Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin is the revolutionary director’s most important work. One part paean, one part critique of a restless youth.
Despite its subtitle, 15 Specific Events, Godard’s 1966 celebration of all that was young and vital in Paris at that time is not nearly so cut and dried as all that – and nor should it be. Films which set out to capture some of the ineffable essence of youth generally fall prey to one of a range of traps: they show youth from the viewpoint of the old, or they focus on sex or music or drugs, or they try to make the actions of the young mean something beyond the confines of the bars and bedrooms where the scenes of self-discovery play out.
Godard’s first stroke of genius in Masculin Féminin is to realise that every aspect of being young is little but fuel for the gaping maw of the individual, that youth is a black hole around which all the paraphernalia of the culture whirl in orbit. “That’s why I’m the perfect revolutionary,” Michel Dubord’s Robert Packard observes parenthetically as he recites a list of radical qualities from a pamphlet for the amusedly indulgent Elisabeth Choquet (Marlène Jobert). His second stroke was simple enough: let the kids do the talking.
If there’s a plot to Masculin Feminin, it’s of the slow and tentative falling in and out of love of our two Parisian sweethearts. Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Paul, by turns the very image of cocksure young masculinity and suddenly despondent existential dreamer (“I don’t know why I’m joking; actually, I feel miserable” must be the muttered slogan of urban 20-somethings everywhere) relentlessly pursues Chantal Goya’s Madeleine Zimmer, the waifish up-and-coming yé-yé singer.
But this ongoing story is more the diversion in a series of vignettes which seek to bring to life the struggles of a generation seeking to find a place for themselves in a world where the old rules clearly no longer apply but there doesn’t seem to be any clear way forward. The adventures of ‘the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.’
Many of the scenes are shot as camera-facing interviews, most notably an unwavering sequence in which ‘Miss 19’ is peppered with questions about communism, Vietnam and revolution while she shyly smiles and protests her own ignorance. This isn’t a critical scene though, nor does it act as some kind of condemnation of the ignorance of the young. Paul and Robert daub slogans on American military cars and recite the Marxist creed that they’ve picked up from papers, and it doesn’t make them seem worldly or informed any more than the tales of trips to America turn the pretty girl on the window ledge into a globetrotting socialite.
These are people trying out identities, picking up and dropping faces and personas like dresses, and Godard’s technique of prompting unscripted interaction between his young actors means that the film feels as fresh and free from self-knowledge as its subjects.
Outside of these interrogations, the film veers between the surreal and the amusingly mundane, declaring on love and jazz and breasts in a way which is so lightly powerful, so cool, that it’s almost impossible not to be swept along with the sheer vivacious energy of it all. The sound is a major part of this; Godard lets the noise and bustle of Paris leak into conversations until it almost drowns out the action, and his use of an exclamatory gunshot as the punctuation between scenes jars and refocuses you in equal measure.
This isn’t to say all the moments in the film are equally compelling – like being a soldier, it sometimes seems as though being young could be characterised as long periods of boredom interspersed with brief periods of terror. But Godard chooses his moments wisely (lord knows how many reels of improvised footage ended up on the cutting room floor here) and presents us with a series of snapshots which, like the best art of this kind, seems like real life but more interesting.
Masculin Feminin is, ultimately, a triumphant celebration of youth in all its vainglorious luminosity. Watching it one is called back to one’s own self this age, a person who seems to have disappeared as suddenly as Paul does, and like with Paul, your instinct is to utter for your own lost youth. Madeleine’s lament: it wasn’t suicide, just a stupid accident.
Check out our in-depth look at Le Mepris, Jean-Luc Godard’s swipe at Hollywood.