Friday, November 21, 2008

The Evil Behind a Pretty Face: Godard's MASCULIN/FEMININ

There are many events within Godard's MASCULIN/FEMININ that are intended to shock the viewer: 1) the murder of a husband by a distraught wife; 2) the self-immolation of a Vietnam war protester; 2) the two homosexuals kissing in a movie theatre; 3) the use of Leroy Jones dialogue from his play DUTCHMEN on the train; 4) The man who stabs himself in the abdomen- but by far, in my opinion, the most shocking event within MASCULIN/FEMININ occurs not only off-screen but in a scene cut out from the film: the death of the main character Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud). In the final interview scene with Paul's emerging pop singer girlfriend, Madeleine (Chantal Goya) we get the tail end of a description of Paul's 'accidental death' from falling out of a high rise apartment while trying to take photos (presumably of Madeleine) by Catherine-Isabelle. When she leaves the room, Madeleine is brought in and quickly says that what Catherine had said about the way Paul died was correct. She had nothing more to add. When she was questioned about her pregnancy and what she was going to do she mentions that Catherine had told her about using a curtain rod (presumably to inflict an abortion) and the camera holds Madeleine's sweet and beautiful countenance for a few silent moments before fading to black. The End. What is shocking here is that doesn't seem truthful that Paul died this way... One gets the feeling from the emotionless delivery of the cold facts that both Catherine and Madeliene were lying to cover up for something sinister. In fact, because Godard does not show us this death scene (as he had been so careful to show us in his previous films) the truth of the interview is held in desperate ambivalence from our knowledge of the Paul character whom we have followed throughout the film up until that point. Was Paul led out to the balcony under some pretense and pushed? But why and by whom? If there was something sinister about Paul's demise, then we have only our previous observations of the main characters to drawn on. The fact that during an interview earlier in the film between Paul and Madeleine we learn that Madeleine would consider her self to be the "center of the world" and her constant narcissism in front of the mirror says more about the motivations for her involvement with Paul's death than could be explained with standard Hollywood exposition. That Madeleine and Paul's relationship had been deteriorating in the last third of the film along with ascension of her career brings us back to the independent woman who thwarts the patriarchal structure by 'getting rid of the man in her life' as in BREATHLESS. Again this is a different presentation of the 'femme-fatale' that had been previously understood from film noir. In film noir the female is somehow involved in the criminal activity of the man and has to 'throw him over' so to speak to enrich her self; greed becomes a significant motivation for the classic femme-fatale. (See: Wilder's Double Indemnity, for instance) But in Godard's (re)-presentation of the femme fatale her reasons for 'throwing the man over' have to do with her Independence in the modern world, her ambition to become something in real life that causes the man to become a burden. In BREATHLESS Patricia (as a new femme-fatale) wanted to become a journalist. But in MASCULIN/FEMININ isn't it true that Madeleine wanted to be a pop singer more than anything, even love itself? Of course, I am making more of this speculation than could perhaps be discerned from the film itself, but the coldness, the almost clinical discussion of the fact of Paul's demise by the friend of his girlfriend and then his girlfriend who adds nothing personal to her witnessing his death makes the film end on a note of circumspection that itself cannot be denied. That Madeleine would contemplate using a curtain rod to abort their child now that he is gone betrays something 'ghastly' in her personality and something hideous emerging in the youth culture at that time: blinding ambition. The gender roles that were being investigated in Godard's film reveals how the changing roles of women literally destroy the preeminence of patriarchy by destroying the man; he is not rescued, he is not mourned he is simply dispatched without emotion. It is interesting that both BREATHLESS and MASCULIN/FEMININ have final shots of a woman's face; a face that was perhaps rightly described by feminist critic Laura Mulvey as," The Janus Face of the Female in the films of Jean-Luc Godard." Man might've learned how to kill without emotion on the battlefield, but women learned how to kill a man at home without emotion also.

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