The Body Talk in Masculin féminin

In Nadav Lapid’s latest film, the award-winning Synonyms, a young man moves from Tel Aviv to Paris to make a clean break from his Israeli identity. This drastic attempt at self-reinvention is something that Lapid himself endeavored in his early twenties, when he relocated to France and first fell under the spell of auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, who would go on to influence his irreverent, politically charged filmmaking. During a recent visit to the Criterion offices, the director talked with us about one of his favorite scenes in Godard’s Masculin féminin, a New Wave classic that reflects Lapid’s own interest in physicality on-screen and his belief that “the most political statements can be deeply personal, and the most intimate moments can be political.” This article is edited together from that conversation.

The first time I had a revelation about Godard’s work happened before I had any real connection to cinema, or any cinephile knowledge at all. It was just a few weeks after the end of my military service—I was a bit like Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character in Masculin féminin, a young ex-soldier named Paul—and I happened to see Breathless. Until then, I didn’t know that films like this existed, and I couldn’t put my thoughts into words because I didn’t have any historical context for cinema. I hadn’t heard of the nouvelle vague, but what I was watching made me feel that there was a deeper way of talking about life and existence. It was only a few weeks later that I decided to move from Israel to Paris. I was sure that Paris was filled with guys like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Godard. 

Once I was there, in the early 2000s, I started reading Cahiers du cinéma and visiting all the independent theaters in Saint-Germain and Saint-Michel, where they would often show Godard’s films. This is how I first saw Masculin féminin. I had a good friend—perhaps the best friend I’ve ever had—named Émile, who was very educated and came from an aristocratic family. He taught me everything, and it was from him that I first learned words like sequence and framing. He exposed me to more of Godard’s cinema, and when we’d go to the movies and the film was good, I couldn’t wait for it to end so that I could hear his analysis of it. In my mind, that was as beautiful as the movie itself.

Masculin féminin is a love poem to youth, a reflection on the human spirit at a point in life when you have such a curiosity to know who you are. The film begins when Paul meets Madeline (Chantal Goya), a girl who works at a magazine but wants to become a singer. They have a brief conversation in a café about what they’re doing in life and in their work. He’s looking for a job, and she helps him get one.

One scene I love occurs shortly after Léaud has begun working at the magazine. It takes place in their office, just outside of the bathroom. Cinematically, it’s not the most impressive or most virtuosic scene in Godard’s work—it’s actually extremely simple. Paul is standing against the wall, his coat on the rack next to him, and Madeline comes out of the bathroom and stands at the mirror. It begins almost like theater: one actor enters the room, the second actor comes in, and the show starts.

I love that the conversation they’re having is the kind that’s taking place all over the world, all the time, between men and women. Godard said the film could have been called “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” which makes it seem very historical, but I find this conversation to be timeless. Paul is trying to convince Madeline to go on a date with him, which she understands actually means to have sex with him. She’s not totally for or against the idea, but when she acknowledges this it’s as if he’s made shy by his desires. Because of how the scene is shot—it alternates between a few minutes focused on her and a few minutes on him—there’s a feeling that the characters are making declarations about their existence rather than exchanging thoughts.

In both my own films and Godard’s, real conversations hardly exist. Like Paul and Madeline, people pass their time in an endless effort to declare themselves. There’s a beautiful sentence by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa in which he talks about two human beings as boats in a dark sea that cross paths briefly for one moment and see each other’s light. I feel that in a very instinctive way, and the human encounters in my movies are like this. People are so absorbed in their own existence and find it very hard to have moments where one boat suddenly touches the other.

Though the things they’re talking about in this scene are so universal, their interaction is composed of many small nuances that are very specific to Léaud and Goya: the way he looks (or doesn’t look) at her, the way he lights his cigarette. Godard shows that when people talk, they still have bodies. In many movies, the dialogue plays out as if it’s just people with their mouths moving. But here the bodies are talking as well, and sometimes what they’re saying is different from the words the characters are speaking. The actors are not just reciting from the script, they’re expressing the ethos of the movie. You really need to listen to the melody of their conversation and watch the hips of the actors when they talk.

Cinema is made up of a lot of things, including the position of a speaker’s body observed in relation to everything else going on within the frame. It’s only in the combination of those things that you find the truth of the moment, which for me is the highest aim of cinema. Godard’s work might be ironic, but it’s never cynical, because he is obsessed with that truth. Sometimes I can watch just one scene in one of his films, and not only are my thoughts refreshed, but I’m also filled with an urgency to rethink everything. Masculin féminin was made in a period when Godard still seemed to have a kind of innocence as a filmmaker, and you can feel the joy of his discovery in this scene.