The first Jean-Luc Godard film I saw was “Pierrot le fou, and it was hate at first sight. At the time, I had started immersing myself head-to-toe in classical European cinema for my informal film education.
Like Bergman, Fellini, Buñuel or Tarkovsky, Godard is recognized as one of the greatest filmmakers ever. Distinguished contemporary directors like Tarantino and Kar Wai Wong have acknowledged the vast influence of Godard on their films.
Perhaps that’s why I struggled with the first few I felt obliged to watch. For me, “Pierrot – a film hailed by critics as one of Godard’s finest works – was nothing more than a fragmented story about a man rambling about politics, philosophy and literature in the context of absurd, self-styled images that ultimately amounted to nothing. The function of Godard’s shots, I thought, was merely to bring attention to themselves.
Still there were several aspects of Godard’s filmmaking I managed to enjoy: the comic book-like color scheme, the shot where a corpse is seen through Jean-Paul Belmondo’s eyes, and, of course, Anna Karina’s face.The next film didn’t help much. “Les Carabiniers was an anti-war film too muddled up to leave an impact. “Hail Mary was too unfocused and misguided to be offensive. I admired “Week End, a film often cited as one of the greatest in history, but I couldn’t love it. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could love these emotionally detached, pretentious and highly cynical pictures.
But by the end of “La Chinoise, I was getting hooked on Godard. The final long scene of the film sees the ideas and ideologies of a group of communist students dashed to the ground by a philosophy professor. For a painful hour and a half, they had been arguing about Mao and whether violence can be a valid agent of change.
I hated the movie. Still, do as a matter of a fact. Yet there was something stimulating about that last scene. Perhaps it was the way Godard dismissed nearly the entire discourse of his film at the end, or how the ideals of the characters were deemed injudicious by the professor. It was as if, in spite of himself, Godard was asserting that principles, ideologies and heroism are all wishful thinking.
“Band of Outsiders, one of my favorite films, was next. It was impossible not to be taken by the pure joi-de-vivre and the freewheeling mood of the film; Paris, the references to American B-movies, the superseding romanticism and, of course, Anna Karina’s face.
“Band marked the beginning of a long friendship with the French New Wave’s infant terrible that continued with “Vivre sa Vie, “Une Femme est une Femme, “Alphaville, “Le Mépris and his masterpiece “À Bout de Soufflé.
I even loved a few of his more obscure works such as “Tout va Bien, “Éloge de L’amour, and his last film “Notre Musique.
The palpable singularity in all of Godard’s first works compelled me to return frequently to his world, a quality demonstrated best in “Masculin, Feminine, his 1966 film screening tomorrow evening at the French Culture Center.
Godard directed the film near the end of his most creative period, which started with “Souffle in 1959 and ended with “Week End in 1967.
Like the majority of Godard’s films, “Masculin, Feminine contains no story. The film’s protagonist is Paul, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the famous child rabble rouser from Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.
Paul is a young man who’s just been discharged from the French Army. He’s a communist, or at least that’s what he considers himself to be. In an ordinary Parisian coffee shop, he meets Madeleine (Chantal Goya), an aspiring pop singer.
The two are polar opposites. He is a dreamy romantic with unbending beliefs. She’s practical, shallow, and, like all Godard’s female characters, materialistic. In one of the scene’s titles, Godard writes “This film should be called ‘The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.’ The title encapsulates the film in a nutshell and makes a statement about France s 60s generation.
Godard was fully embracing communism around the time he made “Masculin, Feminine . His films were getting more political, moving farther away from the cool, hip, carefree realms of “Souffle. “Masculin, Feminine was different though. It was a film about the battle of the sexes, the inability of men and women to understand each other.
It’s a film about the Pepsi generation, ordinary Paris with all its complexities and charm, the American pop culture invasion, Vietnam, sex, and capitalism vs socialism. More than anything, it’s a film about youth; about a young misfit falling in love with a girl and living in the shadows of American cinema.
“We waited for a movie like the one we wanted to make and secretly wanted to live, Paul says at one point. Throughout the film, Paul attempts to express his cultural and moral superiority to both Madeleine and the other girls he encounters. In one of the many famous scenes, he interviews a real beauty queen and hammers her with questions about socialism and Vietnam. She’s clueless. When he asks her about sex, he’s surprised by her frankness, which underlines his own naiveté (exhibited repeatedly prior to this), propelling him to quickly divert her attention away from the subject.
In one of the most touching and funniest scenes, Paul drops his guise completely. While in bed with Madeleine and her intruding roommate, he asks if he could touch her. Here we see Paul for what he truly is: a confused, unconfident, scruffy young man longing to connect with someone.
Godard’s greatest gift was his ability to transform the mundane into magic. Like his previous films, “Masculin, Feminine was shot on location in the untrimmed streets of Paris. Godard’s Paris bears no resemblance to the phantasmagoric dreamland of “An American in Paris or “Amélie. Yet, and despite his realistic vision, his Paris remains the ideal place in which we fantasized about growing up.
The secret behind Godard’s magic is his characters’ behavior; how they regard themselves and the world around them. “Wisdom would be to see life, truly see it, Paul says at the end of the film. Godard’s films lie somewhere between the movie world and reality. The two worlds were always inseparable for him, and so it was for his audience.
Some of my fondest memories are of me and a friend sitting in Korba and discussing Godard for hours. He loved his later works; I couldn’t stop talking about “Band and “Souffle. We spent days attempting to decipher “Week End and “Tout va Bien, idolized French girls and adopted his radical politics.
As we grew older, we became as cynical as Godard, regarding the real world with utter indifference and skepticism. Watching “Masculin, Feminine for the 30th time last week, I couldn’t ignore the nostalgia it provoked in me. Nostalgia for those conversations, for the boundless sense of possibility of early youth, for the energy, placidity and undeclared optimism.
Like many of his fans, we saw Godard’s films because we found ourselves in there. His characters, the lives they led, and their dreams were similar to ours – that is, before religion entered into the equation, pop culture became base, politics turned into cheap entertainment, sex became blatant.
We loved Godard because he taught us how to “truly see life. We often mimicked his characters’ antics, with hilarious, and sometimes disastrous, results.
Sixties Paris will always remain the most ideal place. We’ll never know what it was really like to live there, but we never felt we needed to – we always had Godard.
“Masculin, feminine is screening tomorrow at the French Culture Center, 5 Shafik El Deeb St, Heliopois, 7 pm.