coca-Cola."
Godard borrows Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel actor Jean-Pierre Léaud but uses him quite differently. The amusing Paul and his equally egotistical friend Robert aren't idealized or cute. They're impassioned exponents of liberal politics but also complete boors, harassing young women in cafés and heckling them on the street just for the sake of being fresh. For Paul's female foil, Godard taps Chantal Goya, a then- rising yé yé pop singer. "Madeleine" bounces into one scene chanting, "I just made number six in Japan!" which had just happened to Ms. Goya in real life. Godard possibly picked Goya expecting a fresh-faced kid to fit into his preconceived idea that teen girls were all vacant materialists, but Goya shows a surprising sensitivity. To illustrate his thesis, the director must include an interview with a vapid teen Miss contest winner. She indeed keeps a poised smile on her face, promoting a wholesome self-image while deflecting questions about politics. "Socialism? I really don't know what socialism is."
The boys talk a good line about liberation but their progressive action boils down to little more than leafleting and spraying graffiti. And, of course, making a big show of how intellectually rebellious they are. They paint 'Get out of Vietnam' on the side of a U.S. Army officer's car. Paul asserts his importance by interrupting Madeleine's radio hits with classical music - he's insecure, but not in the endearing way familiar from the Truffaut films. Madeleine becomes Paul's lover but never fools herself that he's Mr. Right.
Godard decorates his tale with welcome quotes and title cards to introduce the film's 15 parts, but Masculin féminin is several degrees less self-conscious than his work before and after. Attempts to deconstruct cinema are mostly absent and his messages are not the bald sloganeering of his later work. He does wrap things up rather abruptly, as if to display his disinterest in conventional narrative forms.
Godard has already sidestepped his narrative framework when a voiceover explains that Paul has changed jobs and become a pollster. Several direct interview scenes follow. Godard's off-screen questions, sent to the interviewees through earphones, were replaced with Jean-Pierre Léaud's voice.
According to testimony from Criterion's interview extras, Godard used the same method to direct what appear to be free-form open discussions between his characters. He shot both sides of a heated conversation separately, 'playing' the opposite character and letting the actor improvise his responses. When the two halves are married and Godard removed, what's left is a spirited dialogue scene that appears to be spontaneous. Much of Godard's show isn't scripted in the usual sense, but by no means does he let the actors make it up as they go - he still exercises control.
The film has a buoyant pace. Willy Kurant's camerawork is rich and resourceful, a good replacement for Raoul Coutard's unique visuals. Brigitte Bardot's cameo is easy to spot in a café scene but sharp-eyed viewers will want to be on the lookout for the beautiful Francoise Hardy (What's New Pussycat?, Grand Prix) as the date of an American Army officer.
Criterion's DVD of Masculin féminin is handsomely transferred at its original flat ratio. Chantal Goya's catchy French-language pop tunes come across clearly on the restored soundtrack. The extras lined up by Criterion producer Issa Clubb include a discussion by two French film critics but the real treasures are the interviews with cameraman Willy Kurant, Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin and the captivating Ms. Goya. We see her first in 1966 as an ambitious pop idol. She tries on some flower-power mod glasses, pointing forward to the coming hippie era. Interviewed again in 2005, Goya has quite a different perspective on those years. Radical provocation was never her thing, and she remembers her parents being shocked by her dialogue about birth control and abortion. She continued as a star of kiddie entertainment.
An archival news film shows Godard in Sweden directing the film's Bergmanesque movie-within-a-movie. When asked why he's come to Stockholm he skips artistic explanations to flatly report that Swedish money is in the film. An insert booklet contains an essay by Adrian Martin and observances from the set by journalist Philippe Labro. We're reminded that Paul is not a teenager but a young adult who has just finished his military service. Most mid-sixties Parisian teens couldn't afford Paul's café lifestyle.
Godard ends the original French trailer with a wickedly funny voiceover comment on the adults-only rating: The film is all about teenagers, and so of course they cannot be allowed to see it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Masculin féminin rates: