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TNR Film Classic: 'Masculine Feminine' (1966)

Youth is Beauty

Masculine Feminine is that rare movie achievement: a work of grace and beauty in a contemporary setting. Godard has liberated his feeling for modem youth from the American gangster-movie framework which limited his expressiveness and his relevance to the non-movie centered world. He has taken up the strands of what was most original in his best films—the life of the uncomprehending heroine, the blank-eyed career-happy little opportunist-betrayer from Breathless, and the hully-gully, the dance of sexual isolation, from Band of Outsiders. Using neither crime nor the romance of crime but a simple romance for a kind of interwoven story line, Godard has, at last, created the form he needed. It is a combination of essay, journalistic sketches, news and portraiture, love lyric and satire.

What fuses it? The line, “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca Cola.” The theme is the fresh beauty of youth amidst the flimsiness of Pop culture and Pop politics. The boy (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is full of doubts and questions, but a Pop revolutionary; the girl (Chantal Goya) is a yé-yé singer making her way.

It is fused by the differing attitudes of the sexes to love and war even in this atmosphere of total and easy disbelief, of government policies accepted with the same contempt as TV commercials. The romance is punctuated with aimless acts of aggression and martyrdom: this is young love in a time of irreverence and hopelessness. These lovers and their friends, united by indifference and disdain toward the adult world, have a new kind of community in their shared disbelief. Politically they are anti-American enough to be American.

They are also Americanized. This community of unbelievers has a style of life by which they recognize each other; it is made up of everything adults attack as the worst and shoddiest forms of Americanization and dehumanization. It is the variety of forms of “Coca Cola”—the synthetic life they were born to and which they love, and which they make human, and more beautiful and more “real” than the old just-barely-hanging-on adult culture. Membership is automatic and natural for the creatures from inner space. The signals are jukebox songs, forms of dress, and, above all, what they do with their hair. Americanization makes them an international society; they have the beauty of youth which can endow Pop with poetry, and they have their feeling for each other and all those shared products and responses by which they know each other.

There are all sorts of episodes and details and jokes in the film that may be extraneous, but they seem to fit, to be part of the climate, the mood, the journalistic approach to this new breed between teen-agers and people. Even if you don’t really like some pieces or can’t understand why they’re there, even if you think they’re not well done (like the episode out of LeRoi Jones, or the German boy and prostitute bit, or the brief appearance of Bardot, or the parody of The Silence which isn’t as ludicrously pretentious as The Silence itself, or the ambiguous death of the hero—the end of him like a form of syntax marking the end of the movie) they’re not too jarring. The rhythms, and the general sense, and the emotion that builds up can carry you past what you don’t understand; you don’t need to understand every detail in order to experience the beauty of the work as it’s going on. An Elizabethan love song is no less beautiful because we don’t catch all the words; and when we look up the words, some of the meanings, the references, the idiom may still elude us. Perhaps the ache of painful, transient beauty is that we never can completely understand, and that, emotionally, we more than understand. Masculine Feminine has that ache, and its subject is a modern young lover’s lament at the separateness of the sexes.

Godard has caught the girl now in demand (and in full supply), as no one else has. Chantal Goya, like Sylvie Vartan (whose face on a billboard dominates some of the scenes), is incredibly pretty but not beautiful, because there is nothing behind the eyes. Chantal Goya’s face is haunting just because it’s so empty; she doesn’t look back. Her face becomes alive only when she’s looking in the mirror, toying with her hair. Her thin, reedy little singing voice is just as pleasantly, perfectly empty, and it is the new sound. There’s nothing behind it musically or emotionally. The young girls in the movie are soulless—as pretty and lost and soulless as girls appear to a lover who can make physical contact and yet cannot make the full contact he longs for, the contact that would heal. The girl he loves sleeps with him and is forever lost to him. She is the ideal—the girl in the fashion magazines she buys.

