|Jean-Luc Godard is a difficult man to recommend these days, given the films made in his twilight years have been so idiosyncratic that their purposefully offensive themes (such as promoting terrorism) are wrapped up in storytelling so obscure that they pass all but the most dedicated cineaste by. Yet it was not always thus: though he has made films for all of his adult life, it was the nineteen-sixties that will likely be looked back on as his heyday, when his political posturing and playful arrangements, accompanied by the most attractive casts he could find in France, seemed relevant and not the rantings of a man growing increasingly out of touch.
His 1960 debut had been A Bout de Souffle, otherwise known as Breathless, a tiny budget, barely one step up from amateur effort from a critic angry at the generation before him which had dominated European cinema that just happened to catch lightning in a bottle and provide a revolution in the medium. Just as The Velvet Underground and The Sex Pistols inspired countless to form bands and make records, Godard was there first for the movies, showing that there was another way, you did not have to create in the manner and methods that your elders told you to, you could add in jump cuts, random jokes, non sequiturs, rambling conversations and actors who simply looked cool.
By the point he had made Masculin Feminin in 1966, he had a collection of films to his name thanks to the fast style he employed, churning out the pictures like a man possessed, as if afraid his own inspiration would run out before the end of the decade and he had to pack in as much as possible before his youthful spark dimmed. If that was how he thought, he was not wholly wrong, for once the sixties became the seventies his private and artistic obsessions turned so specific, rarefied and indeed, impenetrable that he really was playing to the shrinking gallery of fans who remembered how good he used to be and longed to see if he could recapture those golden times once again.
The answer to that was probably "no", though he did retain the playful side which soured into wilful eccentricity and bad temper, going out of his way to be a spoiler to the culture that bred him. Not for nothing did he make Agnes Varda cry at the end of her final film by refusing to participate after she had sweetly requested his presence, it was as if he had become a grumpy old man in 1970, prematurely, but grew into the role with an enthusiasm that was almost unseemly. Naturally, this rendered his sixties projects precious, for they held a novelty that was so redolent of the era that they were inseparable from them, perfect time capsules that you could still relate to, oddly romantically.
It was as if films like Masculin Feminin, in itself a patchwork of ideas improvised on the spot or thrown together the evening before the shoot occurred, represented what it was like to be in France in those years, with all the turmoil and excitement and romance (some would say sexuality) in a way that even Godard's most famous contemporaries in the Nouvelle Vague like Varda, or Truffaut, or Rohmer, or Demy, or Malle, or any of the others who employed such an individual technique yet were of a piece with the movement of the times were not quite as representative of. Godard was the King, the one you had to love to be in with the hipsters, or alternatively, hate to be in with the hipsters.
There were no lukewarm reactions to Godard, and even in Masculin Feminin, where he comes across as a dilletante, dabbling in hot button topics like The Vietnam War or contraception, scooping up matters that other films simply did not talk about in the early to mid-sixties and toying with them for almost two hours, any humour would be just as easy to infuriate his naysayers as it would enchant his aficionados. His stars were Jean-Pierre Leaud, who was the most identifiable actor of the New Wave thanks to his work with Truffaut, and ye-ye girl Chantal Goya, a singer of pop fluff (both in real life and in the movie) making her debut in an acting career that went nowhere, leaving her a chanteuse of children's tunes despite a final line where her character desires an abortion.
It was as if France pretended they never heard that bit, and all the lovely faces who are quizzed in the film about extremely personal elements of their lives and opinions were allowed to be three-dimensional rather than decorative. Marlene Jobert (mother of future star Eva Green) had the best career of them all, and she seems the most mature, but the winner of the Miss 19 contest that Godard managed to get in his film is ruthlessly exposed, not physically but mentally, and Catherine-Isabelle Duport, an actress so obscure that nobody seems to know what happened to her, comes across as painfully vulnerable as she is beautiful when cornered by one of the director's overbearing didacts. Brigitte Bardot and Francoise Hardy are here too, a pair of icons apparently present as in-jokes, as much as the random diversions into Monogram-type thriller cliches; yes, it can be funny, but there's tension here too, frustration with the status quo that 1968 would really shake up. This has Masculin Feminin as an in-between film, transitional and necessary.
"The children of Marx and Coca-Cola," indeed.
[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with the following special features:
New 4K digital restoration, approved by cinematographer Willy Kurant, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Interview from 1966 with actor Chantal Goya
Interviews from 2004 and 2005 with Goya, Kurant, and Jean-Luc Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin
Discussion of the film from 2004 between film critics Freddy Buache and Dominique Païni
Footage from Swedish television of Godard directing the "film within the film" scene
PLUS: An essay by film critic Adrian Martin and a 1966 report from the set by French journalist Philippe Labro.