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Continuity errors
Looking back at, and with, Godard
BY CHRIS FUJIWARA

Related Links

Godard's Masculine Feminine's Web site

Gerald Peary discusses Jean-Luc Godard and Even Colin MacCabe's book, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy.

Gerald Peary writes about Jean-Luc Godard and his film Notre musique/Our Music at Cannes.

Chris Fujiwara reviews Jean-Luc Godard's Notre musique/Our Music.

An explosion of youth and freshness, from a time when anything seemed possible? The snappiest piece of intellectual pop cinema ever made? Yes, Jean-Luc Godardís Masculin féminin is these things. But watching the movie now, 39 years after it was made, Iím struck most by its sadness, its harshness, and its pessimism.

Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young left-wing writer, meets Madeleine (Chantal Goya), an aspiring pop singer, falls in love with her, and moves into the apartment she shares with two girlfriends. The tension between Paulís romanticism and Madeleineís focus on her career destabilizes their relationship. Godard is just as concerned with instabilities outside the relationship, and much of the film deals with the combination of USA-style consumerism, revolutionary politics, and free-floating violence that he sees as defining Paris at the end of 1965, when the film was made.

In the second shot, ambient sounds ó traffic noise from outside the café, a piercing telephone ring ó swamp the first words Madeleine and Paul address to each other. The volume and the quality of these background sounds change, from cut to cut, throughout the scene. Each shot denies the previous one. Throughout Masculin féminin, an æsthetic of juxtaposition reigns, pointing up the affinity of cinema for external signs and for treating the inside in terms of outside, the deep in terms of surface. The charactersí spaces collide with or abut onto those of the world around them. Silent street shots punctuate the film, adding a newsreel element to the love story. Paul and his friend witness but canít do anything about a subway dispute involving a white woman and two black men (who speak dialogue adapted from LeRoi Jonesís Dutchman). Godardís emphasis on discontinuity isolates the characters, showing their experience of their surroundings as incomplete.

Throughout Masculin féminin, the camera catches people looking down or away, then up, then away again: their eyes meet each otherís rarely. The first words spoken in the film allude to this failure of contact: "Jamais deux regards ensemble"ó "Never two gazes together." Godard has a variety of tactics for insisting on the autonomy of the shot, its failure to meet its predecessor: glances missed and withdrawn, stubborn variations in tempo, repeated dialogue, seeming non sequiturs. In a washroom conversation between Paul and Madeleine, the motifs of the dialogue diverge across the cuts. ("Yes, Iíd like to sleep with you," he replies, 20 seconds after being asked.) If there were any such thing as a continuity error, Masculin féminin might be described as a 103-minute series of them.

In one scene, Paul, who has been hired to ask survey questions for a magazine, interviews a manufactured celebrity known as "Miss Nineteen." The point of the scene may seem to be a facile ridicule of the young womanís apathy toward politics, but later, Paul expresses doubts concerning the poll itself: "I discovered that all the questions I was asking conveyed an ideology that corresponded not to present customs but to those of yesterday, of the past."

In questioning his own authority to ask his questions and the place from which he asks them, Paul is Godardís surrogate ó as he is in other ways too. Paulís troubles with Madeleine echo the experiences of obsessive males in such previous Godard films as À bout de souffle/Breathless, Le mépris/Contempt, and Pierrot le fou. The hint of an autobiographical component in these narratives of shipwrecked romantic love is strong. Anguished by their own apartness and their inability to possess the feminine object, both Paul and Godard dismantle and parody the object ó and then turn their interrogations around on themselves. Paulís longing to "see life, really see it" is shared by Godard, and Paulís final (off-screen) gesture, backing up in order to reach a better position from which to take a photograph, is that of a filmmaker who accepts as a condition of his work the need to find a real distance from and a real relationship with the objects he films.


Issue Date: March 11 - 17, 2005
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