Jean-Luc Godard jams so many ideas into "Masculin Feminin" (1966) that they barely have enough room to stand shoulder-to-shoulder inside the frame. "Masculin Feminin" is a film about, in no particular order: youth culture, pop music, cinephilia, the cult of celebrity, the gender gap, capitalism, Marxism, birth control, Vietnam and even pinball. Sometimes the ideas dovetail nicely; other times they collide and destroy each other. The film's subtitle describes itself as a film told in "15 precise facts," but there is nothing precise about them at all. Godard makes no effort to smooth out the rough patches; "Masculin Feminin" is like a jigsaw puzzle in which half of the individual pieces haven't even been cut to fit together.
The story, such as it is, is fairly simple. Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) falls in love with budding pop singer Madeleine (played by real life pop singer Chantal Goya) who reciprocates, but only to a degree; Paul amuses her, but she could just as easily do without him. Paul also has to deal with Madeleine's friends: Catherine-Isabelle (Catherine-Isabelle Duport) who might also be in love with Paul, and Elisabeth (Marlene Jobert) who is probably in love with Madeleine. Paul oozes self-confidence, but it is all mimicked behavior. He flips a cigarette into his mouth to look cool like a movie star, but inside he is a seething mass of insecurity. He is young, and he is foolish, but, above all, he is completely out of his league when dealing with three women who are unified on their side of the "Masculin Feminin" divide.
None of the characters really have much to do with their time; that's one of the chief perks of being young, after all. They listen to music, they do laundry, they go to the movies, and so on. Here Godard plays with classical narrative structure. These everyday activities are the center of the film, yet from time to time more dramatic, Hollywood-style events occur at the periphery. While Paul and Madeleine eat at a café, a wife guns down her husband just outside; the camera immediately cuts away and the incident is barely mentioned again. In another scene, a stranger walks by Paul and Catherine on the street. Soon afterward, the man sets himself on fire as a protest against Vietnam, but we never see it; Paul merely describes it as it happens off-screen. Banality is foregrounded; drama is pushed to the side.
"Masculin Feminin" has long been lauded for its documentary aspects. It was very much intended as a report on "the situation of French youth" in 1966. Characters discuss pop music, current fashion, movies, politics, and the Pill; all the things young Parisians were concerned with at the time. The film is shot on grainy black and white stock by cinematographer Willy Kurant, best known for his work in cinema verite. The film includes any shots of the streets of Paris; in fact, Godard actually used some of the test footage Kurant shot while experimenting with a new Kodak stock. In addition, Godard did not shoot from a formal script, but rather conducted many scenes as "interviews" with the actors; in some cases this is literal like when Paul, working as a pollster, grills the hapless "Miss 19" on a range of issues from birth control to socialism.
Yet we have another contradiction. For all the alleged "realism" of the film, Godard, in classic Brechtian fashion, interrupts the film constantly with disruptive intertitles ("We are the children of Marx and Coca-Cola" being one of the most famous intertitles in film history) and startling blasts of off-screen sound. Many key (or not so key) moments in the film are punctuated by echoing gunshots which sound like they were borrowed by a B-grade Hollywood Western. Godard never allows the viewer to be drawn into the flow of the story, always keeping the audience at a distance, just as he keeps his own cool, ethnographic distance from his characters. Godard, after all, was 35 when he shot "Masculin Feminin," and these young people were strange, alien creatures to him.
For me, "Masculin Feminin" is a bit of a "tweener" film in Godard's prodigious and magnificent 1960s output. Though it contains some lovely scenes (my favorite being when they all go to the movies to watch Swedish porn), it doesn't offer the all-time memorable moments of 1964's "Band of Outsiders" (the minute of silence, the speed-tour through the Louvre), it doesn't quite deliver the dramatic or satirical punch of the brilliant "Contempt" (1963), and even as delirious improvisation it is not the equal of "Pierrot le Fou" (1965). Leaud's performance, though, is pitch-perfect, probably the best of his career and one of the best in any Godard film.
However, "Masculin Feminin" should not suffer merely because of Godard's own success; it is still a splendid film that plays differently for me each time I see it. At first, I saw it as inspired pop art with its jaunty soundtrack (with Chantal Goya's own songs) and its hip, freewheeling attitude. Now that I have watched it several times, I see it as a much darker, disturbing film. "Masculin Feminin" is not just a celebration of youth culture, but also a troubled document of unrest and dysfunction. The cultural revolution was just around the corner and these restless knockabout kids would become its point men and women.
Somehow, on first viewing, I missed just how cynical and downright cruel the ending of this film. It is so abrupt it can't even be called a twist, but rather a complete disruption. Madeleine's final lines reveal the icy cold pragmatism that lies beneath that serene, porcelain doll face. Paul never knew what he was getting himself into.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I sound like a broken record at this point, but this is yet another superb digitally restored transfer by Criterion. The film is supposed to look grainy and, by god, it does. The black and white photography is perfectly preserved. I saw this earlier in the year in the theater when Rialto Pictures released a newly restored print and this DVD looks every bit as good.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. "Masculin Feminin" is a testament to how complex and rich a monaural soundtrack can be. The pop music, the piercing gunshots, the blasting car horns are every bit as important to the film as the story or the images. This sound transfer mixes all the elements perfectly.
The biggest drawback is the absence of any commentary track for this challenging film. However, the extras that have been included, while a somewhat eclectic collection, are top notch.
There are numerous interviews on the disc:
Chantal Goya, 1966 (5 min). Just a puff piece meant as P.R. for the young actress/singer.
Chantal Goya, 2005 (15 min). A new interview conducted by Criterion. Goya talks about meeting Godard as well as her career post-"Masculin Feminin" when she became a star of children's films.
Willy Kurant, April 2005 (12 min). Cinematographer Willy Kurant discusses his contribution to the film.
Jean-Pierre Gorin, March 2005 (15 min). The erudite Gorin, Godard's former partner in the Dziga Vertov Group, analyzes the film. I recommend that Criterion includes a Gorin analysis with every film they release; he is superb.
The disc also includes a discussion between Freddy Buache and Dominique Paini (25 min). Lots of fun, especially if you love European-style hyperbole.
Finally, the disc offers two trailers: the original and the 2005 re-release trailer from Rialto Pictures.
Though "Masculin Feminin" contains no nudity and no graphic violence, the film received the equivalent of an NC-17 rating on its initial release. The mere fact that young people frankly discussed issues such as sex and birth control was enough to stir up significant controversy. The film's trailer (included on the disc) took full advantage, stating "Viewers under 18 not allowed, because the film is about them." Could there be any better way to guarantee a teenage audience?