In “Masculin Féminin” Paul, played by the French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud, speaks only rebellious words, wanders in the city like a vagabond, expresses his sexual desires and revolutionary passions with full belief. They are the substance of his youthful existence. If sexual desire is still identifiable to young people today, revolutionary passion definitely got left behind in the 60s.
The film was made in 1966, two years before 1968—the culmination of revolutionary passions all over the world. And afterward, a total domination of pop culture until today. Madeleine, Paul’s counterpart in the film and the object of his infatuation, speaks amicable words about nothing, indulges herself in a pop star dream, and drinks Coca-Cola. She is the perfect embodiment of pop culture, the culture that despises ideals, so it talks about nothing, sings about nothing, and drinks sugar water. It is the culture of nothings. As Madeleine brushes her voluptuous hair and applies powder on her cheeks over and over again in an almost obsessive manner, she becomes the true representative of the most up-to-date form of femininity: femininity in the age of pop culture, a peculiar mixture of glamour and depthless-ness.
And yet, Paul and Madeleine, the two ends of the spectrum, are somehow attracted to each other. As Godard puts it himself, “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” find themselves falling into a love affair. The film never gives a reason why Paul falls for Madeleine, nor why Madeleine ambivalently reciprocates. Godard plays with the contingency of the attraction.
Many modern theorists have shown to us that gender is socially constructed. We are left to ponder the meaning of the difference in a new light. What does gender difference mean now that gender itself has been deconstructed? In “Masculin Féminin,” Godard offers his view by portraying Paul with sex drive and revolutionary passions, Madeleine with glamour, ambivalence and simple-mindedness. One could say that in the 15 vignettes Godard holds each gender up in turn for criticism and at times even ridicule. But there is also a profound sense of sympathy toward both. Godard might be one of the very few filmmakers in the history of cinema who managed to strike a balance between criticism and sympathy, and make comments on the existent social issues through the media without falling into the trap of cynicism. His comment on gender via “Masculin Féminin” is that gender difference is cultural, but it is also real. There is still the gap, the wall, or the miscommunication, however one wants to call it, between the masculine and the feminine.
If femininity and masculinity change in time, masculinity as Godard described in the film, is perhaps long gone. The revolutionary culture in the 60s is dead. The symbolic ending of the film speaks to Godard’s pessimism toward the culture of his time. In this sense, Godard is not neutral in his account of “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” In fact, he has never been in his films. The death of “the children of Marx” followed by the nihilist denial of that death by “the children of Coca-Cola” pretty much sums up the tragedy of the decade. At the very end of the film, the police officer asks Madeleine if she knows what happened to Paul. She stares at him with wide eyes, disinterested, a bit confused, and says “Je ne sais pas.”