Recently I have watched four Godard films. A Bout de Souffle, Masculin Féminin, Weekend and Le Mépris. It was only when I watched Le Mépris, which is not considered part of the nouvelle vague, that I had a breakthrough in understanding what the nouvelle vague, or at least’s Godard’s part in it was.
These films are not by any means easy to digest. They are films made by film critics for film critics so at first viewing are basically closed and inaccessible to the viewer. It was only after two films and three weeks that I felt I understood enough to attempt a third film. I will first review Masculin Féminin. The style is not quite documentary, more an exposé of cinema itself, the characters are self-aware, mocking their own performances. Brigitte Bardot even appears as herself for a cameo, so blurred are the lines of fantasy and reality. Plot goes for a burton: the whole film seems to be entirely disconnected moments in the life of young people. These instances are divided into chapters, blurring the lines between different media and allowing the more scholarly diction of literature to become a part of film. However, suddenly, we are forced back into a plot-based way of thinking at the very end as the characters have to explain the narrative we have just seen. What this shows us is that life is so much more and less than the stories we frame it as. Even telling a story gives the whims of the human heart and the winds of fate far too much credit.
As well as this already groundbreaking style the film is boldly political, as if Godard simply had too much to say at any one time. “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola” appears emblazoned across the screen in one of the many intertitles. These intertitles are crucial, flashing on screen with barely enough time to be read they contain the keys to understanding the film, an ironic reversal of a picture being worth a thousand words. Every so often the film cuts to a series of interviews, questionnaires on politics and sex. The questions seem to be loaded with meaning but we are never told what. We later realise that we only believed so because the characters were so passionate about these things. Yet the political activism seen in these young French intellectuals is almost pitifully insincere. Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) splits his time between spraying socialist slogans on walls and trying to be like James Dean. For all his bravado and self-determinism he is utterly and tragically controlled by his love for a woman.
It is difficult to comment on the acting performances in Masculin Féminin, one gets the impression that in truth very little acting is going on, for all we know what we are actually seeing are the conversations had before the camera started rolling. Each word and thought is so genuine that it is somewhat disarming, you feel as if you are watching a documentary of people’s personal lives and views. This counterbalances the confusing and imposing thematic and stylistic features allowing the film to be understood as a charmingly realistic story of unrequited love. But it is so much more. It is like a snapshot of being young. Each character dreams of political change, free love and a great, successful future: they will probably never achieve this but it does not matter, they are now frozen forever in this naïve and joyful state. While the places and particulars may be different the themes still affect every young person today. Yet no other generation has recorded it with such faith or such boldness.