Saturday, February 23, 2019

Masculine Feminine (in 15 Acts) (Masculin Féminin: 15 faits précis)

Director Jean-Luc Godard (right) on the set of Masculin Féminin (1966)

MASCULINE FEMININE (In 15 Acts)          B-                   
aka:  Masculin Féminin: 15 faits précis
France  Sweden  (103 mi)  1966  d:  Jean-Luc Godard 

No, it’s more a film on the idea of youth.  A philosophical idea, but not a practical one—a way of reacting to things.  It’s not a dissertation on youth or even an analysis.  Let’s say that it speaks of youth, but it’s a piece of music, a “concerto youth.”  I have taken young signs, signs that have not yet been deformed.  My signs haven’t already been used a thousand times.  I can talk about them now, afterward, because when I made this film, I didn’t have the least idea of what I wanted.
Godard on "Masculine Feminine"   Pierre Daix interview with Godard from Les Lettres Francaises, June 1966 (pdf format)

We’d often go to the movies. We’d shiver as the screen lit up.  But more often, Madeline and I would be disappointed. The images flickered.  Marilyn Monroe looked terribly old.  It saddened us.  It wasn’t the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make... and secretly wanted to live.            
—Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud)

Following on the heels of the highly popular Pierrot le Fou (1965), a lightweight comedy featuring a handsome couple (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina) as outlaws on the run through some of the most gorgeously photographed locales in southern France’s ravishly beautiful Cote d'Azur region, this is a return to low grade black and white, notable for being Godard’s last film in black and white, where Godard’s regular cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, has been replaced by Belgian-born Willy Kurant.  Unlike the sumptuous color of his previous effort, creating an almost exhilarating giddiness, this film is shrouded in an overall feeling of gloom, where there’s not an ounce of warmth or compassion anywhere to be seen in the film.  In view of Godard’s own crumbling relationship with actress Anna Karina (divorced in 1968), who is absent from this production, only to reappear again in one final film together, the barely seen MADE IN U.S.A. (1966), the director seems to be working out his own personal frustrations within the context of the more despairing characters who lack the energetic optimism of his previous films, becoming a meditation on the seeming impossibility of relations between the sexes.  Of course it wouldn’t be a Godard film if he wasn’t also making a satirical comment on the vacuousness of celebrity worship while dramatizing the commercialism of contemporary art and music.  Using natural lighting and synchronous sound, shooting many of the scenes at night, capturing the rush of Christmas shopping, exactly as Éric Rohmer does in My Night at Maud's (Ma Nuit Chez Maud) (1969), Godard’s film is a time capsule capturing a city for all seasons, a portrait of everyday Paris.  Shooting on the streets of Paris in the winter of 1965, a contrast to Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai (1963), which was shot on the same streets during the spring of 1962, and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (Chronique d'un été, Paris 1960), which was shot in the summer months of 1960, all are early examples of cinéma vérité.
Moving away from narrative, using a near documentary style, as the title suggests the film is more a series of incidents all strung together, where there is little connection to any of the characters.  Like a missing adventure from Truffaut’s Introduction to The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, featuring actor Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, he reappears here in a Godard film as Paul, much the same, now 21-years of age, still a young idealist whose job description continues to be hitting on attractive women, rather awkwardly and usually unsuccessfully.  Here he drifts through various jobs, currently working for a public opinion poll, though rather than adhering to a specific script, obtaining scientific objectivity, he spontaneously veers into questions of his own interest (allegedly spoken into his ear by the director), blending fiction and documentary, reflected in a painfully forced, near ten-minute take of a lengthy interview of “Miss Nineteen” (Elsa Leroy), an attractive model/singer who represents the youth of today, which grows ludicrous in the sheer stupidity of the questions, grilling her on subjects she knows nothing about, yet very similar to the kinds of nonsensical questions asked of the Beatles during their early 1960’s press conferences as reflected in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964).  While this is going on, there’s also an inner struggle with Paul, where he questions his own motives.   

Little by little during these three months I've noticed that all these questions, far from reflecting a collective mentality, were frequently betraying and distorting it…Without knowing it, I was deceiving [the people I was questioning] and being deceived by them. Why? No doubt because polls and samples soon forget their true purpose, which is the observation of behavior, and insidiously substitute value judgments for research. I discovered that all the questions I was asking conveyed an ideology which didn’t correspond to actual customs but to those of yesterday, of the past. Thus I had to remain vigilant. A few random observations came to me by chance and served me as guidelines:

A philosopher is a man who pits his conscience against opinion:  To have a conscience is to be open to the world.

To be faithful is to act as if time does not exist.  Wisdom could be if one could see life, really see, that would be wisdom.  

