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Synopsis: Just out of the army, nervy upstart Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) meets young singer Madeleine (Chantal Goya) in a café and pursues her while also flirting with liberal causes with his pal and fellow womanizer Robert (Michel Debord). Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert) rounds out the foursome and Paul and Madeleine eventually become lovers. Then Paul switches jobs to poll young people about their feelings, discovering that the youths he meets aren't any more politically aware than the older generation -- and that his faulty polling method is subject to his own bias. As Madeleine's singing career takes a big upswing, she decides that she'll let Paul 'hang around' until he starts to make a pest of himself.
Godard borrows Francois Truffaut's 'Antoine Doinel' actor Jean-Pierre Léaud but uses him quite differently. The amusing Paul and his equally egotistical friend Robert aren't idealized or cute. They're impassioned exponents of liberal politics but complete boors on the street, heckling and harassing young women in cafés just for the sake of being fresh. For Paul's female foil, Godard taps Chantal Goya, a then-rising yé yé pop singer. Madeleine bounces into one scene chanting, "I just made number six in Japan!" - which had just happened to Ms. Goya in real life. Godard possibly picked Goya expecting a fresh-faced kid to fit into his preconceived idea of teen girls as vacant materialists, but Goya shows a surprising sensitivity. To illustrate his thesis, the director must include an interview with a teen Miss contest winner. She indeed keeps a poised smile on her face, promoting a wholesome self-image while deflecting questions about politics. "I really don't know what socialism is."
The boys talk a good line about liberation but their progressive action boils down to little more than leafleting and spraying graffiti. And, of course, making a big show of how intellectually rebellious they are. They paint 'Get out of Vietnam' on the side of a U.S. Army officer's car. Paul asserts his importance by interrupting Madeleine's radio hits with classical music - his insecurity is not the endearing kind familiar from the Truffaut films. Madeleine becomes Paul's lover but never fools herself that he's Mr. Right.
Godard decorates his tale with title cards to introduce the film's 15 parts, but Masculin féminin is several degrees less self-conscious than his work before and after. Attempts to deconstruct cinema are mostly absent and his messages are not the bald sloganeering of his later work. He does wrap things up with an abrupt finish as a display of his disinterest in conventional narrative forms.
Godard has already sidestepped his narrative framework when a voiceover explains that Paul has changed jobs and become a pollster. Several direct interview scenes follow. Godard's off-screen questions were replaced with Jean-Pierre Léaud's voice.
According to testimony from Criterion's interview extras, Godard used the same method to direct what appear to be free-form open discussions between his characters. He shot both sides of a heated conversation separately, 'playing' the opposite character and letting the actor improvise his responses. When the two halves are married and Godard removed, what's left is a spirited dialogue scene that appears to be spontaneous. Much of Godard's show isn't scripted in the usual sense, but by no means does he let the actors make it up as they go – he still exercises control.
The film has a buoyant pace. Willy Kurant's rich and resourceful camerawork is a good replacement for Raoul Coutard's unique visuals. Brigitte Bardot's cameo is easy to spot in a café scene but sharp-eyed viewers will want to be on the lookout for the beautiful Francoise Hardy ( Grand Prix, What's New Pussycat? ) as the date of an American Army officer.
Criterion's DVD of Masculin féminin is handsomely transferred at its original flat ratio. Chantal Goya's catchy French-language pop tunes come across clearly on the restored soundtrack. The extras lined up by Criterion producer Issa Clubb include a discussion by two French film critics but the real treasures are the interviews with cameraman Willy Kurant, Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin and the captivating Ms. Goya. We see her first in 1966 as an ambitious pop idol. She tries on some flower-power mod glasses, pointing forward to the coming hippie era. Interviewed again in 2005, Goya has quite a different perspective on those years. Radical provocation was never her thing, and she remembers her parents being shocked by her dialogue about birth control and abortion. She continued as a star of kiddie entertainment.
An archival news film shows Godard in Sweden directing the film's Bergmanesque movie-within-a-movie. When asked why he's come to Stockholm he skips artistic explanations to flatly report that Swedish money is in the film. An insert booklet contains an essay by Adrian Martin and observances from the set by journalist Philippe Labro. We're reminded that having just finished his military service, Paul is not a teenager but a young adult; most mid-sixties Parisian teens couldn't afford Paul's café lifestyle.
Godard ends the original French trailer with a wickedly funny voiceover comment on the film's adults-only rating: It's all about teenagers, and so of course they cannot be allowed to see it.
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by Glenn Erickson