An audiovisual essay by Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin on Jean-Luc Godard's 'Masculin Féminin' (1966).
FOR STUDY PURPOSES ONLY
'Queer Godard': our audiovisual essay title is not intended as any provocative claim or revelation about Godard as a person, or his biography. Rather, we do seek to provoke a new look at Godard’s work from the many angles proposed by queer theory. Virtually all his films, from the earliest, provide rich material for such a study; in this piece, we limit ourselves solely to 'Masculin féminin' (1966).
'Masculine féminin' began its life as a project with a reasonably close, if modernised, adaptation of a short story by Guy de Maupassant: “La femme de Paul” or, as it’s generally known in English, “Paul’s Mistress”. (Another of his tales, “The Signal” – incidentally, the basis for the first fictional short Godard made in 1956, 'Une femme coquette' – is pulped into the supposedly Swedish film-inside-the-film.) “Paul’s Mistress” is explicitly a reverie – a frequently grotesque and misogynistic one – on lesbian sexuality, and the emergence of a lesbian culture. Maupassant as narrator seems, in equal parts, appalled and fascinated by what he documents.
As is often the case with Godard’s adaptations, this initial literary source did not (as several Godard commentators and biographers assume) simply vanish in the course of elaborating the movie, to be replaced by a 100% heterosexual rondo; rather, it enters the deep structure of the work, surfacing in citations, allusions, vignettes, puns, charged glances between the actors/characters. The central lesbian figure of Pauline in “Paul’s Mistress” becomes Elizabeth (Marlène Jobert, mother of Eva Green), and her place in the basic narrative of 'Masculin féminin' remains exactly the same: her involvement with Madeleine (Chantal Goya) drives the ultra-sensitive, romantic Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to what may be (off-screen, between the two final scenes) either an accidental death, or suicide.
Some critics (including Robin Wood) have addressed this queer aspect of the film, only to dismiss its significance rather swiftly. Many others, on its initial release and ever since, simply forget or distort what they have seen and heard on screen: a recent synopsis in Télérama magazine, for instance, imagines that Elizabeth is “consumed by her silent love for Paul”! More usually, Elizabeth simply goes unmentioned, dropping out of the film’s carefully structured organisation of five central, young characters.
We are not trying to retrospectively reclaim 'Masculin féminin' as a masterpiece of progressive Queer Cinema. But, in the spirit of Godard’s own exhortation (addressed, in the first instance, to Pauline Kael) that critics must “bring in the evidence” in their analyses, and not just rely on faulty recollections or selective descriptions, we audiovisually explore two operations. First, we raise Maupassant’s text, once again, to the surface of the film, for the sake of a comparative reading. And second, we lay out, in the line of an implicit argument, the wealth of queer material in the movie that has been overlooked, misunderstood or repressed for fifty years.
© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin, May 2016