Masculine Feminine Movie Review

By 1966, Jean-Luc Godard was the New Wave's premier prankster-ideologue and pop-culture deconstructionist. After sharpening his teeth on Contempt, Band of Outsiders, and Alphaville among a coruscating burst of titles that began with 1960's Breathless, Godard rapidly found his voice in the form of the guerilla-style cinema manifesto. Masculine Feminine, about the dysfunctional romance between a young would-be militant and a budding pop star whose blithe pursuit of fame represents everything he hates about capitalism, comes together in a series of 15 loosely-connected vignettes--or "precise chapters" as Godard calls them. Intertitles, often accompanied by gunshots, read like politically-charged maxims and divide these "chapters" and lend the movie an aura of immediacy at once jarring and hilarious, because they raise what is, at heart, the story of a doomed romance into the realm of Marxist allegory. That sounds incredibly pretentious, but this is Godard -- an artist with a knack for exposing intellectual pretense for the vain tomfoolery that it is, and where the most intimate exchanges are booby-trapped by self-parody and non-sequiturs. In Godard's world, human relationships are negotiations for political power and fertile ground for his brand of deadpan formal antics.

Plot-wise, this is refreshingly simple stuff. Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a spray can-toting socialist in 1960s Paris, spends his time rallying against all things American, when he falls head-over-heals for Madeleine (played by real-life yé yé singer Chantal Goya), a pretty but clueless brunette on the verge of commercial breakthrough (she's already burning up the charts in Japan). Broke and evicted, Paul moves in with Madeleine and her roommates, Elizabeth and Catherine (Marléne Jobert and Catherine-Isabelle Duport), where he continues his attempts to reconcile his disapproval of Madeleine's money-driven dreams with his deep-seated hankering to get it on with her.

Masculine Feminine is Godard's revolutionary smashing-together of avant-garde inventiveness with the verité patina of New Wave cinema. His scenes announce themselves with a drab naturalism: Coffeehouses, subway stations, and bathrooms, for example, are done up with gritty lighting and with documentary-style sound recording in which car horns and off-screen mutterings are prone to obscure or drown out what's being spoken or seen on-screen. But what look and sound like distractions are really organic parts of a larger world to which Paul and Madeleine are connected, cluttering their minds and informing their actions.

Like all of Godard's movies, Masculine Feminine slaps us out of the languor that conventional narratives lull us into and demands our participation. This is truly interactive cinema: The more actively we participate in Godard's scenes, the funnier and more provocative it becomes. Paul's world is rife with sexually and politically loaded remarks, gestures, propositions, acts of violence, and bizarre juxtapositions of the personal and the political as it blasts apart the tropes of the conventional romance. Every segment in the movie, in one way or another, plays on clichés of how men relate to women and each to themselves, transforming the witty flirtations of Hollywood movies to the tedium of asides and half-uttered denials that sex-talk really is. It's no accident, then, that the most intimate conversations between Paul and Madeleine and, later, between their friends, Robert (Michel Debord) and Catherine, both take place in a bathroom: Where better to cleanse the male-female courtship ritual of the maudlin falseness slathered upon it by Hollywood?

Masculine Feminine is a bracing, post-modern anti-movie, holding up a mirror to its audience and to cinema itself to show how commercially crass and self-aggrandizing both have become. Its ideological heartbeat of can be felt in the mock-interview that Paul, now working as an opinion pollster, conducts with a teenage beauty queen. As Paul grills her about current affairs, birth control and her impressions of America, it's eerie how her blissful insouciance to world conflicts and her blind adoration of all things American reflect values that, forty years later, are more de rigueur than ever. And when, towards the end, Madeleine makes an off-the-cuff reference to Pierrot le fou, effectively product-placing one of Godard's own movies, we realize that this sly prankster is willing to admit that the joke is on him too. Gleefully aware of his own hypocrisy, Godard -- the by-now iconic cinematic rebel -- places himself on the same shelf as the Pepsis and the Coca-Colas that his wonderful, scabrous movie denounces. This is take-no-prisoners cinema by an artist too honest to exempt himself from its scalding gaze.

Aka Masculin, féminin: 15 faits précis.


Comments

Masculine Feminine Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 1966

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