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Godard and Feminism Part VI: Masculin Féminin (1966)

January 23, 2014

Masculin-Feminin_1Jean- Luc Godard began his career as a film critic for the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma before evolving into a filmmaker. Godard never lost his desire to critique the weaknesses he saw in cinema and populare culture. As a result, his films became a slate in which he could convey his dissatisfaction on, as well as the means to deconstruct conventional, socially accepted themes, narratives, and thought processes. In his film Masculin Féminin, Godard breaks the continuity of the story by intercutting title cards with random statements and thoughts. On one of the most memorable intertitles, the card reads: “This film could also be called the children of Marx and Coke Cola.” Such statement proves itself as a more fitting, descriptive title due largely to Godard’s focus on political awareness and social indifferences.

Much like the typical Godard film of the 60s, Masculin Féminin uses a budding relationship to pedal the wheel of much larger and broader themes like love, consumerism, liberty, sexuality, the concept of gender roles, social qualms, and the passiveness of the modern society in which the film takes place. Masculin Féminin relays how Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young French idealist, superficially falls in love with a young up and coming pop star, Madeleine (Chantal Goya). Although they are worlds apart they are placed in situations that gives them, and more so the audience, insight into each others personalities as opposed to them truly learning from or of themselves. The dichotomy of awareness among Paul, Madeleine and the group of people they surround themselves with becomes the driving force of the film.

Masculin Féminin is a time capsule of France in 1965. The Beatles and Bob Dylan were taking over the music charts, The Vietnam War had just begun and birth control was a hot topic around the world. Yet, none of that matters to the youth featured throughout Masculin Féminin except for Paul and his friend Robert whose ideas of being revolutionaries are gratified by graffiting messages of empowerment on bathroom stalls and the sides of unsuspecting cop cars. Depicted mostly from the perspective of Paul, Masculin Féminin rides the line of hypocrisy and uncertainty by a passionate young man with big ideas, little influence, and at times, juvenile ways of thinking.

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Masculin Féminin has a pristine look that is sharp and precise a result of Godard’s use of natural lighting in most scenes. The use of black and white helps create a photographic essence to each frame that is only heighted by the implementation of rule of thirds to create remarkably balanced images in each frame. Godard’s use of handheld camera throughout Masculin Féminin allows for intimate, lingering moments between characters that is fortified by interview based, cinéma vérité style of filmmaking. An interview with a woman known as  “Miss 19” or  “a consumer product,” allows Paul (and Godard through in-eared headphones on set) to investigate the private thoughts and desires of a young French woman. The scene is captivating in its realness as she grows uncomfortable with the questions about politics and sexuality and at times refuses to answer. Interestingly enough she dicusses her views on Americans informing us that she believes American women were freer than French woman. The generalized topic of French women is touched on during a voiceover in which a woman states, “there is no average Frenchwoman.” The statement is amplified by Godard’s ranging depiction of women, once again delivering credence to the feminine experience as a whole.

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People of all walks of life are featured through Masculin Féminin. Madeline is more focused on her career than her relationship with Paul. In fact, she doesn’t place importance on the relationship itself seeing it instead a way to pass time and have fun. During an interview with Madeline early on in the film, she answers her own question: “what’s the center of your world?” with the answer “me.” Madeline even mentions in a journal entry read through voiceover narration that she’s glad Paul is in love with her and that perhaps she’ll let him screw her soon. Madeline is seemingly emotionally detatached from her relationship with Paul despite telling him she loves him. Madeline thus takes on the “masculine role” in the relationship. Likewise, Paul doesn’t fit the typical gender role of a male, instead finding it hard to control his emotions, which in his words are “everything” while “ideas are nothing.” Paul is more readily willing to accept the idea of falling in love because the center of his world is “love.”

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A voice is given to multiple marginalized people throughout Masculin Féminin. Although such scenes are short, their impact is withstanding. For instance, during a train ride Paul and Robert overhear a discussion between a white woman and two black men. As the woman venomously stereotypes them as repressed murderers, one man gets the chance to rebuttal calling her out for being an empty-hearted materialist. The man then goes on to criticize the yuppies within French society who use racial candor, but then openly admit to loving musicians like Charlie Parker and Bessie Smith despite not being aware of the tone and intentions of the artists. Similarly, Paul stumbles upon two men making out in a bathroom stall. Paul watches for a few seconds, allowing us the gaze to do the same before he is insulted for watching and the door closes.

Masculin Féminin is not Godard’s most feministically empowering film because it is told through a male perspective. However, that is not to say that the film is misogynistic or chauvinist in any because women are given liberation of life and choice, something not frequently seen in films of its time or even today. Not all the women portrayed lack depth, in fact Marlene, Madeline’s close friend, seems to admire Paul’s mentality even going as far as to question if really loves Madeline after she admits to him that she’s not sure if she believes in God. But, for Godard Masculin Féminin is more about the political standing of society at the time. It’s focus is how the youth dealt with the issues of their time period and how society happily wears blinders to avoid the crushing injustices around them. Like all of his films, Masculin Féminin longs to directly challenge your inner belief system and for that, my hat is off.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2014 1:53 PM

    Hey, the title is ” Masculin féminin” please . Not féminine .

  2. July 11, 2014 8:49 AM

    What is your take on people’s responses to this film being misogynistic? It is true that he is criticizing both the male characters and female characters to a certain extent, but why is he being so much harder on the females? That scene with Miss Nineteen was so blatantly trying to reveal her stupidity; what is Godard’s point in doing this? The biggest fault in the males is they are hypocritical, having ideas on politics yet not acting on them, but the females are truly empty inside. They are all treated as such bimbos in this movie with little to no personality or thoughts on politics. Why is he criticizing only women for being materialistic when in reality men are just as materialistic as women are?
    I am a huge fan of Godard and I saw this movie for the second time last night. The first time I saw it I saw it as a critique on society at that time. The second time I saw the film with my sister and she saw it as blatantly misogynistic and her take on it surprised me. I never thought about it that way, but she has a point. He is clearly choosing to criticize women much more than men.

    • July 12, 2014 10:23 AM

      Thanks for commenting! You make a good point and honestly this film can be considered misogynistic depending on the perspective you choose to view it under. I personally think Godard was intending to critique all of society, male and female. The Ms. Nineteen segments to me was more a reflection of how ignorant and shallow the youth of French culture at the time was rather than attacking her specifically as a woman, just as Paul and his friends lazy activism reflected the complacency of the youth. However, one could view Masculin Feminin as perhaps Godard’s most misogynistic piece due to the lack of depth the women receive. That itself can be argued that since this film is from a male perspective it’s to be expected. Also, I think Godard was going through his divorce with Anna Karina at the time which could explain why some viewers may sense a bitter desire to pick on women slightly more than it picks on men.

      The first time I watched it I too saw only a critique of the culture, the second time I watched it I viewed it through a feminist lens. Honestly, I’d have to rewatch the film to give you a more substantial answer because I think its all a matter of how you view it that defines the answer. Just as when you first saw it you didn’t see any misogyny until someone else’s interpretation allowed you to. That’s the beauty of cinema/art and why I love the conversations it can begets!

  3. June 9, 2016 9:16 PM

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  1. Godard Forever: The Cinephiliac on Masculine and Feminine - Pretty Clever Films

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