Possibly what flawed the conception of My Life to Live was the notion of the prostitute giving her body but keeping her soul to herself, because there was no evidence of what she was said to be holding back. Now, in Masculine Feminine, Godard is no longer trying to tell just the girl’s story but the story of how a lover may feel about his girl, and we can see that it’s not because she’s a prostitute that he gets the sense that she isn’t giving everything but because she’s a girl, and (as the camera of My Life to Live revealed though it wasn’t the story being told) a love object, A lover may penetrate her body but there is still an opaque, impenetrable surface that he can never get through. He can have her and have her and she is never his.

The attraction of this little singer is that she isn’t known, can’t be known, and worst of all, probably there’s nothing to know (which is what we may have suspected in My Life to Live). The ache of love is reaching out to a blank wall, which in this case smiles back. This male view of the eternal feminine mystery is set in the childlike simplicity of modern relations: before they go out on their first date, the boy and girl discuss going to bed. Easy sex is like a new idiom, but their talk of the pill is not the same as having it, and the spectre of pregnancy hovers over them. The old sexual morality is gone but the mysteries of love and isolation remain; availability cancels out the pleasurable torments of anticipation, but not the sadness afterward. The lover is surrounded by blank, faintly smiling walls.

With the new breed, Godard is able to define the romantic problem precisely and essentially. This approachable girl who adores Pepsi—the French cousin of Jean Seberg in Breathless—isas mysterious as a princess seen from afar, more mysterious because the princess might change if we got close. The boy says, what’s in “masculine”—mask and ass, what’s in “feminine”—nothing. And that’s what defeats him. Worse than losing a love is holding it in your arms and not finding it.

In Masculine Feminine Godard asks questions of youth and sketches a portrait in a series of question-answer episodes that are the dramatic substance of the movie. The method was prefigured by the psychiatric interview in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Léaud, now the questioning hero, was the child-hero who was quizzed), the celebrity interview in Breathless, and cinema vérité movies by Jean Rouch and Chris Marker. It is most like Chris Marker’s rapturous inquiry of the young Japanese girl in The Koumiko Mystery. There are informal boy-to-boy conversations about women and politics; there is a phenomenal six-minute single-take parody-interview conducted by the hero with a Miss Nineteen, who might be talking while posing for the cover of Glamour; and there are two boy-girl sessions which define the contemporary meaning of masculine and feminine. These dialogues are dating-talk as a form of preliminary sex-play—verbal courtship rites. The boy thrusts with leading questions, the girl parries, backs away, touches her hair. Godard captures the awkwardnesses that reveal, the pauses, the pretensions, the mannerisms—the rhythms of the dance—as no one has before. Masculine Feminine is the dance of the sexes drawing together and remaining separate. He gets the little things that people who have to follow scripts can’t get: the differences in the way girls are with each other and with boys, and boys with each other and with girls. Not just what they do but how they smile or look away.

What can a boy believe that a girl says, what can she believe of what he says? We watch them telling lies and half-truths to each other and we can’t tell which are which. But, smiling in the darkness because we know we’ve all been there, we recognize the truth of Godard’s art. He must have discovered his subject as he worked on it (as a man working on a big-budget movie with a fixed shooting-schedule cannot). And because he did, we do, too. We can read all those special fat issues of magazines devoted to youth and not know any more than we do after watching big TV specials on youth. But even in the ladies’ lounge right after the movie, there were the girls, so pretty they hardly seemed real, standing in a revery at the mirror, toying with their shiny hair. Godard has imposed his vision and experience confirms it. What more can one ask of an artist?

There is a question that remains, however: why haven’t more people responded to this movie? Maybe because Masculine Feminine is not only partial to youth but partial as a view, and movie hucksterism has accustomed people to big claims (and movie experience to big flops). Maybe because Godard has made so many films and critics have often urged the worst upon the public. I would not recommend The Married Woman or Pierrot le Fou: Godard loves the games and style of youth but does not have the same warm feeling for older characters. He presents them as failed youth: they don’t grow up, they just deteriorate, and those movies become cold and empty. But there’s life in Masculine Feminine, which shows the most dazzlingly inventive and audacious artist in movies today at a new peak.

This article originally ran in the November 19, 1966, issue of the magazine.