Two Or Three Things He Knew About Us

Godard foretold our brutal inanity 40 years ago

It seems to me that we have to rediscover everything about everything. There is only one solution, and that is to turn one's back on the American cinema.... We are now in a period of rupture. We must turn to life again. We must move into modern life with a virgin eye.

--Jean-Luc Godard, 1966

Have a Coke and a frown: Jean-Pierre Léaud and Catherine-Isabelle Duport in 'Masculine Feminine'
Rialto Pictures
Have a Coke and a frown: Jean-Pierre Léaud and Catherine-Isabelle Duport in 'Masculine Feminine'

 

"The children of Marx and Coca-Cola" are born of this rupture depicted in the newly revived Masculine Feminine, Godard's definitive study of contemporary living's alienation effects circa 1966--or whenever. The filmmaker's touchy, brittle love affair with Hollywood, recorded in the noir poses of Breathless and the MGM-musical moves of A Woman Is a Woman, had by the mid-'60s irreversibly soured into feelings of contempt for American cultural imperialism in France and military imperialism in Vietnam. After the intimations of auto-da-fé in the explosive finale of Pierrot le fou--a film that Colin MacCabe in Godard calls "a reworking of all the [director's] themes to date"--Godard made it new in Masculine Feminine, his virgin eye assessing new actors, a new production team, and a cast of characters in their late teens and early 20s, for whom a political consciousness is still nascent or inchoate, the future as yet undiscovered. Godard's acidic pessimism, however, remained intact, unvirginal.

Masculine Feminine, along with the May '68 prophecy La Chinoise and the Rousseau-derived Le gai savoir, make up what might be called Godard's youth trilogy, populated by the postwar baby boom. Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a 21-year-old in Paris, finds comfort in neither pole of the title. He remains ambivalent about "masculine" political activism, as practiced by his buddy Robert (Michel Legrand), a Communist agitator. But he's bemused by "feminine" bourgeois consumer society, personified by his girlfriend, Madeleine, an aspiring pop star (played by Chantal Goya, herself a yé yé chanteuse). "I like flat shoes and short skirts," Madeleine coos inanely to a reporter, a bullet-bang punctuating her sentence like a misplaced exclamation point.

This lack of literal correspondence between sight and sound emphasizes the absurd juxtapositions of the insipid and the violent that make up Godardian everyday life. As Madeleine and Paul chat in a café, a distraught woman chases her husband outside and shoots him in the street. In an arcade, a man threatens Paul with a knife, then stabs himself with it. On a stroll, Paul lends his matches to a passerby, who then sets himself on fire outside the American Hospital to protest the U.S. war in Vietnam. Paul, who has recently completed three years of military service, is never glimpsed discussing the suicides or the murder with his friends, though Madeleine does later recognize the homicidal wife--now working as a prostitute, eating in a restaurant with a john. We overhear her saying that her parents died in the Nazi concentration camps; Madeleine's group eavesdrops a bit, then speculates on how many clients the woman services in a day.

Masculine Feminine moves on from its various horrors just as briskly, following each death with a hard cut to a more lighthearted scene--the arcade stabbing, for instance, cues a cheery dollop of yé yé. Godard's anger is focused, sly, scalpel-sharp, not yet curdled with the curmudgeonly sniping and gnomic blather that tainted In Praise of Love and Notre musique. The whiplash editing evokes, as Tom Milne wrote, "a living newspaper, a dramatic rendering of the stories one skims through at the breakfast table." One might imagine photographs of war casualties facing lingerie advertisements, or a CNN scroll of the latest Iraq atrocity running beneath an item on a runaway bride or a celebrity breakup.

When we first meet him, Paul articulates detachment in his journal: "Nameless this boy from Marseilles...sharing life, unable to be alone...no trace anywhere...." Paul reads the words aloud slowly as he puts them to paper, further abstracting the stark yet nebulous syntax; the sentence components seem to disconnect and float freely. After he falls in love with Madeleine--his seduction technique includes reading to her from his notebook--Paul makes his most passionate romantic appeal when he is alone inside Madeleine's milieu, the recording booth, where he pleads that they cohabitate: "Madeleine, imagine it's written, like 'Astor--the modern man's cigarette!'" Language fails, communication happens at removes, and the discourse of love is learned off a billboard. (Of course, with 40 years' hindsight, Paul's flailing alienation would be branded as edgy rebellion and marketed right back at him.)

Ostensibly, Paul is the most unmoored of his young circle, but he's also keenly aware of that and makes efforts to ameliorate it, whether he's mimicking a man who asks a bartender for directions ("I was putting myself in his shoes.... Nothing happened...") or conducting an ad hoc opinion poll covering such disparate issues as birth control, the future of socialism, and the war in Vietnam. When Paul interviews the pretty-vacant winner of the "Miss 19" pageant for his poll, Godard supplies the cruel intertitle "Dialogue with a consumer product," and the outcome is indeed a consumer report on acquisitive, Americaphile French youth. The young women in Masculine Feminine are as attractive and thoughtless as merchandise. An anonymous girl in the arcade offers Paul a look at her breasts for 15,000 francs; outside the recording studio, vapid Madeleine does little else but comb her hair, apply and reapply lip gloss, and gaze searchingly into her compact mirror.

Can the amateur sociologist Paul represent the beginnings of a new youth ideology? Of course not: Godard has always been a doomsayer and a misanthrope, which is why he was so often right about everything. Certainly Paul starts to discern the present limitations of his own developing intellect; disappointed with the answers to his survey, he decides he has been asking the wrong questions, "seeking value judgments rather than observing behavior." The discovery, however, comes to nothing. In the despondent final scenes of Masculine Feminine, Madeleine's bewildered face fills the screen and, as shallows turn to sorrows, the movie's helpless last words are hers: "I don't know."

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