Saturday, March 6, 2010

Masculin, féminin

The subtitle for Masculin, féminin, 15 faits précis, translates to "15 precise facts," and even a neophyte like myself knew that the ideas propounded in Jean-Luc Godard's 11th feature would likely not be facts and certainly wouldn't be precise. After watching it, I'm not even sure gives us 15 of 'em. As one might expect of the director's growing fondness for Brechtian tricks and structuralist philosophy, these facts announce themselves through intertitles, supplying us with numbers that cannot be trusted and text scrolls that read as stream-of-consciousness thoughts.

Godard has a helpful habit of telegraphing entire films through their title credits, and Masculin, féminin is certainly no exception: its first cards are cluttered with names, a primer for the thick paragraphs of musings seen later, while the actual title of the film appears in a telling manner, displaying the "Masculin" in broken up snippets before showing the "féminin" as a whole. The anti-bourgeois, pretentious Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud, he of The 400 Blows fame) and his equally insufferable friend Robert discuss the difference between men and women at one point. Robert notes that the word "masculin" can be broken into two other words, "masque" (mask) and "cul" (ass). Men wear masks to attract women, and usually they end up making asses of themselves in the process. But they cannot divide "féminin," which they feel gives man a superiority inherent in the structure of language. Their sexist ideas are appropriately regressive, considering such warped logic recalls times long past when people considered names to have a certain power (a time we might be returning to, given the anonymity of the Internet and the power one can wield by knowing someone's true name).

It is easy, then, to view Masculin, féminin the same way one could facilely summate Pierrot le Fou: that it is but another work of self-absorbed pity by Godard concerning Anna Karina. After all, Paul receives the bulk of the lines and spends most of the film philosophizing. The girl he falls for, Madeleine (Chantal Goya), is an airy pop chanteuse, wholly unconcerned with the sociopolitical issues around her, which have turned from the simmer seen in Godard's first political features to a low boil. In one scene, Paul "interviews" his lover (a scene repeated later between Robert and Madeleine's friend Elisabeth), asking her opinions about socialism, America, birth control and other hot topics, and she admits ignorance to each one. She cannot even say if any countries are currently engaged in high-profile conflicts. Ergo, one could write the whole film off as one of Godard's more sexist exercises; I was greatly surprised to see even Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the great Godard supporters and one of the few to devote serious focus to his post-Weekend work, largely dismissed Masculin, féminin as a minor work in hindsight.

I say "surprised" because I found so much to love about Masculin. In a way, it is the perfect Godard film, or at least the perfect Godard '60s film. Where Pierrot le fou collected Godard's cinematic experimentation into his first brazenly avant-garde picture, Masculin, féminin collates that with his developed political sense. None of his previous films captured a more perfect and revealing snapshot of '60s Paris and its turbulent youth. Paul and Madeleine hover around the late teens and early twenties, yet they clearly symbolize younger teens coming into sexual awareness in a conservative system that did its best to segregate the sexes (which of course makes its censorship for teenagers under 18 so ironic yet predictable). That never works, of course, and all it accomplishes is warped sexuality. Paul admits that he's been with hookers, but he quietly notes that the sex is "sad and without passion." Robert, on the other hand, loves his time with prostitutes for all the misogynist reasons you might expect. Madeleine, like all young women in such societies, must acquiesce to the sexual advances of the men yet preserve her "honor" to be considered acceptable by the same men who rigorously pursue her. She can sit in a theater watching a blue film without comment, but she turns coy when someone broaches the subject of the pill, unsure of what to say about this new invention and the power it gives women.

Even the casting speaks to the issues these characters face and embody. Léaud became an icon with The 400 Blows, and in many ways Paul seems like an older update of the Antoine Doinel we saw in that film and its sequel, Antoine et Collette. He just got out of the military -- incidentally, Truffaut's third installment of his Antoine series, 1968's Stolen Kisses, showed Antoine after a dishonorable discharge -- and speaks bitterly of his service, despite the fact that he dodged a bullet by receiving his draft notice after France pulled out of both Indochina and Algeria. Yet those national experiences have influenced his ideology. Goya plays the aspiring singer Madeleine, yet in real life she was a successful yé-yé girl, a member of the female-centric pop movement that took root in Europe and proved popular in Japan (Madeleine mentions the success of France Gail in the East at one point). Her stage name, Goya (she was born Chantal Deguerre, which is itself relevant as "guerre" means war and this film is all about the battle of the sexes), of course brings to mind Francisco Goya, last of the so-called Old Masters and for many the first modern painter. Francisco Goya was a political subversive, using subjective, macabre paintings such as The Disasters of War to comment upon the horrors of his time. Chantal makes herself an indirect descendant by name appropriation -- her real-life stage name recalls Godard's own penchant for naming characters after artists, such as Marianne Renoir from Pierrot -- and we see a devolution from art as a means of subversion and idealism to a fleeting phenom that capitalizes (emphasis on the capitalism) on trends to make a quick buck before the next hot item comes along.

That corruption of pop culture informs much of the film's politics, as, per usual, Godard infuses his cinematic occupations with his philosophical and ideological concerns. After starting with existentialist pictures, Godard dismisses Sartre as an affectation of the bourgeoisie, something for rich kids who need to get out more. Paul paints anti-war messages on walls, even the car of visiting American GIs, but his shouts of "U.S. go home!" perhaps comment as much on America's economic influence on France's social identity as they do the lad's distaste with the situation in Vietnam. Léaud manages to walk this tightrope -- between borderline-nationalistic isolationism and left-wing politics -- as his very appearance and mannerisms allow him to be at once a symbol of rebellious socialist youth and a confused, hopeless romantic.

