Godard’s 1966 film is on YT in its entirety with English subtitles. Look at the scary warning below and ask yourself: “Am I old enough to view this film?” Maybe you aren’t. You should watch it anyway.
Masculin Féminin is set in Paris in 1965, and it’s a grim place, alluring but never beautiful. In the opening scene, a woman follows a man out of a cafe and shoots him. In what seems to be an arcade of some kind, the main character, Paul, seems like he’s about to be attacked by a man with a knife–but the man stabs himself in the gut. On the el, a white woman taunts two Black men, a gun in her hand. (The scene is an interpolation of Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play Dutchman.) Godard’s alienation of the viewer, achieved with title cards and a cheesy “bullet ricocheting” sound effect, is partly formal, partly thematic. The world of the film beckons and repels, but mostly beckons.
Today, the idea of Masculin Féminin being age-restricted is quaint considering what’s on YouTube. The film’s few transgressive moments are fleeting, sometimes passed off as jokes–Paul sees his girlfriend Madeleine and her roommate cavorting in the shower, begins to play with himself, and is caught by the third roommate, forcing the unconvincing and unfortunate excuse, “I have a flea”–and other times described by the characters, as when Paul and Catherine witness a man immolate himself outside the American Hospital in Paris. We don’t see it. It’s theatrical, by which I mean constructed like a play: a character runs off-screen, returns, and says, “This is what I saw,” and the other one says, “I’ll go see,” and returns to say, “I saw.”
Most disturbing is the sexual menace, the abusive coercion, in the brief film-within-a-film viewed by the quartet. Loosely inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s short story “The Signal,” one of two Maupassant stories Godard draws from, this interior film features a man coercing a woman to disrobe and give him a blowjob. Madeleine and Catherine refuse to leave the theater despite their roommate’s pleas, and Paul’s voiceover reinforces his emotional distance from what he’s seeing.
Men, usually Paul, interview women several times in the film, interrogating their knowledge of politics and world events–and their love lives, sexual histories, whether or not they use contraception, etc. It’s annoying to see Paul and his friend Robert haranguing the young women, as if their cocks give them a right to uncover the women’s secrets. But the women don’t give in, rarely divulging more than their awareness of what a diaphragm is. When, as part of his job with the Institut français d’opinion publique, Paul interviews Elsa, “Miss 19,” she refuses to define socialism. Later, Robert is trying to woo Catherine, asking her such winning pick-up lines as, “Are you interested in what goes on around you?” “Sure,” she answers, “but it depends. Politics don’t interest me, but there are things that do.”
At first I thought scenes like these were at the expense of the young women and their lack of knowledge or curiosity, but I’ve come to think Godard sympathizes with their reluctance to answer to these two young men. After all, why should they? Paul and Robert, both idealists, one of romance and one of politics, produce the “enigma” of the feminine through their own actions. You can imagine them complaining to other young men in cafes and clubs, “She’s a mysterious bitch,” when the simple truth is the women don’t want to talk, really talk, to them. But they do talk to each other. In quick but provocative and well-timed moments, the trio of women–Madeleine, Elisabeth, Catherine–converse quietly, touch one another, fixing one another’s hair, whispering in each other’s ears, in ways that are ambiguous. In the bathroom, Catherine and Elisabeth debate the definition of sexuality, with Catherine saying, “The skin, for me, is very important.” This is one of the few windows into their open conversations and perhaps their experiences.
Some critics seem to take it for granted that Paul is in a menage-a-quatre with Madeleine and her roommates just because he sleeps in a bed with two of them, but I don’t see it that way at all. He’s an outsider appreciated but tolerated by the women. They’ll chat with him, but they’ll never fall in love with him. “We’re not your type of girl,” Elisabeth tells Paul in a diner. “You’ll always be unhappy.” At the end of the film, we’re told he has slipped off the roof of a building while taking photographs. Maybe it’s suicide. Regardless, he’s never happy.
In that conversation with Robert, Catherine says, “‘Going out’ doesn’t mean ‘going to bed,'” the second time this lesson is uttered in the film. It’s a lesson Paul and Robert and presumably most other men in the film need to learn, but matched with the film’s themes of democracy and protest, the phrase evokes also the difference between kinds of citizenship and political commitment. It’s too easy to read Madeleine’s career ambitions or Catherine’s dismissal of politics as pure self-interest; they’re engaged in the world around them but on their own terms–or rather, they’re trying to establish their own terms as equal citizens, and their commitments. An expectation is not a promise; an expectation does not create in another person an obligation. What will be our solidarity? If I go out with you, must I go to bed with you? Or is our dialogue, our companionship, enough? The film, if it must be reduced to a theme, might be about the politics of desire, and the politics of desire’s absence.
There’s much that can be said about the hovering presence of sex work in Masculin Féminin, another input from Maupassant’s “The Signal,” which Godard made a short film of in 1956, or we might talk about Godard’s techniques–his long takes, lingering on characters’ faces, are so satisfying–or the brief mention of Bob Dylan in a newspaper article Robert and Paul read in the laundromat, or the cast itself, so without affect you can believe Godard hired them off the street. I’m no expert on New Wave cinema or Godard, though. What sticks with me is the flowing nature of the film, how it performs the drift of youth in a time so often mythologized now as “pot-smoking socialist libertines shacking up just before the protest.” (Wes Anderson draws on this in The French Dispatch in a chapter that is as charming and apolitical as you’d expect.) These elements mostly exist in the periphery of Masculin Féminin. The focus is on the ordinary before and after. Passion exists in some unseen core.
In a 1966 interview, Godard said the film “speaks of youth, but it’s a piece of music, a ‘concerto youth.’ I have taken young signs, signs that have not yet been deformed.” In retrospect this seems quaint. Not yet deformed? He meant, I think, deformed by capitalist culture, by the cinema’s normalizing, corrective gaze, but what’s to say the signs of youth are not deformed from the outset–or that “deformed” isn’t, at the least, an ambiguous term?
I think, instead, of confusion. Near the end of the film, a title card famously declares “This Film Could Be Called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” What fewer critics quote is the rest of the card: “Understand What You Will.” That speaks back to the characters as much as the audience–speaks to the confusion of the present as it’s lived, with its future meaning unwritten, which is a pleasure, an opportunity, and a maze without a center.