“We’d often go to the movies. We’d shiver as the screen lit up. But more often, Madeleine and I would be disappointed. The images flickered. Marilyn Monroe looked terribly old. It saddened us. It wasn’t the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make… and secretly wanted to live.”
Jean-Luc Godard went through his most brilliant period as filmmaker in the 1960s; though he is still active today, it is for his work in this period that he is best remembered. It was during the ’60s that he had his finger firmly on the pulse of the youth movement, and was already becoming deeply interested in class issues and politics.
Made for less than 150,000 dollars and shot in flat back-and-white by the great Willy Kurant, Masculin, féminin (1966) chronicles the rise of young pop singer Madeleine (Chantal Goya, in real life ruling the ’60s French pop charts with her “ye-ye” hits, catchy songs of transient adolescent passion and romance), who will stop at nothing in her rise to the top.
Along for the ride are Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a rather aimless revolutionary drifting through a series of dead-end jobs; Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert), who acts pretty much as Madeleine’s groupie; and Robert (Michel Debord), a punk revolutionary who sees hypocrisy at every turn. Much of the dialogue centers on the differences between the sexes, and the fears, hopes, and desires that confronted teens in the 1960s.
Godard’s style was, and is, revolutionary; breaking into the narrative at random intervals, he offers the viewer bold intertitles that comment on the action (the most famous being “This film could be called the children of Marx and Coca-Cola. Think of it what you like”). There is also a stunning ten-minute take in which the real “Miss 19″ of 1965 (Elsa Leroy) is directly interviewed by Léaud off-camera, as she professes complete ignorance about world politics, methods of birth control, and anything other than the disposable pop world of the moment.
Godard also throws in bits of pop theater, as two actors (one of them the Algerian director Med Hondo, in an uncredited role) perform a scene from LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman on the Paris metro, while Paul looks on in horror as the scene degenerates into a subway shooting. Godard’s vision of the world, here as elsewhere, is sardonically nihilistic; a man confronts Paul with a knife in an amusement arcade, and then, for no reason, turns the knife on himself, plunging it into his stomach.
In another sequence, a man trying to set himself on fire to protest the Vietnam War has to borrow some matches to make good his threat. Brigitte Bardot turns up in a café cameo, and much of the dialogue is improvised, but at the same time, strictly controlled by Godard’s intensely personal vision. Once seen, never forgotten, this is a moment frozen in time, and one of the key films of the French New Wave in the 1960s.