Warning: contains spoilers
Jean-Paul Godard’s 1966 masterpiece Masculin Feminin follows a handful of Parisian young people as they navigate the nature of work, relationships and the meaning of life. Paul, the film’s protagonist, is enamoured with Marxism and deeply in love with Madeleine, a model and aspiring singer.
By conventional standards, the film’s structure is confusing and disjointed. Instead of a linear narrative, the film is broken up into several parts with a significant portion of the film consisting of interviews between Paul and an unnamed young women. It’s not clear how much time passes during the film, or how the characters spend most of their time – or even why they believe and do what they do. This makes the film one of the most intellectually exciting and insightful films of the 20th century.
While the film centres on the relationships of young people, it is anything but romantic. Paul is in love with Madeleine, but she is not so sure about her feelings for him. She is reluctant to sleep with him and often feels awkward about the future of their relationship and questions whether the two are well-suited. Her dream is to be a famous singer, and this occupies most of her time. Catherine, her friend and housemate, is reserved, intelligent and privately infatuated with Paul. Being openly progressive and critical, one can’t help but think she and Paul are better suited and yet, as the latter put it: “I care about Madeleine”.
Paul’s relationship with Madeleine is fraught with jarring arguments, and it’s apparent to the viewer that the two will not last. Much like the unrequited admiration of Catherine, who patiently and ardently watches Paul from the sidelines, Madeleine’s relationship with Paul reflects a kind of ‘wrong-ness’ with 1960s society – which, Godard argues, is inherently confusing and disappointing for its inhabitants.
The Trauma of a Post-Truth World
At its core, Masculin Feminin is a postmodernist work that tells of a fractured and sick industrialised world where life is nonsensical, short and without meaning.
Paul is vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War and US imperialism, even vandalising a car’s side with an anti-war slogan. Still, he is embarrassingly oblivious to the racial violence and personal suffering endemic to French society. He rides a train with his friends where a woman uses a racial slur against a black man. They sit in silence as she calls the man names and continues to do nothing as she pulls out a weapon and attacks the man. Their concern is visibly etched on their faces, not for the man’s safety but rather a fear of becoming involved in what they see as a matter utterly unrelated to themselves.
Later in the film, the friends attend a racy movie where a young woman performs a sexual act on a man. Some of them feel uncomfortable, and they say the film is obscene and grotesque. This reveals an ugly truth: people are morally opposed to the public portrayal of sex, but not acts of violence committed against strangers in a public place. Godard highlights French society’s hypocrisy and points to the normalisation of violence – likely concerning French colonialism in Algeria, where Algerians were brutally suppressed based on their ethnicity and religion. It’s impossible to convey the level of atrocities committed against the population, with some estimating as many 1,500,000 Algerians were killed during the conflict and 2,000,000 displaced.
However, while US imperialism was criticised, the characters completely neglected their own participation in racial violence through their silence and unwillingness to de-escalate or even comment on the racist attack on the train.
Like the characters’ racial hypocrisy, the film contains all kinds of head-scratching contradictions.
In one scene, Paul is walking in public when a stranger suddenly becomes aggressive and threatens him with a knife. Paul backs away and, much to the viewer’s surprise, the man turns the knife on himself and takes his own life. The incident is unexpected and confronting, and Paul later recounts the story to his friends with confusion and disbelief. Why would someone act in such a way? This is the question on the lips of both Paul and the viewer.
There is something deeply unsettling going on, and it’s unclear why the incident happened or how it’s related to the main characters. The man’s suicide is limited to just two scenes – the event itself, and the later conversation between Paul and his friends. It’s confusing and bizarre and, like Paul, the viewer is scrambling to make sense of the incident – almost like a puzzle piece that just doesn’t fit.
Admittedly, the inclusion of such violence baffled me at first. Still, after researching French colonialism’s social context, it is a powerful reminder of how racial violence is sustained – not just through force, but wilful ignorance.
Masculine Feminin and Gender
Similarly, there is the confusing question of the film’s title; Masculin Feminin obviously has some allusion to gender.
From first glance, one would assume the film centres on the gender roles that permeate and define 1960s society. Conversely, and perhaps somewhat controversially, I don’t think the film is about gender at all. While the male and female characters fulfil gender expectations, such as the men ogling women and young women being sexually conservative, the film captures some of the intricacies and inconsistencies of gender norms. Godard does this not through overt feminism, but via the exploration of the characters as, first and foremost, products of a broken and isolating industrialised world, or, as Paul puts it, “children of Marxism and Coca-cola”.
The film’s name and perceived gender focus are a red herring, something shiny to distract you from industrialised societies’ dysfunction and racial violence. The title is a clever ruse – a demonstration of how easily one’s attention can be diverted to the ugliness and darkness of human behaviour.
Urbanisation and industrialisation
I was about three quarters through the film when I saw that central to Godard’s work is a criticism of urbanisation and industrialisation.
In a city such as Paris, where millions live side by side and do not acknowledge each other, people like Paul and Madeleine become desensitised to the suffering of fellow humans by the simple fact that the people are unknown to them personally.
This is showcased brilliantly in the train scene where the characters see injustice happening but do nothing – not because they are ‘bad’ people – but because industrialisation has conditioned them, like us, to be indifferent to the pain of fellow humans. This attitude could also be attributed to the prevalence of past and present imperialism. There are no natural soldiers, only humans who are trained to act and think like soldiers. Similarly, it is unnatural to ignore or dehumanise the suffering of strangers. It is modern society that conditions this apathy and this is how humans do un-human things. Brilliant.
Spoiler alert: don’t read if you plan to watch the movie.
Paul, full of ideas, criticisms and visions of a better and equitable future, dies a short and brutal death. His demise is unclear – was it a suicide, or did he accidentally fall from his apartment window?
Paul’s death is brilliantly revealed through an interview between a police officer and his lovers, Madeleine and Catherine-Isabelle. The officer asks them to recount what happened, but they are unsure. Despite his intellect, passion and foolish devotion for Madeleine, Paul’s life, just like the lives of the strangers who died, is nothing more than a conversation.
At this point, the viewer can recognise the film is a postmodern godsend in disguise; Godard critiques everything we know and assumes about the world, and as a viewer, you’re left feeling dazed and uncomfortable.
Are we all just a conversation at the police station? In an industrialised society, what significance do our lives hold? The answer is bleak. Industrialisation – brutal, violent and dehumanising – has manufactured mega-cities of faceless strangers.
Subsequently, or at least according to Goddard, humanity is a fleeting illusion, something to be seen and immediately forgotten, like street lights flickering softly in the night, or elongated shadows briefly kissing the pavement.