Meaningless gender games

Godard criticizes the apathy and ignorance of youth in “Masculine Feminine”

Steven Snyder

Something is wonderfully, almost manically askew in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Masculine Feminine,” not really a story about the sexes, but a sensory overview of an attitude, a place and a growing rift in the social fabric of its time.

Godard, unquestionably one of the most influential filmmakers to ever live, is still working passionately on films today (his underrated “Notre Musique” made waves last year). And “Masculine Feminine,” while less potent or transformative on its surface than his landmark achievements “Breathless” and “Contempt,” emerges as something more complex the deeper one digs into its style.

It’s a film that really exists without a plot. Rather, in 15 segments, young Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Madeleine (Chantal Goya) play the shallow game of dating amid the sights and sounds of the city. Actually, even that summary gives many of the film’s moments too much motivation. Rather, they have 15 different conversations that pretend to dissect the notions of dating, gender, pop culture and, of course, politics.

The title might be the work’s greatest bit of trickery, fooling us much the same way their conversations fool this naive couple. In their obsessions with the differences between the genders, they are missing the larger and more important issues knocking at their doorstep. Indeed, everywhere in the film’s production, we sense Godard mocking – or at the very least sarcastically patronizing – these people who hide in cafes all day and yell at others to close the door to the outside world.

The sounds of the nearby streets continually overwhelm Paul and Madeleine’s conversations, sporadic gun shots and explosions riddling the soundtrack midsentence. In one of the film’s most splendid moments, a discussion about dating, sex and birth control then slyly reveals that the young interviewee has no concept of the wars and conflicts raging around the world in the late ’60s.

Together, Paul and Madeleine seem to wander from one vignette to another, avoiding the streets and the crowds, looking for places to dance, drink, eat and flirt. In this regard, it is similar to Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes,” which consists solely of 11 conversations amid stimulants and smoke.

It’s also similar to Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” released in 2003, which creates its own world of self-obsession and self-absorption. For those who see the words “masculine” and “feminine,” and go in expecting a dissection of the sexes, Godard seems to have a pointed message: grow up.

At one point, Godard cuts abruptly to the year of the film’s release: 1965. From a historical perspective, we laugh because we know now what was happening in the real world while Madeleine was having her nails done.

Godard was likely laughing then, too.

“Masculine Feminine” is firmly steeped in the French New Wave – though some would contend it was released a year after the official “new” wave ended. The term refers to the works made by former French film critics and theorists who strived to turn the cinema into something more surreal and metaphoric.

And in this regard, the work still feels fresh and burgeoning, as if something explosive is hiding beneath the surface, sporadically revealing itself in bursts.

There’s an intensity to the film’s production that contrasts perfectly with Paul and Madeleine’s dry conversations – an intensity that is both palpable and indescribable. The answer is everywhere and nowhere, this entire universe seemingly flipped on its head and scrambled up.

The result is a hodgepodge of cohesion and absurdity. It doesn’t make any sense – it’s not supposed to – and that concept makes just enough sense to make this experiment enthralling.