The story of Godard’s Masculine Feminin (1966) is the story of unaffected youth. It’s the story of monotony, a grind that repeats itself daily, a twenty-four seven submission to unbridled authority. It’s about the seeming pointlessness of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. And it’s the story of a group of kids finding their way in the environment that surrounds them.
The two main characters are Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Madeleine (Chantal Goya). In the opening scene Paul is depicted as a lonely, unemployed dreamer composing a work of art for his own edification at a dreary cafe. Madeleine is depicted as the opposite of Paul. When she walks into the café, she does so with an air of confidence. She’s smartly dressed and takes notes from a magazine she’s brought along. Instead of composing, she makes use of what’s available.
The differences between these two play out throughout the movie. Paul is capable of breaking out in a speech about an obtuse point of view about current societal conditions, while Madeleine is neither informed about those conditions (Wars? I don’t know about wars.) Nor is she inclined to invest much time being concerned about matters that don’t involve her personally. Paul, the dreamer, is caught up with changing the world, while Madeleine is caught up with advancing her career. (For example, when Paul works up the courage to ask her to marry, and making Madeleine late for an appointment in the process, she tells him that they’ll talk about it later.) Madeleine recognizes Paul is not the same as her, and therefore restrains her commitment to him.
Paul’s romanticism and need to belong marries him to whatever cause is floating around (signs a petition to free imprisoned workers in Brazil.) And because of this, his life flutters in many directions, writing graffiti and haranguing a projectionist as his commitment to that cause directs. Paul’s inclination to think in terms of large, socially significant causes (to him), causes him to miss what’s going around him. For Paul, the contradiction is that the causes he’s involved with center his world, and therefore thinks they should center everyone else’s world, thus making himself (the person) the real center of the universe. The end result is a streak of self-importance that isolates him from others.
What Paul is missing is that Madeleine is not in love with him, but that her friend, Catherine, is. Madeleine is too practical for Paul, but Catherine appreciates the dreamer in Paul. The complication in the relationship occurs when Madeleine becomes pregnant by Paul. The significance of this is that Paul is not willing to confirm with Madeleine that she is pregnant, again reinforcing the idea of his shedding responsibility for addressing practical problems (a pending pregnancy) while preferring to address global ones (the ability of the sly Americans to transmit ideas by injection.)
In fact, part of this unawareness of the girls’ emotional state is brought out when Paul and his friend discuss the difference between men and woman. Their observation is that in men there is “mask” and “ass” in masculine, implying men’s ability to wear masks and make asses out of themselves. Their corresponding observation about women is that there’s nothing in feminine. In other words women are voids, which is why it’s difficult to relate to them. The men’s hesitancy to place themselves in other people’s shoes works against them when it comes to women as well.
The end of the film comes when Paul falls to his death while attempting to get a picture at his new apartment (financed by a windfall from the death of his mother). The fact that he bought an apartment in a (high rise) building under construction adds weight to his inclination to engage in the unfinished possibility rather than the finished product. The irony that the whimsical Paul bought into a complex in a wealthy neighborhood, forced the practical Madeleine and her friend, Elizabeth, to visit, resulting in his accidental death.
Paul was never able to move into his apartment, symbolizing his failure to reach his potential in life. His successes lay in his commitment for revolt against the constant social constrictions placed on man. His other success, the child Madeleine is pregnant with, is not assured the same commitment.