Following Jean-Luc Godard’s death in September there has been an upsurge in interest in his work. Few filmmakers have created so many different kinds of films in different formats and with different approaches. However, Godard’s appeal to wider audiences began to diminish by the mid 1960s and, bar a few exceptions, never regained that audience connection. An indication of this is IMDb’s list of the ten most highly-rated Godard films according to the website’s ‘users’ – all ten were made before 1968. The ‘political’ films of the late 1960s and early 1970s proved important for a more niche audience of political and film theorists and after that Godard’s appeal remained primarily for an art cinema audience, especially one interested in film form and Godard’s turn towards video and then digital cinema. This a crude summary of course and I’m not sure that I’ve seen any of his films after the 1980s. But I know the appeal of his films does remain for film journals, film scholars and some film programmers/curators.
Some Godard films will no doubt get more coverage over the next few months and I want to make a contribution by choosing one of the titles that appeared in 1966 when both the political and the formal questions Godard began to explore were beginning to come to the fore. Masculin féminin is particularly interesting because it has become one of the early films to be included in the Criterion Blu-ray series (in a version restored with funding from the CNC) and seems to have interested younger audiences today as well as those who remember the 1966 context.
The narrative of the film is constructed through fifteen vignettes which provide glimpses over an unspecified period of time (but probably only a few weeks/months) in contemporary Paris. The central characters are Paul, a young man played by Jean-Pierre Léaud and three young women sharing a flat, Madeleine (Chantal Goya), Élisabeth (Marlène Joubert) and Catherine-Isabelle (Catherine-Isabelle Duport). The events in these vignettes are inspired in some way by the Guy de Maupassant short stories, ‘La femme de Paul’ and ‘Le signe’). Godard was fond of literary references (and music and film references) but de Maupassant has long been an inspiration for many great filmmakers including Jean Renoir, Mizoguchi Kenji and Max Ophüls to name just three.
One of Godard’s strengths is that in the 1960s he had his finger on the pulse of changes in French society. A good example of this is his use of Jean-Pierre Léaud. In 1968 Truffaut updated Léaud’s role as ‘Antoine Doinel’ presenting him in Baisers Volés (Stolen Kisses) as a young man back from National Service. Godard’s Paul has also just completed National Service, but he seems like a ‘modern’ character (albeit suffering from a somewhat romantic revolutionary fervour) while Truffaut’s character is more traditional. Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1966), as part of a generally favourable review, suggests that the events refer to the time between two rounds in the elections in December 1965 that saw General de Gaulle returned as President for a second term after beating François Mitterand of the Socialist Party in the second round. Paul and his friend Robert are both Communist Party members hoping for de Gaulle’s defeat. Paul does get involved in some ‘direct action’ involving an American military vehicle and he argues politics with Robert but otherwise he mainly attempts to converse with the young women and to protest about the work he undertakes as casual employment. The young women are less concerned with politics and more with pop culture. Chantal Goya was a young ‘ye-yé singer at the time, married to a successful music writer and releasing three singles before 1966. A recording session features in the film.
Yé-yé music saw French pop culture attempting to marry the chanson tradition to Anglo-American pop. In its female form it seems to have been very popular across Europe but never really took off in the UK. However, the main French pop star to at least get some recognition in the UK was Françoise Hardy, who certainly caught my teenage imagination with her single ‘Tous les garçons et les filles (de mon âge)’. She has literally a ‘walk through’ role in Masculin féminin. Madeleine also name drops Sylvie Vartan and France Gall, bigger yé-yé stars than herself. The distinction between Paul and the young women is echoed in the alternative title Godard gave to his film – ‘The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola’.
There are two other notable fleeting cameos in the film. Brigitte Bardot (star of Godard’s Le mépris in 1963) is glimpsed in a café scene and the Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo is an uncredited ‘unnamed African’ on the Metro. I’m not sure how this was discovered but in 1966 Hondo was involved in creating his own theatre company in Paris. In a way, this pre-figures Godard’s later involvement with other ‘Third Cinema’ directors and actors such as Glauber Rocha and Gian Maria Volonté in Vent d’est (1969). Formally, the the narrative presents us with the young people in a succession of conversations mainly in cafés and other public spaces where dramatic events in the background are treated as annoyances or discussed as if they were distant news stories. These include references to the coming escalation of the war in Vietnam and other violent actions. The photography by Willie Kurant deliberately creates compositions which crop the characters and ‘unbalance’ the scene in various ways. The formal experimentation and the gradual move towards more direct political references places the film between Pierrot le fou (1965) and La chinoise (1967), though it would be followed by the more metaphorical political 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967).
The film’s production details also illustrate Godard’s knack for finding funding. It is an official Swedish co-production which involves Godard creating a scene from a ‘Swedish film’ starring Evabritt Strandberg and Birger Malmsten that is shown in a Paris cinema attended by Paul and his female friends. It depicts a scene of sexual abuse that forms part of a discourse about contemporary sexuality discussed by the young people or overheard in their café meetings. There is a sense in which the Swedish films of the 1960s represent attempts to make ‘serious’ films about sexuality. Godard has his own obsession with prostitution in several films and here it forms part of the discourse of the young people. Thinking about the presentation of ‘pop culture’ in this film, it now seems to me that it presents Paris much like London in 1966 with Chantal Goya in particular dressed in London fashions (she had actually studied in London – perhaps she brought her own costumes to the production?). The so-called Swinging London films of the later 1960s were largely devoid of political discourse but Godard himself came to London to make British Sounds for London Weekend Television in 1969 – never formally broadcast/released in the UK except on 16mm.
The other device running through the film is a kind of documentary urge to canvas the opinions of young people. Some of the young women are interviewed about their views and Paul gets a marketing job where he collects information, but mainly they, in effect, interview each other in their café situations. I don’t think it’s possible to read and analyse Godard’s films in this period as single entities, there are so many of them and his ideas were constantly evolving from one to the next. I’ll think about posting on some more of them.
Here’s a neat Godardian trailer. Stig Björkman’s essay on the film from 1967 (from the Movie/Studio Vista book on Godard’s films) suggest that the whole film is constructed in long shot. As the trailer shows, much of it includes at least Medium Close-ups: