The title of Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin, Féminin saw many incarnations after the film’s release in 1966. Some wanted to drop the comma, allowing the empty space between Masculin and Féminin to literalize the men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus gender gap. Maybe some thought the comma was a symbol of second-class citizenship—indeed, women do not follow men in Godard’s film, they’re inextricably bound to them. Hence a third variation, Masculin-Féminin, which put the Masculin and Féminin on a more even keel (spin the title around 180 degrees and the woman comes first—she’s now upside down but first nonetheless). Then there is Masculin/Féminin, not because men sit on top of women, but because masculinity is more easily divisible than femininity, or so Godard would have us believe.
Masculin, Féminin was somewhat of a turning point for Godard, allowing the Novelle Vague auteur to address for the first time the current political climate of the world in one of his films. In many ways, this is the perfect Godard film—complex but accessible, snide but unpretentious, critical but sympathetic—and in many ways anticipates his 1967 masterpiece Weekend, arguably his finest achievement. The film is a provocative and deliriously funny examination of sexual politics in Paris during the height of the Vietnam War, and its genius is the way Godard seamlessly encodes his complex philosophy of the world into a deceptively simple love story between an ex-army recruit, Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), and a would-be pop singer, the beautiful Madeleine (Chantal Goya). This is first-class “Freudemocracy,” a term Godard coined to describe the sexual-political potential of film.
Not only does Paul’s battle with Madeleine represent a war between the sexes, but a clash between disparate philosophical and moral beliefs. Godard claimed never to have read Karl Marx but he coined the word “Cinemarx” to describe a Marxist form of cinema that Masculin, Féminin truly, madly, deeply espouses. Call the film “The Cinemarx Manifesto.” Paul is anti-bourgeois and resents America’s involvement in Vietnam, but his gripes aren’t anti-American per se. Godard considers pop culture a dangerous American export and he questions the political apathy of images and music that don’t incite people to revolution (this is the impetus of the director’s provocative but heavy and off-putitng Rolling Stones documentary Sympathy for the Devil).
“A philosopher is a man who pits his awareness against opinion. To be aware is to be open to the world.” How sad, then, that Paul’s posters (provocations encouraging the politically unwashed to votez) are ignored (unseen even) by Godard’s “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” (the film’s own contribution to the pop-culture vernacular of the world). Popular culture essentially creates a party line between Paul and Madeleine and Godard’s use of montage and off-screen space suggests this separation. In Masculin, Féminin, men and women spar. But so do the film’s images—they slip and slide against each other as if Godard were shuffling a paradoxical set of cards, and every image has the urgency of a vote cast into a ballot box that can no longer be retrieved.
It’s telling that people have tried to change the syntax between Masculin and Féminin. The battle of the sexes wages on and we’re still trying to figure out how to navigate the interzone. A man is a man and a woman is a woman and Masculin, Féminin is what it is: a philosophical theory in the shape of an elaborate algebraic equation—15 contrapuntal vignettes (ludicrous and gross political and sexual confrontations) separated by signs (Godard’s signature intertitles) that add, divide, multiply, or subtract the meaning of individual or collective vignettes—that stresses the everlasting, unexplainable complexity (the joy and frustration) of the war between man and woman.
Masculin, Féminin is very much the Cinemarxist embodiment of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. Both are morally, politically, and philosophically inquisitive, and as long as the proletariat fights the bourgeois and men fight women, people will continue to return to Marx and Masculin, Féminin. Unlike Marx and Engels (and his protagonist Paul), a more self-aware Godard seems to understand that pop culture, like wage labor and capital, is not going to go away. Which is why Godard doesn’t ask for the eradication of pop culture. Instead, he champions a marriage between image and action, both personal and political. If American pop culture is the devil, Godard not only has sympathy for it, but he tries to navigate it and empower it as well.
Even though Godard likens Madeleine to a consumer product (she and Paul talk to each other as if they were recording and cutting their conversation inside a studio), she is less a slave to her pop-cultural consciousness than Paul is to his communist agenda. Godard understands that music (not to mention the threat of a “clothes rod” abortion) implies Madeleine’s freedom of expression, but this is an implication that Paul fails to gauge. Is it possible that Godard recognizes a little bit of himself in Paul, a man whose active proletariat consciousness gets in way of his having fun?
In the film, Godard poses a theory that “masculin” can be divided into two words: “masque” (mask) and “cul” (ass). Because Paul is a sexual being, he naturally chases after Madeleine’s ass and, in effect, makes an ass of himself. As for the “masque” in the word, one could argue that this is the arterial political and moral motive masked by the sex drive (call this untapped or unseen potential). Paul and his equally arrogant friend seem to claim dominance over the female sex because “feminin” can’t be divided into. Oh, but it can—they just haven’t figured out a way to do so. Naturally, then, the last shot of the film acts as a female-empowering solution to Godard’s philosophical algorithm of the sexual politic. FIN.