At least part of Godard’s interest in making the film was documenting the conditions during the lead-up to the December 1965 presidential elections where de Gaulle eventually beat Mitterand in a runoff, viewed not so much through a political lens, but from the vantage point of an interested bystander gauging the interests of the public at the time, where the film has more of a sociological feel to it than most.  The mood of the nation is considered through a somewhat skewed social milieu, as Godard seems more interested in the youth voters and pop culture.  Due to the adult subject matter, however, the film was actually barred for children under age 18, probably the very audience Godard was targeting.  One should understand that any film starring Jean-Pierre Léaud at this age is going to delve into satiric foolishness, as he’s always trying to get into a girl’s pants, and will go to any extremes, where here his narcissistic persistence eventually becomes too much of a pain in the ass, though his comical lightheartedness is amusing.  While he will forever be defined by two films, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959) and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), he pretty much plays himself in every film, a likeable and charming, yet somewhat naïve and goofy guy, where women like to have him around as much to make fun of him as to enjoy his company.  His jealousy and over possessiveness, however, usually gets the better of him.  Here he is paired against Chantal Goya as Madeleine, an attractive model attempting to get a start in the music business as one of the Yé-yé girls, where she’s hoping to gain some success as a pop singer, which at the time is her sole concern.  In doing so, she maintains a youthful innocence in her songs while being marketed and/or exploited in a sexy and deliberate way.  Throughout the film she is seen as little more than a carefully developed commodity, a child of the Pepsi generation where Paul gets lost in the fantasy aura surrounding her, failing to ever really register with the person herself.  In fact it was Truffaut who suggested to Godard that he buy his first television set in order to “discover” this young talent performing on TV while also working in the offices of several popular teen magazines, Salut les copains and Mademoiselle âge tender, giving Godard the opportunity to work her real life into his film.   

This was the era of James Bond and Vietnam. A great wave of hope had risen in the French left with the approach of the December [1965] elections. 

Ostensibly the film deals with the developing relationship between Paul and Madeleine who meet at a café counter and engage in flirtatious banter that she initially finds charming, where his opening line is, “What about the twenty-third?  You told me we could go out together on the twenty-third,” to which she responds, “And when you say go out, you mean go to bed?” confiding her thoughts in a voiceover, “Maybe I’ll screw him, if he isn’t a drag.” Eventually introducing him to her two attractive roommates, Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport) and Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert), women that seem to have nothing in common with him, yet the relationship blurs the boundaries and turns into a silly ménage a trois when Paul moves in.  Paul opens the film a declared radical leftist and works with another leftist journalist friend, Robert (Michel Debord), where the extent of their activism is expressed by mounting posters or political slogans on the street, uttering catchphrases like, “Kill a man and you’re a murderer.  Kill thousands and you’re a conqueror.  Kill everyone and you’re a god.”  Though you can never tell if he’s pretending or if its real life, but eventually Paul becomes a pollster (for the French Public Opinion Institute), which gives him an excuse to ask any probing question he likes, as if he’s always on duty.  No one ever asks men these kinds of sexist, air-headed questions, where most of it sounds like male pandering, where they’re just being annoying pests hovering around attractive girls.  While the women are just as superficial, they seem to be more honest and up front about it, while the guys are posers, continually pretending to be something they’re not.  Time and again Godard returns to the interview format throughout the film, with Paul trying to instill some political interest in Catherine who pretty much avoids his questions, smiling incessantly for the camera, claiming she prefers “reactionaries” as they’re somehow “against” the prevailing tide. 

No one is ever seen working, yet they somehow always have money and dress in the latest fashion, so all are likely ravenous consumers.  While there are references to revolution or leftist politics, no one is seen organizing or doing the necessary work to make these desired anti-capitalist realities happen, though there are a few humorous asides, instead it’s more of a façade of all talk with no action, mirroring the way these vacuous guys talk with girls, with the endless questioning, which sounds like the mindless kinds of questions asked of beauty contestants.  It goes from silliness, like a series of murders taking place before our eyes but nobody cares, an actual appearance by Brigitte Bardot rehearsing her lines in a café, or a scene title that says, “This film should be called ‘The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola,’” to ugly when they all go out to the movies, which turns out to be a sadistic porn film from Sweden, where Paul goes ballistics when he discovers it’s not being shown in the correct aspect ratio, reading the projectionist a lecture on the proper guidelines.  Ultimately, however, this becomes another surface level film that never sufficiently delves below the surface, punctuated by interjecting title cards, as Godard is more fascinated by style than substance, where the guys endlessly dwell on talking politics and painting slogans while the girls are continually looking at themselves in mirrors while playing with their hair and shopping for the latest styles.  Due to the non-involving nature of the characters themselves, who never generate any heat or electricity, overall the film resembles a hopeless love affair, with Godard identifying with the emptiness of the relationships, reflective of the lost idealism of the 60’s and the dilemma of being young, where the film’s real value is more as a time capsule documenting the times.  It represents a transitional stage in Godard’s career where in his late 30’s, for the first time in his life, he’s about to discover politics, where his earlier 60’s films feel so much more charming and exuberant, representing a much simpler time.   

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