When Jean-Luc Godard's "Masculine Feminine" opened in Los Angeles 38 years ago last month, it seemed as new as tomorrow's headlines while exploring a theme as old as time — the essential enigma that a woman can be to a man. Headlines, and hairstyles, may change, but this witty and tender 1966 gem remains as timeless and fresh as ever.
To reappraise it after nearly 40 years only brings a richer appreciation of Godard's subtlety, sly humor and depth of perception, and his gift for melding nonchalance and profundity.
With "Masculine Feminine," never had Godard's perspective been broader, his accessibility greater or his reliance on inside jokes and references so slight. With his 10th feature — in a mere six years — his style had become sparer and more open. He is concerned above all with his hero, who is trying to size up the world in which he lives.
Jean-Pierre Léaud's Paul fits Albert Camus' description of l'homme engagé. He is an impassioned leftist, scrawling slogans all over Paris, protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the De Gaulle government. Yet most important, he is in love; it is Godard's view that "we can control our ideas but not our emotions, which are everything."
The object of Paul's affections, Madeleine (Chantal Goya), an enchanting gamine, is a rising pop singer — as Goya was at the time — whose singing style echoes the vapidness of Jean Seberg's American expatriate in Godard's "Breathless." He pursues her with an honesty and forthrightness so artless as to be touching. She is frequently flanked by two girlfriends, Elizabeth (Marlène Jobert) and Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport), the first possessive, the second virginal.
The city in which Paul's love develops is not the Paris of picture postcards. It is as impersonal as New York can be, a glary jungle in which death is as casual as a cup of coffee. Cheap cafes, bowling alleys and dingy theaters make up the world of Paul and his friends, whom Godard describes as "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola." (The bright natural lighting of the film still makes for a plethora of nearly invisible white-on-white subtitles even though these represent a 2004 translation.)
As usual, Godard throws in signs, cuts sound and divides Paul's story into chapters to remind audiences that it is watching a movie. Up to this film, never had this approach been so poignant, because the spontaneity and immediacy of Willy Kurant's black-and-white camera work combine with the naturalness of the actors to make the young people they play so completely believable and real.
On the surface it seems as if Godard took up where François Truffaut momentarily left off, for the young adult Léaud of "Masculine Feminine" in personality is much like the appealing Antoine Doinel of Truffaut's "Love at Twenty," who was the adolescent Antoine of "The 400 Blows," but Antoine is the independent outsider rather than the militant leftist that Paul is.
The great pleasure of rediscovering "Masculine Feminine," along with Godard's unique vision, is the chance to appreciate how gifted an actor Jean-Pierre Léaud still is in his piercing fearlessness and vulnerability.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Mature themes
A Rialto Pictures of a Franco-Swedish co-production: Anouchka Films and Argos Films (Paris)/Svensk Filmindustri and Sandrews (Stockholm). Writer-director Jean-Luc Godard; inspired by "La Femme de Paul" and "Le Signe" by Guy de Maupassant. Producer Anatole Dauman. Cinematographer Willy Kurant. Editor Agnès Guillemot. Songs Jean-Jacques Debout. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 282-8223Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times