Masculin Féminin Review
With Masculin Féminin, Jean-Luc Godard commenced down a road that would gradually take his cinema away from a traditional narrative form, and quite openly insert his own presence in the film in the form of the famous Godardian block intertitles, aligning his views with the characters in the film and through them – in the Vietnam era and leading up to the 1968 student riots in Paris – asserting a growing political position that would come to more and more dominate subsequent films.
In Masculin Féminin Jean-Pierre Léaud plays Paul – just out of military service, Paul is a young man kicking back at the state of the world he sees around him, a world that is dominated by the influence and activities of the USA – their presence in Vietnam and their growing influence on the lifestyles of the younger people of France – a Coca-Cola generation, adoring American movie stars and pop music who know nothing of the political crisis facing the world. Paul and his friend Robert (Michel Debord) are much more politically active, putting up militant posters and painting slogans on walls. Paul meets Madeline (Chantal Goya) in a café and asks her out on a date, but the course of his romance with the young girl doesn’t run smooth – she is afraid of getting pregnant and this causes complications with the young, red-blooded man. Madeline is an aspiring singer and when her first single becomes a hit, she further becomes part of a world Paul despises.
Godard’s 1966 film is a difficult one to grasp – despite being nominally based on a couple of Guy de Maupassant stories and having a fifteen chapter break-downs, it leaps around in a rather unstructured manner, repeating themes, unnecessarily prolonging conversations and generally appearing confused in its thinking. Léaud – famously active in events that led up to the student riots in 1968 – pretty much plays himself (and consequently gives perhaps his best performance outside of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows) and there is a sense that many of his dialogues and conversations are improvised. Interviewing a “Miss 19” magazine model, Paul questions her on her knowledge of social and political issues and finds the youth of his generation ignorant on important issues such as contraception and socialism.
This exasperation with the youth of the day gives rise to one of Godard’s most famous intertitles, Godard stating in bold capitals during the film - “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola. Make of that what you will”. Well, that makes itself very plain indeed and it’s a topic that is worthy of consideration. What strikes me as wrong and confused about Godard’s approach to the subject in Masculin Féminin is in his splitting of this ideological divide, as the film’s title suggests, across male and female lines. It’s a chauvinistic trait that is also evident in Pierrot Le Fou (Ferdinand’s love of abstraction and poetry rubs up against Marianne’s love of the concrete and money). In Masculin Féminin, however Paul knows that his striving for a pure ideal in his rational masculine way is not enough, that such an ideal cannot exist or be achieved in the field of emotions, where the female mindset holds sway - “We master ideas, which are nothing, but not our emotions which are all”. This confusion in his conflation of the male/female, rational/emotional, political/hedonistic divide weighs heavily on Masculin Féminin, and the film is consequently far less successful than his masterful treatment of sexual politics and the incompatibility of the genders in the utterly brilliant Le Mépris (Contempt).
Although the labelling on the disc itself claims the DVD to be Region 0, the Nouveaux Pictures’ UK release of Masculin Féminin is actually Region 2 encoded. It is released alongside two other Godard titles - Vivre Sa Vie (1962) and Two Or Three Things I Know About Her (1967). This restored version of Masculin Féminin was recently released on DVD in France by Arte, unsubtitled – the French DVD includes an 25 minute interview with Freddy Buache (ex Cinémathèque Suisse) and Dominique Païni (ex Cinémathèque Française) on “The inexhaustible modernity of Godard”, the original trailer, the addition of the original unrestored soundtrack of the film and a 36-page booklet of writing on the film. None of these extra features are present on the Nouveaux release.
There is a decent level of detail, good tones and a general stability to the image with no noticeable marks, scratches or damage of any serious nature, though the image is a little bit on the soft side and a little bit light and hazy in places. There are no noticeable digital transfer artefacts – possibly a little edge enhancement, but not to any great extent. There is a little bit of grain evident and with the general lightness the print is consequently not quite as clear as the transfer on Vivre Sa Vie. Overall though this is a very fine print and quite as you would expect a French New Wave film from this period to look.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and is surprisingly clear and relatively free from background noise. There are no real problems of any kind here.
The subtitles are fixed, but player generated and not burnt-into the print or transfer – they disappear if the film is run through in fast-forward mode – so some players may be able to override them. The subtitles are fine, but in a fast-moving film, full of quick-fire dialogue, they don’t translate every line, sometimes summarise longer intertitle captions, and obviously have difficulty when dialogue and intertitles overlap – but for the most part they are fine.
The only extra feature on the disc is a Photo Gallery, which has nothing more than 10 screen captures from the film. The DVD also comes with a thick booklet – the same booklet is available in each of the three Godard films released by Nouveaux - Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Masculin Féminin (1966) and Two Or Three Things I Know About Her (1967). It contains a brief biography of the director, a short introduction to each of the films, a complete filmography and reprints dialogue from a couple of key scenes from each of the three films.
For all its confusion in its mixed-up approach to an ill-thought-out concept, Masculin Féminin is still an interesting film that raises relevant questions and the raising of relevant issues is often more important than giving pat answers. The film additionally has strong, fresh, natural performances and an exciting, developing directorial technique that Godard would take much further – with varying levels of success – in later films. There are no serious problems with the DVD transfer which looks very good indeed here, although the lack of any substantial extra features is disappointing.