Chama Al Houari (f. 2002) is an aspiring filmmaker from Morocco. She is currently studying at NSKI in Oslo, and is passionate about film history and how movies reflects the world.
Though the French may never seem to take a break from political volatility, the 1960’s represented one of the country’s most socio-politically tempestuous decades. Post-war reconstruction, decolonization, cold war tensions, and massive labor strikes were fertile ground for colossal civil unrest, which culminated and reached its peak during the famous 1968’ Paris riots.
The radical counter-cultural discussions and intellectual debates of the time duly spilled over to the arts, where postmodernism, an emerging artistic movement, served cinema with a more cynical approach to filmmaking.
Characterized by instability, fragmentation, and a schizophrenic structure, postmodern cinema is differentiated from its predecessors in film by three main characteristics; the first being inconsistencies and contradictions. Whether they be moral or plot driven, postmodern film has a tendency to create paradoxes. The second characteristic is a tendency to reference popular culture, whether it be through dialogue, imagery, soundtrack, or plotlines, postmodern film is thoroughly laced with allusions to modern day brands, events, or celebrities. Last but not least, postmodern film is heavily characterized by a proneness to self reflectivity, and meta reference. The films often implicitly or even explicitly break through the fourth wall and acknowledge the presence of an audience, therefore acknowledging their fictional existence. This is mainly achieved by a fragmented and unchronological way of storytelling that elucidates the constructed aspect of the films.
In consonance with the postmodern movement, postmodern film places a higher focus on technique and form rather than on content and substance. However this does not mean that postmodern film lacks recurring themes or subject matters. In the context of an increasingly polarized and chaotic socio-political atmosphere, postmodern cinema often reflects the rising sentiments of fear, anxiety, cynicism, and uncertainty felt by the general public. This is exemplified by the increased use of violent imagery, the death of the traditional hero, and dystopian discontinued narratives.
The films often serve a harsh social critique of power structures, however they usually do not offer any political solutions nor do they promote a certain ideological agenda to the audience, their role merely being the embodiment of the anxiety of the human condition in a post industrialized capitalist society.
One of the first currents of cinema that started exploring with postmodernism in the late 1950’s was the French New Wave movement. French New Wave was auto proclaimed an avant garde movement by one of its most prominent figures, director François Truffaut. Essentially a rebellion against classic French filmmaking, it mainly featured low budget films, with discontinued and chaotic plotlines. The movement being largely based in Paris, it mirrored the experiences of French Parisian youth, with elements of fashion, night life, and most importantly the rising engagement in social struggles taken on by the French youth of the 1960’s, including class struggle, sexual liberation, feminism, and anti war efforts. The French New Wave movement was principally remembered for capturing the soul and essence of the popular culture and socio-political atmosphere of the time.
One of the movement’s most prominent figures was of course French-Swiss director and screenwriter Jean-Luc Godard. Active in the domain of cinema since the 1950’s, Godard held strong radical political and philosophical beliefs. As an existentialist marxist, the french director heavily referenced politics and consistently paid cinematic homages expressing his personal views, arguably making him the most influential representative of French New Wave, and an important figure of the postmodern film movement in general.
Godard’s golden era of filmmaking, when his most critically acclaimed films were produced and released ranged from 1960-68, an era of profound civil unrest for France in the face of De Gaulle’s authoritarianism. His films mirrored the social issues and struggles against the failures of liberalism led by Parisian youth, being himself politically involved.
Arguably, Godard’s contribution to postmodern cinema can be explained by his rejection of traditional classic film standards that were deemed by him to be “bourgeois” and that were therefore to be dismissed and rejected. His Marxist affiliations also led him to offer audiences with harsh thought-provoking criticisms of commodification, capitalist consumer society, as well as the advocacy of women’s sexual liberation. His criticisms were often delivered in a playful, comedic, and self-aware derisive tone, solidifying the postmodern nature of his work.
One of Godard’s most popular films, Masculin féminin («Masculin Feminine»), was released in 1966 during the golden age of French New Wave cinema. Through 15 unrelated vignettes, Godard tells the story of a young radical idealist, Paul, and aspiring pop star Madeleine. While Paul is extremely engaged and concerned with politics, Madeleine is a career centered model whose main life objective is to achieve stardom. Despite the enormous contrast in personality and taste between these two characters, they become romantically involved and develop a tempestuous relationship.
