The full “Miss 19” scene from Godard’s Masculin Féminin
These days, Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin seems to be one of those films more talked about than actually watched. I have no idea if people still go to see it in France, but for me it’s always been that “children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola movie,” something I’d eventually get around to, but a dated relic of the 1960s that did not demand my immediate attention. Lazy American film critics, of course, have always loved the line “the children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola.” It let’s them sum up a complex film, one that takes multiple viewings to understand, in one quick, snappy slogan. I suppose it’s part of some cosmic joke that Jean-Luc Godard, a master troll who could write ad copy better than Don Draper, would make it so easy to reduce a nine-six-minute masterpiece to one or two intertitles, but I suppose it’s one of the risks of being a genius.
I suppose that as an American, I don’t sufficiently appreciate the extent to which a Frenchman would resent the destructive effects that American popular culture had on France, especially in the years following the Second World War. In one of the film’s best scenes, the gorgeous French pop star Françoise Hardy gets out of one side of a car with an American army officer while two young Frenchman paint “US Out of Vietnam” on the other. Blink and you’ll miss it. Who the hell in 2016 cares about Françoise Hardy? In 1966, however, any Frenchman would have gotten the joke. Françoise Hardy was not only a beautiful French woman palling around with American imperialists, she was famous only because she was a “ye-ye girl,” an American style pop singer who was helping to pollute France with a prefabricated corporate product disguised as music. Any smart Frenchman in 1966 would have also remembered how and why the United States got into Vietnam in the first place, to protect the remnants of the French empire.
In 1966, Godard was thirty-six-years old, still a relatively young man, but far too old and well-educated to fully understand the youth culture that had come along with the massive Baby Boom generation. So he projects himself Paul, a twenty-one-year old leftist intellectual played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who became famous as the child hero of Traffaut’s 400 Blows. In one of Masculin Féminin’s fifteen, often improvised vignettes, Paul interviews a young girl who has been chosen by a French fashion magazine to tour the world ass “Mademoiselle 19 Ans,” Miss 19. It is a masterful little piece of filmmaking that manages to dramatize not only the discomfort the thirty-six year old filmmaker felt in the presence of vapid, shallow, yet beautiful youth, but also the difference in the way men and women communicate. Miss 19 isn’t as stupid as Paul, or even Godard, thinks she is, but unlike Paul she has not developed the image of herself as a intellectual or a revolutionary. She’s happy that the magazine has given her a car and has paid for an extended tour of th United States – which she likes partly because “women take a more active role than they do in France,” something the snobbish Paul misses completely – and doesn’t really want to overthink her good fortune. Paul the cranky young man is appalled. “What do you think of socialism?” he asks her. “I don’t really understand it,” she admits. “Do you know what a reactionary is,” he says. “It is a good thing or a bad thing?” He’s even more appalled when she says she thinks it a “good thing,” that she doesn’t like people who just “say amen” to the spirit of the age, which in the 1960s, of course, was radicalism.
I wonder if Godard got his own joke. In many ways, he’s a cultural reactionary. He’d rather have his beautiful young actresses listening to Mozart than to American pop music. Paul might just be the luckiest young nobody this side of Kevin Federline. He not only gets to sleep with Madeleine, the pop singer of his dreams played by the real life pop singer Chantal Goya, her roommate Catherine developes a hopeless crush on the pompous little communist dilitante. I suppose Godard sees Catherine, played by Catherine-Isabelle Duport, as “plain.” She’s anything but. Godard’s poetic sensibility always gets the best of him. Even the girl who gets shut out is beautiful. As Paul and Madeleine grow apart – he tries to build her up into something she’s not and she can take him or leave him – Paul and Catherine come together, at least visually, which, of course, is what film is all about, images, not words. Jean-Pierre Léaud always seem to struggle to connect. He’s overbearing and overly masculine. She’s coy and standoffish. Léaud and Catherine-Isabelle Duport, on the other hand, have a genuine chemistry, a natural physical rapport. Watching Paul’s rought, working-class friend Robert, who’s got it as bad for Catherine as Catherine has it for Paul, is heartbreaking. “It’s none of your business,” she repeatedly says to Robert, who repeatedly tries to bully her into admitting she loves Paul, revealing how much she does every time she denies it.
I don’t suppose the young Godard would make something like Masculin Féminin today. He’d be even more out of touch with the hip youth culture – the very title of the movie locks his characters into the “gender binary” — than he was in 1966. Women are no longer coy, standoffish beautiful objects for leftist men to admire and misunderstand. There are of course teenage boys and girls marketed as vapid pop idols, but even mainstream popular music has embraced the left. To Godard’s credit, he understands how quickly his film is going to become dated. Both Paul and Madeleine give hints that they will become far more radical as they enter their mid-twenties, and the late 1960s. She’s fascinated by sex work, a theme Godard had alread explored in Vivre sa vie in 1962. When Paul surprises two gay men making out in a public restroom, and his gaze lingers just a bit too long, we realize just how much Paul has to learn about the radical counterculture of the 1960s. Similarly, when Paul and Robert overhear a white woman and two black men reading lines from Amiri Baraka play The Dutchman, it’s Godard’s admission that as a white European he really doesn’t quite get either the American Civil Rights movement or American popular music. “When Bessie Smith talks about her black ass,” one of the men says as Paul and Robert look on uncomprehendingly, “it has nothing to do with sex. She’s telling you to kiss her black ass.”
In the end, however, it really doesn’t matter if Jean-Luc Godard understands the youth culture of the 1960s any more than we do. Masculin Féminin is not an objet d’art set in stone. Godard wrote most of the lines he gave the actors the night before he shot their scenes. Rather, it’s a free wheeling experiment of a man trying to understand the 1960s youth culture, an open-ended work in progress trying, and always failing, to hit a constantly moving target. It would perhaps benefit today’s youth if they revisited Masculin Féminin, if they stopped trying to put a radical spin on ponderous, overbudgeted comic book movies and stale reboots of reactionary crap from the 1980s and expanded their horizons. I don’t think the methods Godard explores in his early masterpiece have aged at all, even with social media.