The new 2K digitization and restoration of Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin Féminin (1966) that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival is exclusively playing on MUBI in most countries around the world May 22 - June 21, 2016.
Over opening credit titles that proclaim the film to be a French production, the “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, is heard being whistled off-screen. Then, spelt out with grating gunshots, the film’s title: MA – SCU – LIN FÉMININ: 15 FAITS PRÉCIS.
It’s Paris. 1965. Sex, violence, revolution—change is in the air. Two youths, one male and one female, meet in a small cafe and begin a love affair. Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a passionate idealist who is driven by poetry and literature and is becoming increasingly indignant with the commercialization (read: Americanization) of the world around him. Madeline (Chantal Goya) is a hard worker who has a stable job at a magazine and is pursuing her dream of becoming a famous singer. Paul likes classical music, Madeline likes pop songs. Past and present. Marx and Coca-Cola. Masculin Féminin.
In the late 1950s a new style of pop music began to emerge in Europe that was given the moniker yé-yé: A Francophone interpretation of the ‘yeah-yeah!’ rock ‘n’ roll exclamations of jubilance made popular by English-speaking artists such as The Beatles. Yé-yé girls France Gall, Françoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan, ingénues who managed to combine innocence with a knowing coquettishness (see the Serge Gainsbourg-penned “Les sucettes”), were incredibly popular through the 1960s and achieved chart success not only in their native France but elsewhere in Europe and also overseas. Many of these singers even appeared on screen in films of the period.
In November of 1965 Jean-Luc Godard saw a picture of Chantal Goya, a new girl on the yé-yé scene, in the newspaper. Godard then made contact with her and asked her to appear in his upcoming film. She told him that she was no actress and he replied that he wanted non-professionals for the film. Instead of an audition, Goya later recalled that Godard had asked her questions about what interested her, such as what she read, where she lived and what kind of music she liked.(1) Godard wanted the film to be naturalistic and wanted the characters on screen to mirror the lives of his young cast. It was to be both a criticism (particularly, unfairly, in regards to its female characters) and a celebration of youth and youth culture. Chantal Goya would not be the only yé-yé singer to appear in Masculin Féminin either: Françoise Hardy appears in an uncredited cameo as an American officer’s companion.
Masculin Féminin features several short pop songs composed by Jean-Jacques Debout and performed by Chantal Goya. They weave in and out of the narrative, providing a counterpoint to Paul and Madeline’s quarrels or the youths’ conversations about controversial topics of the day such as the war in Vietnam, birth control, or race.
The saccharine melodies and bubblegum vocals of the songs often contrast with the violent acts shown or spoken about on screen. In one scene Paul, who has just had a disagreement with Madeline, enters a pinball arcade at a bowling alley and “Tu M’as Trop Menti” (“You’ve Lied Too Much to Me”) is heard on the soundtrack. The song is imbued with a raucous rock ‘n’ roll energy though its lyrics speak of heartbreak, and Goya’s plaintive vocals are accompanied by a chorus of wailing female back-up singers. Paul watches a man playing pinball who then becomes angry with Paul and threatens him with his pocket knife. Paul backs away and the man suddenly plunges the knife into his stomach in a shocking act of rock ‘n’ roll seppuku. In other scenes, the music has a more direct role. When Paul asks Madeline to marry him as they leave a café she is evasive, and the song “Laisse moi” (“Leave Me Alone”) comments on this on the soundtrack. As the scene changes from the café to a discotheque where the couple dance (Paul awkwardly, Madeline confidently), “Laisse moi” appears to be the song they are dancing to.
Music is also a means in which to emphasize the difference between Paul and Madeline’s characters, the pair expressing their dislike of each other’s musical tastes throughout the film. Paul is a purist who prefers the complexities of Bach to pop songs. He has no interest in contemporary music (he’s never even heard of the popular “Vietnik” Bob Dylan) and is sarcastic when it comes to Madeline’s burgeoning pop career. Unimpressed that her record has made the number 6 spot on the Japanese charts, Paul reads a write-up of her music in a newspaper out loud in a mocking tone. Madeline, however, is just as dismissive of Paul’s musical tastes and refers to a record he plays of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A major as ‘outlandish.’ When she presents him with a classical record as a gift she describes it as ‘less hip’ than the Sylvie Vartan record she gives to their friend. Paul responds curtly that he would have preferred a Bach record and then defiantly whistles an imitation of what sounds like the composer’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
The pairs’ opposing ideologies are not only reflected in their respective politics (or lack thereof in the case of Madeline) but also in their musical preferences, which seems to highlight the negative aspects of their world views. The pomposity and pretentiousness of classical music vs. the quickly consumed and sooner forgotten ephemeral nature of pop music; the revolutionary vs. the teeny-bopper. In the end, the pair can find no middle ground and are thus doomed as lovers; out of time and out of tune. Masculin Féminin concludes not with harmonious music, but with a gun shot.
Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.