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MASCULIN FEMININ

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Chantal Goya, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Marlène Jobert, Catherine-Isabelle Duport, Elsa Leroy
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Audio: French 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 full-screen
Studio: Criterion
Features: Interviews, trailers, television footage, booklet
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: September 20, 2005

"If you kill a man, you're a murderer.  If you kill millions of men, you're a conqueror.  If you kill them all, you're God."

"I don't believe in God."

Film ****

Of the French New Wave directors, Jean-Luc Godard was undoubtedly the most radical and liberal.  His early films were commercial successes which cantered to mass appeal while simultaneously circumventing cinematic conventions and experimenting with new approaches to sound, editing, and montage.  His later films, however, displayed a gradual shift towards more politically-oriented, even Marxist, tendencies.  Those films espoused Godard's own growing dissatisfaction with the political arena of the day

The film masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (1966) represents a turning point in Godard's career.  It is a film which intertwined the pop sensibilities of Godard's earlier films with the socialist leanings of Godard's later works.  At the film's heart is a romance between Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a disillusioned quasi-intellectual, and Madeleine (Chantal Goya), an aspiring young pop singer.  They are, as the film famously pronounces, "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola," and as such masculin féminin reflects the clash between the era's political upheavals and protests with the sexual exploration of the youth movement of the 1960's.

Fans of New Wave cinema will recognize Jean-Pierre Léaud instantly as the young star of François Truffaut's seminal series of films about Antoine Doinel, a fictional character who was rebellious, anti-authoritarian, and somewhat of a trouble-maker.  As he grew up before the camera, Léaud in many ways came to resemble his screen alter-ego (and vice versa).

Fans of 1960's Euro-pop may recognize Chantal Goya, too, as a pretty model who became a successful yé-yé singer in real life.  In fact, three of her hit songs ("Laisse-moi," "Sois gentil," and Si tu gagnes au flipper") can be heard on the soundtrack for masculin féminin.  The yé-yé phenomenon was a musical trend which started in France in the 1960's and celebrated the youthful image of teeny-boppers cooing bouncy songs of innocent love and romance.  The yé-yé singers were the Britney Spears and Mandy Moores of their day.  Famous yé-yé singers included Françoise Hardy and Nana Mouskouri.  By comparison, while Chantal Goya was only merely average vocally, her wonderful charm and bubbly-cute public persona more than made up for whatever musical deficiencies she possessed.  In fact, long after the 1960's, Goya remained very popular, crafting a highly successful musical career in France singing Disney tunes and children's songs.

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya thus represented ideal young actors for masculin féminin.  They embodied the very characteristics of the unlikely lovers, with Paul's liberal and revolutionary spirit caught in Madeleine's world of consumerism and capitalism.  The dichotomy between Paul and Madeleine, with their oil-and-water, "beauty and the beast" mentality, merely accentuated the film's frequently coy spin on relationship issues and dilemmas.

Godard's masculin féminin is loosely arranged as fifteen short vignettes presaging the frustration and disenchantment of the upcoming youth movement and hippie culture.  The film's structure, or what passes for one, is very open-ended and follows Paul and Madeleine from their first conversation in a small diner through an awkward but amusing courtship to the couple's final abrupt parting.

In the film, youth is used as a conduit for the suppressed emotions of society.  The characters are able to question themselves about relationships and sexuality in a blunt or narcissistic manner that might otherwise be suppressed in polite gatherings.  Sudden flashes of violence - a gunshot, a knife-stabbing, a suicide or two - frequently interject themselves into the narrative, even during quieter moments, suggesting the incongruities and paradoxes of life's strong emotions.

Acceptance of sexuality and freedom of expression during the 1960's did not always translate into an appreciation of how best to act upon this "free love."  The young adults of masculin féminin are liberated but not entirely certain how to act upon their inner stirrings.  In the film, Paul adores Madeleine, who at times seems to prefer her own roommate Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert).  Madeleine's friend Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport) secretly fancies Paul, while Paul's chum Robert (Michel Debord) openly desires Catherine.  Within this entangled web of flirtations, even passer-bys and background characters are glimpsed in moments of passion - a lovers' quarrel, a clandestine affair, an "arrangement" with a prostitute.

However, to classify masculin féminin as a sexual romp is entirely false.  The film deals more with ideas and the verbal expression of internal feelings, not physical acts.  Nevertheless, masculin féminin was perhaps too ahead of its time to be fully appreciated during its initial release.  In fact, its psychosexual tension and frank discussions (none of which would merit more than a PG rating today) were considered shocking enough at the time that youngsters under seventeen were barred from the film, despite the fact that masculin féminin spoke directly to them and not to the older audiences actually allowed to attend screenings.  Moral values have certainly changed since then, with masculin féminin being supplanted now by such key generational watermarks as Larry Clark's disturbing Kids or, on a more philosophical level, Richard Linklater's Slacker.

