What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
Early in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film La Chinoise, there is a declaration, painted on the wall of a Paris apartment: “We must confront vague ideas with clear images.” That’s about as good a rallying cry for political art as any, but of course La Chinoise doesn’t live up to it. Or more specifically, it exists not to live up to it. It’s even possible that the declaration in question is being interrogated. I’ve always found La Chinoise to be a tough film—and I say that as someone who dearly loves Godard’s video work, which is supposedly a lot less accessible. For whatever reason (the state of the world, probably), I had this urge to start revisiting his political mid-to-late-’60s films; they navigated a conflict between visual and political fascinations before politics won out. La Chinoise continually draws attention to its incompleteness (it’s subtitled A Film In The Making for a reason), and yet it deals exclusively in pure forms: primary colors, Maoist dogmas explained by college students existing in isolation from reality, slogans written on walls. I tend to think of Godard as an artist of discontinuity—as someone who embraced contradiction and mismatch as a way of making meaning. None of these are new thoughts.
Masculin Féminin is a film I always dread revisiting, party because it left such a big impression on me as a teenager; it’s one of those entry-level Godards, and even more so than in La Chinoise, its politics are concealed in a fascination with youth. But this time—to continue on this theme of discontinuity—I was struck by the construction of the opening sequence, in which Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud, also one of the leads in La Chinoise) meets Madeleine (pop singer Chantal Goya) in a café. The first shot, which lasts about two minutes, is a close-up on Paul as he reads aloud in between taking puffs from an unfiltered cigarette. (In the 1960s, Godard shot the greatest close-ups on actors’ faces.) As Madeleine enters, he looks up, and Masculin Féminin cuts to a wide shot with her in the middle of the frame.
Because he’s dead center in one shot and she’s more or less centered in the next, it works like a point-of-view cut—except it actually isn’t, because Paul is sitting to the right of the frame, almost cropped out, waiting to be rediscovered by the viewer just as Madeleine acknowledges him. There are only a few more cuts in the scene (one to a different angle on Paul framed from Madeleine’s point of view, another to a wider view of the interior of the café), and every single one of them violates the axis that would normally be maintained for continuity. It makes it feel like every shot is its own discrete space. Every cut to a different angle is a jump between adjacent alternate universes.
But all in all, I haven’t been watching much, because I can’t stop reading political news. How about you?