skip navigation
TCM Imports - January 2019
Remind Me

Masculin Feminin

In the mid-1960s, the spirit of youthful rebellion was a worldwide phenomenon, with young people in their teens and twenties setting trends in fashion, music, political activism, and liberated ideas about sexuality. Filmmakers of the French New Wave, who themselves had rebelled against what they saw as stale, old-fashioned filmmaking in the previous decade, continued their innovative ways, and none was more daring and ambitious than Jean-Luc Godard.

By 1965, Godard's relationship with his wife and muse, Anna Karina, was over, and he was ready for fresh ideas in his films as well. When producer Anatole Dauman suggested that he adapt a Guy de Maupassant short story, Godard agreed, although the finished film had very little of the two de Maupassant stories that were the initial inspiration. Instead, Godard turned Masculine Feminine (1966) into his unique take on youth culture, what he called not a film about youth, but "a film on the idea of youth." As he explains in a famous intertitle in Masculine Feminine (1966), "This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca Cola." But it was as much about changes within Godard himself. As he explained, "I chose young people because I no longer have any idea where I am from the point of view of cinema....Talking with young people was an easier way to find myself than talking with adults."

The story of Paul, a young writer who pursues an aspiring pop singer and ends up living with her and her two roommates, was just an excuse to explore youthful attitudes about love, sex, politics and culture. As Paul says in a voiceover, "Times had changed. It was the age of James Bond and Vietnam. Hope swept the French left as the December elections loomed. I turned 21 two days before."

The actors Godard cast were not from his usual stock company. The leading role of Paul was played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who had become famous playing Antoine Doinel in Francois Truffaut's debut feature, The 400 Blows (1959), a character he reprised repeatedly over the years. Truffaut was very protective of his young discovery, and in a letter written to Godard in 1973, after the two had a very public and painful falling out, Truffaut criticized how his former friend used Leaud in the film: "It was in Masculin Feminin that I noticed for the first time how he could be filled with anxiety rather than pleasure at the notion of finding himself in front of a camera...That first scene, in the café, was a painful experience for anyone looking at him with affection and not with an entomologist's eye."

Real-life pop singer Chantal Goya, a Natalie Wood lookalike, plays the aspiring pop singer Madeleine. Goya was a "ye-ye girl," a bubblegum-pop star of the era. (The term derives from the English expression, "yeah yeah," as in the Beatles song, "She Loves You (Yeah Yeah)") Goya appeared in a few films, and went on to a different career, as the star and producer of elaborate, Disney-style stage shows for children.

Godard used Masculine Feminine to experiment with filmmaking techniques, alternating long, static takes with documentary-style street scenes, and playing with the sound mix. He did not work from a script, but instead used a spiral notebook filled with handwritten notes. Years later, he claimed in an interview that "There were no written dialogues; they were real interviews with the actors. I did the interviewing myself...and later mixed up these interviews in the that people would think the characters are talking to each other." It's also likely that Godard had his actors wear earphones through which he whispered questions for them to ask each other as the camera rolled. When the film was released, it was banned for people under eighteen -- "the very audience it was intended for," Godard complained.

The critics' opinions of Masculine Feminine were definitely mixed. The fusty Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote, "There are some cute things in it....But it adds up to entertainment of only the most loose and spotty sort." Others were more enthusiastic. Pauline Kael of the New Republic wrote that it "shows the most dazzlingly inventive and audacious artist in movies today at a new peak." She realized that the film was an important advance in Godard's evolution as a filmmaker: "Using neither crime nor the romance of crime but a simple kind of romance for a kind of interwoven story line, Godard has, at last, created the form he needed. It is a combination of essay, journalistic sketches, news and portraiture, love lyric and satire."

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: Anatole Dauman
Screenplay: Jean Luc Godard, based on two stories by Guy de Maupassant
Cinematography: Willy Kurant
Editor: Agnes Guillemot
Music: Jean-Jacques Debout
Principal Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud (Paul), Chantal Goya (Madeleine), Marlene Jobert (Elisabeth), Michel Debord (Robert), Catherine-Isabelle Duport (Catherine-Isabelle), Elsa Leroy (Mlle. 19) Evabritt Strandberg (woman in film), Birger Malmsen (Man in film)
103 minutes

by Margarita Landazuri