50 Years Ago This Week – Masculin Féminin
This week in 1966 Jean-Luc Godard released Masculin Féminin, the eleventh of fifteen films (not to mention half-a-dozen or so shorts) that he directed from 1960 (Breathless) to 1967 (Weekend)—an impossibly glorious run that included A Woman is a Woman, Vivre Sa Vie, Band of Outsiders, and Contempt. Masculin Féminin was also the last of these films, it should be noted with some regret, that was suffused with joy, possibility, and curiosity; subsequent productions in this run certainly had more than flashes of brilliance but were increasingly characterized by the tiresome self-indulgence and essential meanness of spirit that would pervade and overshadow the (declining) merits of Godard’s movies in the decades that followed.
But we’re here to praise, not to bury. Masculin Féminin (politically alive but not oppressively didactic—prescient in its opposition to the Vietnam War, for example) is a fascinating consideration of the lives and lifestyles of twentysomething Parisians in the mid-ninteen sixties. Godard was turning thirty-five at the time of the production, a milestone that is in accord with Richard Brody's assessment that the film derived from “Godard’s nostalgic view of the intense companionship of his own youth.”
Shot in palpably real locations with a naturalistic, observational, style that featured long takes, actors (often semi-professional) encouraged to improvise, and narrative excuses for what essentially amount to interviews of the players themselves—the film, like many New Wave efforts, encourages its audience to question the distinction between documentary and fiction. The approach played to the strengths of cinematographer Willy Kurant (briefly stepping into the shoes of Godard’s usual collaborator Raul Coutard) who had worked as a cameraman on numerous documentaries, including films shot in Vietnam and the (then) Belgian Congo. Kurant would go on to work with Agnes Varda, Orson Welles, Chris Marker and Maurice Pialat.
As Pauline Kael observed in her review for The New Republic, “Godard asks questions of youth” in ways that “gets the little things that people who have to follow scripts can’t get: the differences in the way girls are with each other and with boys, and boys with each other and with girls. Not just what they do but how they smile or look away.” Godard’s films, Kael noted, could be “cold and empty. But there’s life in Masculine Feminine, which shows the most dazzlingly inventive and audacious artist in movies today at a new peak.”
Jean-Pierre Léaud in Masculin Féminin; On the Streets, Night-for-Night
Jukeboxes and Pinball Machines