- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

Jean-Luc Godard’s “Masculine, Feminine,” being revived for a week at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, was shot in Paris at the end of 1965. It reached American art houses in fall 1966 and had a tenderly unsatisfying aura from the outset. It would have been generous to call it a first draft of something elusive. Perhaps a lovelorn time capsule.

Although regarded fondly, even indulgently, by most Godard enthusiasts when it was new, the movie was always a rudimentary dramatic proposition. Indeed, it was acutely underdramatized, a collection of 15 numbered sequences that never began to add up to a haunting account of mismatched young love.

One of the filmmaker’s catchphrases for what he had in mind achieved more staying power than his film itself: “This film could be called ‘The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.’” Reserved for sequence No. 12, this proved one of the most overrated blurbs of the period.

Almost 40 years later, it may be easier to find evocative gratification in fleeting images of Christmas shoppers and stores decorated for the holidays than in the nominal leading characters and their barely outlined romance.

Jean-Pierre Leaud as a callow young radical named Paul gets a job as a Q-and-A pollster for a magazine and falls in love with Chantal Goya as an aspiring pop singer named Madeleine.

He moons around effectively enough for her to become pregnant, although this revelation seems an arbitrary update, inserted just in time to beat the denouement, which suggests that a terrible accident has befallen Paul. Not one Mr. Godard feels confident about depicting, evidently.

Miss Goya was chosen in part because she had no acting experience and offered an impervious pretty face to the camera while breaking the hero’s immature heart. She was in the first year of a genuine career as a songbird, authenticated by abrupt samples on the soundtrack and by a studio recording scene. One of Miss Goya’s rivals, Francoise Hardy, also has a walk-on, in a sequence largely devoted to scorning American intervention in Vietnam.

Although housing arrangements are never clarified, Paul appears to have sleepover privileges in one interlude with Madeleine and her roomies, Elizabeth and Catherine. The former, played by Marlene Jobert, is hostile to Paul; the latter, played by Catherine-Isabelle Duport, is friendly. They remain more interesting as camera subjects than the designated sweethearts.

A similar partiality still surrounds another young woman on the fringe of the plot: Elsa Leroy, more or less playing herself as “Miss 19,” a beauty-contest winner who blithely endures one of Paul’s interrogations. Meant to expose her shallowness, the grilling comes closer to nullifying Mr. Leaud, who is off camera and seems to belong there while anyone more attractive and engaging is available.

From “Breathless” on, Jean-Luc Godard was a pushover for the femme fatale cliche. His own spouse and muse of the early 1960s, Anna Karina, had been cast as a specimen in “Pierrot le Fou,” the project that preceded “Masculine, Feminine.” It may have been second nature to mimic this pattern when looking for some way out of a sketchy scenario about the mating rites of young Parisians in the period of James Bond and Vietnam.

Paul has little to sustain him as a protagonist, but something prevents the filmmaker from acknowledging that he has better bets in four young women. They’re more watchable when merely standing still and replying to trite questions or contemplating themselves in mirrors.

Youthful behavior patterns in both sexes are shortchanged in “Masculine, Feminine,” which may be less revealing as a time capsule than the “Beach Party” farces. It’s certainly threadbare when compared with “Where the Boys Are” and “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Jean-Luc Godard ends the movie with a suspiciously curt platitude that insists women are inscrutable. Nevertheless, the specific examples retain more charm and promise than the filmmaker’s 40-year-old political prejudices and solemnities.

Hanging out with the girls should have been his conceptual priority, not just a guilty pleasure.

**

TITLE: “Masculine, Feminine”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter, occasional profanity and sexual allusions, fleeting racial epithets)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Suggested by the Guy de Maupassant stories “La Femme de Paul” and “Le Signe.” Cinematography by Willy Kurant. Music by Francis Lai. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: Today through Thursday

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and older)

PHONE: 301/495-6720

WEB SITE: www.afi.com/silver

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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