That period known as the ’60s is one of the richest in world cinema, but it can also be condensed as a single name. Not since D.W. Griffith was knocking out a weekly two-reeler at the Biograph studio on 14th Street had there been anything to equal the 15-feature run that Jean-Luc Godard began with Breathless (1960) and ended, still accelerating, in the cataclysm of Weekend (1967).
Directed by anyone else, Masculine Feminine—one of three movies that Godard made in his peak year, 1966—would be a masterpiece. For the young JLG it’s business as usual. Actually, Masculine Feminine, which midway through announces its alternative title as “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” redirected the brilliantly fragmented sociological cinema of A Married Woman (1964) from Parisian bourgeoisie to the city’s youth culture. (It would be immediately followed by the mode’s mega-masterpiece, Two or Three Things I Know About Her.)
Masculine Feminine documents a world of jukeboxes, pinball machines, and girls in white go-go boots—as well as the shabby cafés and disco-theques frequented by two 20-year-olds, the serious young Communist Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and the aspiring ye-ye singer Madeleine (actual ye-ye star Chantal Goya). There is a narrative: Paul meets Madeleine, then moves in with her and her two girlfriends; Madeleine cuts a record that goes to No. 6 in Japan and gets pregnant. But mainly the movie is a succession of what Godard calls “precise facts”—overheard conversations, recurring gunshots, a scene cribbed from LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman, references to “Mr. Bob Dylan,” a plug for Pierrot le Fou. Protesting the war in Vietnam is a given. Everyone spends a lot of time talking—or rather, interviewing each other—about sex.
Indeed, Paul becomes a public-opinion pollster who, in the scene titled “Dialogue With a Consumer Product,” subjects a real beauty queen to a barrage of questions regarding socialism, America, and birth control. In the movie’s most celebrated sequence, Paul, Madeleine, and Madeleine’s friends attend a Swedish sex film (a parody of The Silence that Godard shot to justify Masculine Feminine as an international co-pro). “This wasn’t the film that we wanted to make, or, more secretly, this wasn’t the film we wanted to live,” Paul muses—articulating the exact premise of new wave cinema and ’60s cinephilia.
Hilariously, Paul rushes the projection booth to complain about the incorrect aspect ratio. That’s not a problem you should have with Film Forum’s sensational new black-and-white print.