Today, masculin féminin is considered one of Godard's finer efforts, a snapshot of a cultural phenomenon on the cusp of bursting into the mainstream.  The film captures the ambiguity of youth, the often awkward or self-conscious efforts of maturing teens to emulate their elders or to express themselves adequately.  Godard's masculin féminin probably marks one of the final commercial endeavors by the idiosyncratic director, who by the late 1960's was more interested in disassociating himself from the adoration of the public spotlight for newer films of revolutionary and political nature.  As such, masculin féminin should be enjoyed for what it is - an early curtain call and minor masterpiece of the mainstream from one of the French New Wave's more eclectic directors.

Video ** ½

Godard's masculin féminin is presented in a new, high-definition digital transfer made from a 35mm fine-grain master.  The process was supervised by Willy Kurant, the film's cinematographer.  The picture quality is fairly good, although the film stock possesses a degree of noticeable grain and the details are occasionally (if intentionally) washed-out in certain scenes.  The picture appears relatively clean of defects or speckles.  On an interesting note, the film was framed in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, highly unusual for any theatrical release after the 1950's (and the popularity of television).

Audio ** ½

From an audio standpoint, masculin féminin may be unlike any other film that most audiences are likely to have experienced.  Filled with spontaneous bursts of noise, intervals of utter silence punctuated by gunshots, masculin féminin has a vibrant sound quality that is at times jarring and at times authentic, an aural equivalent of cinéma vérité.  Much of the sound is direct sound, hence we have the blare of car horns, the chatter of passing pedestrians, and even the drowning-out of the actors' dialogue.  Godard freely cuts sound out altogether at times (the silent lapses therefore do not represent an error during the mastering process) only to interject sound in sudden spurts.

Features ***

The DVD's appearance is rather cool, with artwork designed to make the disc resemble a spinning 45 rpm single.  Most of the bonus features on the disc are comprised of revealing interviews, old and new, and should only be viewed after first watching masculin féminin.

First up is an archival interview (5 min.) from 1966 with actress Chantal Goya.  This interview was filmed for Au-delà de l'écran, a French television program.  Goya describes her early pop music career as a yé-yé singer, how she was first drawn to a career in acting, and reactions by her fans (and her parents) to her acting debut.  Overall, Goya is just too adorable in this short clip!

There is also a new interview (10 min.) with Chantal Goya.  She discusses Godard's directorial style and elaborates upon her own experiences on masculin féminin.  There are also photographs documenting Goya's subsequent career as a popular children's singer.

Other new interviews include one with cinematographer Willy Kurant (12 min.) and another with Jean-Pierre Gorin (15 min.).  Kurant talks about his career in cinematography and how he first met Godard.  Concerning masculin féminin, Kurant describes the film's lighting, the stock used, and Godard's directorial methods.  Gorin had collaborated on many Godard films and in his interview offers his own interpretation of what Godard was trying to achieve with masculin féminin.

The final interview (25 min.), the most enjoyable featurette on the disc, is a very animated discussion about the film between film scholars Freddy Buache and Dominique Païni.  Both scholars place masculin féminin within its sociological and cultural context while gyrating their hands and gesturing madly to drive home their comments.  It's quite amusing to watch.  Furthermore both scholars are honest in revealing their initial dislike of Godard's progressive film, opinions which have transformed into great admiration in the intervening years.

As masculin féminin was a Swedish co-production, there was international interest in the film during its production, as seen in some Swedish television footage (4 min.) of Godard working on a scene from the film.  Godard is seen directing masculin féminin's film-within-a-film sequence, apparently a parody of Ingmar Bergman's own The Silence (1963).

Last on the disc are a couple of trailers for masculin féminin.  One is the original trailer and the other is for the 2005 Rialto Pictures re-release.

Criterion has included a 16-page booklet with a pair of essays.  The first essay, "The Young Man for All Times" by film critic Adrian Martin, highlights the film's influential role in French pop culture of the time.  Certain themes and characteristics about this remarkable film are also discussed.  The second essay, "On the Set of masculin féminin" by French journalist Philippe Labro, is a reprint of an article originally written for the magazine Le nouveau Candide on January 17, 1966.  The article was written during the film's original production and captures Godard's improvisational style and his ideas for scenes in the film (before he had actually written or photographed them).

BONUS TRIVIA:  Watch closely and you might spot popular yé-yé singer Françoise Hardy in a quick cameo!  Brigitte Bardot also has a cameo appearance but is quite easy to recognize.

Summary:

Godard's masculin féminin admirably captures the spirit of the youth movement of the 1960's.  It presents a simultaneously subversive, frank, yet innocent depiction of the lives of a group of young people trying to adjust to the vastly changing sociopolitical and cultural mores of the day.  A small masterpiece in its own right, masculin féminin receives my recommendations in this solid DVD offering from Criterion.

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