Needless to say, Jean-Luc Godard's provocative-cum-pedantic 1966 sub-masterpiece Masculine Feminine doesn't date very well. Maybe it's ennui with the oldness of the French new wave, or maybe Godard really does just go on and on until he's out of breath. But this story of four young Parisians, emerging from their solipsistic haze into the light of political day, feels like a black comedy now, which is not to say it didn't also feel like one then.
Masculine Feminine -- there's some debate over whether the words are separated by a space, a hyphen, a comma or a slash -- revolves around Paul (the iconic-at-the time Jean-Pierre Léaud, all grown up), a 21-year-old revolutionary who just completed his military service, and who now wants to strike his 400 blows against oppression, one conversation and spray-painted slogan at a time.
In a café, during "the time of James Bond and Vietnam," Paul meets Madeleine (Chantal Goya, née Chantal Deguerre in Saigon -- how's that for irony?), an especially naïve 19- or 20-year-old who wants to be a singer (Goya was, on the movie's soundtrack). He likes Bach. She likes pop. He's political. She's clueless. Soon another couple joins their radical roundelay for talks about sex, culture, birth control (about which they're virtually ignorant), social responsibility and who loves who. This is all punctuated by sounds -- music, car horns, gunshots -- and the occasional death, to which Paul reacts with disinterest.
Here and there in his radical romantic ramblings, Godard happens upon a prescience that predicts the Paris Summer. He refers to a war between Iraqis and Kurds, something that resonates 40 years later. And when Paul interrupts two men kissing, Godard lingers on an image that shocks most audiences even today. Paul closes the door on them, then writes on the door, "Down with the republic of cowards." Your guess is as good as mine, and while I'd prefer to believe Godard was as pro-gay as he was anti-war, you might not think so from the way he constructs his women.
Masculine Feminine is cinema as essay and the essay as cinema. Mirror, mirror on the theater wall, who's the wisest of them all? Godard, of course, who seems at once to be both inside and outside of the film, and whose art presages another cultural trend: deconstruction, which he does to himself, commenting on the work as it unfolds, and underscoring his ideas with bullet points (and sometimes with real bullets). "This film could be called the children of Marx and Coca-Cola," says a title card between scenes. Maybe so. But shouldn't Godard let someone else call it that?
Often in Masculine Feminine, Godard films a character for a long take as another character, off screen, poses challenging questions or assertions. It's wonderful to see actors work uninterrupted like this. Of course, these are not dialogues but interrogations, with Godard as the clandestine interlocutor. Somewhere in all of this there's a subtext going on, although with so much apparent pretext, you may not bother to dig for it. In French, with subtitles.