Friday, September 18, 2015

The Jean-Luc Godard Film I Dislike the Least

I don't understand Jean-Luc Godard.  I don't understand his politics, his philosophy, his sense of humor, or his aesthetics.  Despite watching most of his filmography, I've concluded that I do not understand the majority of his films the way I'm meant to.    I find most of the early ones obtuse, and the later, more experimental pieces just plain incomprehensible.  And yet, there's no doubt that Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most influential and important directors who ever made a movie, so it's high time I wrote something about him.

I've decided to write about "Masculin Féminin," the Godard feature I watched over and over one weekend in my late twenties, trying to get my head around the director's trademark style.  It's very clear about its aims at least, providing a reasonably clear narrative through fifteen loosely connected vignettes.  Young idealist Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and pop singer Madeleine (Chantal Goya) fall in love and romp about Paris together, embodying the French youth culture of the times - "The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola."  Interspersed with their story are candid interviews with various young people, mostly on the subject of love.  Godard shot the film vérité style, included candid sex scenes, and constantly broke the fourth wall with his sarcastic intertitles.

More than one critic has noted that "Masculin Féminin" is really "Masculin v.Féminin" depicting the clash between the serious, political worldview of Paul with the frivolous, commercial lifestyle of Madeleine.  However, Paul's revolutionary ideals are often expressed in very juvenile ways, and Madeleine's focus on her career often reflects more maturity and responsibility.  As with most Godard films, we spend a lot of time just hanging out with the characters, who are constantly discussing the issues of the day and questioning each other's existence as they meander along through a loose, almost non-existent plot.  There's an abrupt ending but no real resolution offered, an array of opinions expressed but no conclusions other than that there really are no conclusions that can be drawn.  The characters are left still trying to sort out priorities, identities, and emotional attachments in a swiftly changing world where everything seems to be up in the air.

The parts of "Masculin Féminin" I enjoy the most are the quasi-documentary segments, the little snippets of interviews with a diverse selection of Parisians from all walks of life.  They help to create a good snapshot of the era, specifically the summer of 1965 in Paris.  You can see gender roles starting to loosen up, and attitudes toward sexuality shifting.  Racial, political, and other social issues are referenced frequently.  People young and old, black and white have their say.  There's even a brief moment where Paul spies two homosexual men making out in the bathroom, who chide him for peeping.  And as much as Godard tries to equate "Féminin" with the shallow and superficial, the women are certainly more interesting creatures than any of the men.

As for the filmmaking, the spontaneity and the immediacy of the vérité style certainly stands out.  There's a youthful energy to "Masculin Féminin" that is very inviting, and the leads are attractive and charismatic.  Godard is usually too deadpan for me to tell when he's being snarky, but here I could definitely pick out some of the more ridiculous bits.  This is definitely one of the most accessible Godard films, one that requires little foreknowledge of the times.  Some familiarity with the social climate is helpful though.  I think that it also made a difference that I had already seen a handful of other Godard films by this point, and was getting better about identifying his favorite tricks and tropes.

At the same time, I can't really say that I like "Masculin Féminin."  I never managed to work up any kind of emotional connection to any of the characters, and Godard's preoccupation with Marx and the failings of the bourgeoisie continue to hold little interest for me.  I've theorized before that I simply don't have enough context to appreciate Godard's work, that I don't know enough about communism and pre-May '68 France.  Maybe I'm not just receptive to his brand of social critique.  Or his incidental, plotless storytelling.  Or the torrents of impenetrable political babble.  Anyway, there's no question that Godard is brilliant, and it's easiest to appreciate that in "Masculin Féminin."

What I've Seen - Jean-Luc Godard

Breathless (1960)
A Woman Is a Woman (1961)
My Life to Live (1962)
Contempt (1963)
Bande à part (1964)
Alphaville (1965)
Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Masculin Féminin (1966)
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967)
Weekend (1967)
Everything's Fine (1972)
Number Two (1975)
Every Man for Himself (1980)
Hail Mary (1985)
Goodbye to Language (2014)


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