Jean-Luc Godard said once that he “mixes images and sounds like a scientist,” and this is true. His films are always an experiment of some kind, and with Masculin Féminin, Godard attempts, through observation, to understand youth culture in 1965 Paris. The casting of Jean-Pierre Léaud as the film’s central character, Paul, is an essential part of this equation. Having previously gained fame as young rebel-without-a-cause Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Here, Léaud has grown up, and while he’s still a rebel, he is now struggling to understand his cause.
There is a scene in which a punk pulls a knife on Paul in a bowling alley. He approaches him, as if to stab him, but instead elects to stab himself. This scene is never fully explained, but if I had to venture an interpretation, I’d say the would-be knife fighter is a relic of rebellion from the James Dean model, lashing out against a society that he feels doesn’t understand him. The suicide is the death of James Dean, in a world where he is no longer relevant. Paul, a sloganeering socialist, is the new model of a rebel, and when the time comes that he becomes irrelevant, he will die too.
Paul is obsessed with two things: Politics and Sex-certainly not a stretch for a Godard film, since he virtually made a career out of examining the correlations between the two. Paul works as a pollster, and from his work we get to see him talk freely and openly about both subjects. Politically, he’s a hotheaded young socialist, fervently anti-Vietnam War, spray-painting “US GO HOME” throughout Paris. As far as sex goes, Paul seems to possess a limitless uninhibited capability to talk about it, asking girls invasively personal questions about topics such as their preferred birth control methods. However, when confronted head-on with sexuality, he becomes more awkward, more honest. There is a scene where Paul takes Madeline, the object of his affections to see an erotic Swedish film. When the film becomes sexually explicit, he tells her that he has to go tell the projectionist to fix the aspect ratio, avoiding facing the on-screen sex. Paul similarly sidesteps confronting his sexuality when Madeline asks him if he intends to take her to bed on their first date, and when Paul finally does go to bed with her, he’s nervous, he asks permission to touch her, and tries to talk until she calms him, shushing him almost motherly.
Paul’s sexual façade lends some credibility to a quote that a friend tells Paul that accurately summarizes much of what the film has to say about young men and women in France: he says, “Have you ever noticed that in “masculine” there’s “mask” and “ass” (French: “cul”). Paul says, “And in “feminine?” to which his friend replies, “There’s nothing.” Indeed, the film paints Madeline and all females in sort of a negative light, for example, the infamously vapid “Miss 19” whom Paul interrogates to find that she has few opinions about anything, or a scene in which Madeline asks Paul what the center of the world is for him. He says “love,” she says “me.” Madeline is also coldly blasé upon learning of Paul’s death and in planning the termination of her pregnancy. While misogynistic themes had through his work since Breathless, Masculin Féminin may very well be Godard at the height of his sexism; it’s the first of his post-Karina period films, and coming off his divorce and a film in which a man’s love for a woman leads to suicide by dynamite, it’s safe to say that Jean-Luc had some pretty dark ideas about the opposite sex at the time this film was made.
The film’s most famous quote, the intertitle that reads “This film could have been called ‘The children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” is another that has much to say not only about the film, but about Godard himself. On the surface, the quote obviously refers to Paul’s passion and humanity (Marx) and Madeline’s shallowness (Coca-Cola), but I think that what the quote really offers is a glimpse into the conflicted genius of Jean-Luc Godard: Here is the man who made Breathless because he loves flashy American cars and gangster movies, but who would soon abandon narrative cinema altogether because he considered it indulgent and bourgeois. He is the child of Marx and Coca Cola, and I think that his self-evaluation as a walking contradiction is what led to his artistic self-destruction and constant reinvention in the late 60s and 70s. Godard, like Paul, was a rebel, struggling to maintain his relevancy. The end of the film has a lengthy, somber monologue by Paul, questioning the true value of his polls and the ideologies behind them, followed by news of his death, a possible suicide. Paul’s death is a signal that the rebel has failed in his cause, and it’s a dark shadow of things to come for Jean-Luc Godard.