Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Godard Forever: Part One which runs from January 23rd to Feburary 13th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
The tenth (tenth!) bullet fired in Godard’s 1960’s cinematic fusillade, Masculine Feminine begins not, as many recollect, in a café with its idealistic male avatar, Paul (a young Jean-Pierre Léaud), stumbling through clumsily written poetic passages, but with the sound of someone (likely him) whistling “La Marseillaise” over the opening credits, a tune that’s quickly interrupted, overtaken even, by some non-diegetic gunshots. Of course, immediately after this little audial exercise is when we do find Paul staring impassively at the poetry before him, trying to approximate a feeling cadence and intonation but conveying only greenness with his reading. That one of these events happens before the other is less important than acknowledging they both exist, and moreover, are incremental in shaping both the film and Godard’s fast evolving vision of mid-60’s Parisian youth.
Passion and indifference, silence and clamor, reality and art are less contradictory dyads than symptoms of one’s perspective.
Typical of the director, the words read aloud by Paul seem, in and of themselves, meaningless, speaking more to a generational condition than a specific personage: a passion for expression that’s fueled by hormones and stoked by something of a look-what-I-discovered enthusiasm. Likewise, the brief aural appearance of his country’s anthem (not to mention the acoustic bursts that follow) links the concept of national identity to that of militarism, which, by way of conversation, is later linked to contemporary living. Though his more optimistic characters undoubtedly see such entities as combative – the comforts of posh modernity vs. the oppression of an industrial military complex, to take one example – Godard understands that they not only coexist but imbricate seamlessly into each other. This is also holds true in how political stances, especially among young people, are too often divvied into tidy binaries, binaries that ignore not only how some concepts might overlap, but be codependent of each other. Passion and indifference, silence and clamor, reality and art are less contradictory dyads than symptoms of one’s perspective.
And so the notions of masculine-and-femininity, naturally, also makeup such an ostensibly at-war pairing. As Paul pores over his poetry, Madeleine (Chantal Goya) enters the café, immediately challenging the very ideals he’s been vocalizing via her feminine presence alone. Paul’s musings of introspection and emotion quickly give way to braggadocio; his faux poetic persona dissolves, revealing that of a typical young man, a product of his culture and age. As I’ve (probably) mentioned in the past, Godard, insofar as his 1960’s output is concerned, often constructs characters that interact as much with society as they do each other, and are equally shaped by their relationships to the modish as they are the humane. Although Paul and Madeleine are no exceptions, the director makes these two players partially aware of forces that silently guide their hands. Paul, while conscious of systematic oppression and injustices, fails to see how they correlate to social niceties and comforts; Madeleine, conversely, exhibits a disinterest in politics, but has little delusion about her place in the world or the importance of the individual. Such mentalities are, of course, best illustrated in the oft-cited example of their contrasting answers to the question, “What is the center of the world to you?” – “Love” answers Paul, to which Madeleine ripostes “me.” Paul, in sync with young men everywhere, answered in accordance to who asked him the question, rather than the nature of the question itself; his response was informed by the bias of sexual attraction, and he thusly overplayed his hand.
Because our own lives are already saturated with stimuli, Godard suggests that we’ll never fully appreciate the stimuli processed by others; as such, a deeper level of understanding and connectivity is needed, or empathy and passion become impossible.
Perhaps, then, it’s somewhat to Paul’s benefit that he is often the one asking questions of others, particularly women, as if human interaction can be strained of intimacy and boiled down to a potent essence, a truth. Paul only realizes later that communication – and behavior, for that matter – can be better understood by observation, as his interrogational way of interacting tends to improperly frame his “subjects’” mindset. His conversation with a girl who had been voted “Miss 19” (Elsa Leroy, charmingly reserved) by a pop-culture magazine exposes only his own slants, for his questions range from offensively personal (making her name types of birth control) to mean spirited (attempting to embarrass her for not knowing where wars are going on). And while the subjects of birth control and war are, assuredly, important to and apropos of the epoch, forcing them on an individual ignores the complexity and variety of the social organism. Because our own lives are already saturated with stimuli, Godard suggests that we’ll never fully appreciate the stimuli processed by others; as such, a deeper level of understanding and connectivity is needed, or empathy and passion become impossible. Early in the film, Paul parrots the movement and speech of a café patron in an attempt to “walk in someone’s shoes.” The result – “nothing” was felt. Though I initially found the moment to be one stained with youthful cynicism, I now believe it to be one of misplaced energy – that one cannot force maturity or understanding, and that life is a series more of learned processes than a studied ones.
Composing the film around the aforementioned concept of varying and selective stimuli, Godard often peppers the main narrative thread, that of Paul and Madeleine, with strange asides and non-sequiturs, as if to showcase, however punchily, how our personal dramas are but background noise in the stories of others. Art too is assigned – or perhaps resigned to – a similar fate by the director, as music, film, and literature all seem to exist in the periphery of human interaction, their evocations gently caressing the characters’ psyches rather than notably affecting them. I find that this technique works twofold, as it comments upon how young people engage with culture while also making larger statements about they engage with each other. One demonstrative scene finds Paul, Madeleine, and some of her friends attending a film. While the projector and speakers transfix the majority of the crowd, the group we’re focused on – an organism in and of itself – is in a constant state of flux and agitation, repositioning themselves like chess pieces and whispering to one and other bits of social stratagem. And during this dance of interaction and rearrangement, the soundtrack from the film-within-a-film lowers to barely audible levels, allowing us to hear what the featured characters, those we actually “care” about, are saying. It seems that Godard sees this kind of behavior as analogous to something greater, to the way we compartmentalize what we come across, be it people, art, or social issues, in life. It’s the same reason why he dots the entirety of Masculine Feminine with political bullet points (unionizing, the war in Vietnam, the subtle effects of consumerism) and chic, spelled-out mantras (“Down with the republic of cowards,” “The children of Marx and Coca-Cola”). And it’s also why gunshots ring out randomly throughout the work, disrupting the sense of normalcy and flow that we observe in the dialogue of the characters. Godard is communicating that a spectrum of behavior, of feelings, of life is all happening simultaneously, and that any perception of coherence and congruence we have is something fraudulent – a manufactured reality built on convenience and digestibility, not unlike what we experience at the cinema.
[notification type=”star”]100/100 ~ MASTERFUL. Godard is communicating that a spectrum of behavior, of feelings, of life is all happening simultaneously, and that any perception of coherence and congruence we have is something fraudulent – a manufactured reality built on convenience and digestibility, not unlike what we experience at the cinema.[/notification]