Yet Godard's anti-American pop culture sentiments are not necessarily anti-American. Paul expresses his support of the youth in America protesting their government's actions, and the only American figure particularly singled out for scorn is Lyndon Johnson -- granted, it's in a song that Paul sings about tyrants including Hitler and Stalin, but still. What Godard chiefly expresses in his condemnation of America's pop culture is its meaningless. Even the growing number of politically relevant entertainment -- the left-wing Bob Dylan and the regressive James Bond are both mentioned -- have no impact on any actual politics. In that sense, Paul/Godard's frustration with America is largely a case of outwardly directed self-disappointment.

Linking this sociopolitical commentary with the film's fundamental conflict between genders is Godard's "cinemarxist" experimentation. He still toys with image and sound, bringing the background noise to the fore of the audio mix, usually to highlight squabbles between other couples. This leads to non-sequiturs that flesh out gender conflict to demonstrate that the issues between Paul and Madeleine are not an exclusive love story but one strand of the tangled web of sexual politics besotting Paris in the 1960s. As Paul and Madeleine chat for the first time in a café at the start of the film, a married couple argues in the background and the man takes their child and leaves. In a rage, the woman pulls a pistol and shoots her husband. Later, a white woman shoots two black men on a train in front of Paul because they harass her. As the couple plays with a toy guillotine, Godard lays audio from a presidential debate over the visuals, with the left-wing Mitterand taking a beating as someone (De Gaulle?) whips up faux-populist fervor. The film's structure even reflects the pacing of romance and heartbreak, as it starts at a leaden pace during Paul's courtship, picks up when he and Madeleine start dating, and jump-cuts all over the place as their relationship splinters and reforms. Even as Godard captures the social situation in Paris with clarity, he cannot help but filter his images through cinema, reflecting upon sexual disappointment via Paul's commentary on a Marilyn Monroe film he saw where all he could notice was how tired and old the sex icon looked. He even references himself; "You're not Pierrot le Fou," Madeleine tells Paul at one point. "He stole cars for his women"

Two scenes in particular summarize Godard's true feelings concerning his sexual politics. The first, a tragic interlude, moves the camera away from the main characters to watch a hooker soliciting a john in a café. She learns that the john is German and mentions that her parents died in a concentration camp. The man can only be exasperated at being linked to his national shame, unable to process that the only reason the two are even talking is likely because this woman lost her parents in Germany and turned to hooking to feed herself (look at how hungrily she attacks her meal at the table). The second moment is the purest (and funniest) distillation of the entire film, if not Godard's sexual musings up to this point, comes in a scene where Paul and the gang go to see one of those old porno-cum-art films that existed back when pornographers had to insert "artistic merit" into their films to avoid prosecution. Just as the film heats up, Paul leaves the auditorium and busts into the projection room to harangue the projectionist on the subject of aspect ratios. Oh, Jean-Luc, you hopeless romantic, you.

"The philosopher and the filmmaker share a way of being," reads one of the titles, "a certain view of the world that embodies a generation." Godard does just that when he sums up the entirely film in an intertitle that throws up the film's most memorable line -- "This film could have been called 'The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.'" The dichotomy between the two is of course the subtextual conflict of the entire picture. Marx, the last truly great philosopher, or at least the last one that Godard still idolizes by this point, rails against everything that Coca-Cola represents: a sugary (syrupy, in America) pick-me-up designed to offer a fleeting distraction posing as true comfort. Coca-Cola is the blood that greases the wheels of the capitalist industry. Paul's voiceovers reveal a free-thinking, outraged socialist, philosophizing about himself and his country. They are but continuations of his usual conversations. Madeleine's voiceovers, however, read differently, as if Godard threw out the character's normal speech and had her think aloud what Godard makes of the character. ""Give us a TV set and a car," she says in a narration, "but deliver us from liberty." The director recognizes that capitalism does not free people from tyranny but merely shifts enslavement from a dictator to material goods.

Yet Godard is not so self-absorbed to deify Paul (and therefore himself) and castigate Madeleine. That line about Marx and Coca-Cola is typically interpreted to mean that Paul and Madeleine, indicative of their generation, are the product of an uneasy coupling between these two forces, when I see each character as the child of the respective fighters: Paul, of course, is the child of Marx, and Madeline the daughter of Coke. Yet Madeleine is ultimately less a slave to her worldview than Paul is, as evidenced by his death at the end of the film, which occurs off-screen with no indication that it would happen to sap any potential romanticism or martyrdom from his demise. That leaves Madeleine to carry on, and in the final scene Godard suggests a freedom for her and other women over the conservative oppression placed upon them by society (both De Gaulle's France and the lingering influence of the Church), even as his quiet sympathy and concern for the character doubles as a scathing final line on the politics of the film. We learn that the whisperings of Madeleine's pregnancy throughout the film were correct, that she carries the child that will form the true union of Marx and Coca-Cola, and it's telling that the end of the film suggests that the best course of action with such a creation involves "a curtain rod." Then, Godard subtly reveals what he thinks of his male lead's ignorance, as he succeeds in dividing "féminin" where Paul failed, blasting away the middle of the word to reveal FIN, because the lady always gets the last word.

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