Paul’s growing dissatisfaction with the rise of the American style consumer society in France and global imperialism, isolates him from his social life. He then takes on a job at a polling firm, which serves the film with documentary style interviews all throughout the 15 vignettes. During these interviews, Paul questions various characters on the social climate and the condition of the French youth.
The film’s postmodern identity is blatant, starting with its narrative structure being completely unchronological and discontinued. The lack of a consistent plotline and time frame detach from linear filmmaking techniques, and while certainly a common trait amongst Godard’s filmography, Masculin féminin represents the greatest embodiment of this detachment.
The film also contains a large number of cultural references, ranging from political to popular, the film comments on the society it aims to portray with the use of allusions to veritable elements of the 1960’s socio-political realities. For example, an explicit example of this constant referencing is the brief appearance of the 1960’s French icon Brigitte Bardot as herself, creating an accessible allusion to popular culture. A more implicit example is Godard’s paraphrasing of the metro scene from LeRoi Jones’s play, Dutchman.
And finally, perhaps the most postmodern feature of this film is its accuracy and success in the atmospheric embodiment of its decade, the presence of violence and chaos as well as a relatively raw portrayal of youth and sexuality. This along with discussions on social issues such as structural racism as well as gender identity all accumulate to create one extensive and thorough criticism of life in post-industrial capitalist France, all through the lens of Jean-Luc Godard’s Marxist outlook.
The most significant quote of the movie appears in one of the vignette title sequences, “This film could be called the children of Marx and Coca-Cola”. This meta-reference simultaneously proves the self awareness of Masculin féminin in its criticism towards consumer society, as well the paradox of its own existence as a product of postmodern dichotomy.
Thoroughly revisiting Masculin féminin through the lens of leading postmodern political philosophies of the time only accentuates its success in the full thematic and formalistic embodiment of said ideas. By combining the philosophies of Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Derrida it can be argued that Godard was able to accurately describe and encapsulate the postmodern dichotomy of Spectacle.
Situationist philosopher Guy Debord in his essay The Society of The Spectacle (1967), explains that through advanced advertisement techniques, the symbolic meaning of consumer products has come to hold a higher social significance than their quality or efficiency. Debord describes this phenomenon as the cult of the image, and the Society of Spectacle. In the same manner he observes the commodification of radical ideologies and their recuperation into a consumerist framework, where they are stripped of their subversive nature and rendered inconsequent images. The image of the young Marxist becomes more recognizable/desirable than the ideas behind Marx’s works, protecting capitalism from thorough critique, and selling us back our own radical ideas as superficial signifiers of identity.
While Madeleine’s aspirations are explicitly performative, Paul’s identity (being mainly defined in opposition to the status quo) ironically also becomes a performance of his political beliefs. Just as Masculin féminin makes a spectacle out of Godard’s Marxist ideals.
Similarly, in Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981), the lines between simulation and reality become increasingly convoluted as representation and symbolism outweigh materiality in an advanced stage consumerist society. This new notion of reality being built on images and imitations detached from any authentic and original meaning is what Baudrillard defines as hyperreality.
Paul and Madeleine are essentially two Parisian youths with the same inherent yearning for identity and meaning in a world of hyperreality, making the characters much more alike in ambition than one would initially believe. The seemingly oppositional personas of the young radical and the young aspiring popstar, stripped down to their core, only reveal a desperate adherence to a construct of identity in a struggle for meaning under the same overarching capitalist framework.
“I was deceived by them, and they were deceived by me. Why?… I discovered that all the questions I asked any Frenchman translated an ideology that does not correspond to the reality of the present, but to one of the past.” In the final segments of the film, before Paul’s sudden death, he confesses the deficiency of his polling strategy in the true assessment of public opinion.
In his 1993 publication, Specters of Marx, Derrida explores hauntology, or the idea that history occurs in non-linear progressions. He argues that the present collective consciousness is flooded by ideological remnants of the past that continuously disrupt and delay the emergence of new futures. In that same way, Derrida makes the case that remnants of Marxism similarly continue to disrupt total neoliberal dominance as they manifest into labor movements, counter-culture, and underlying class struggle efforts. The socio-political stratosphere being much more complex and ungovernable than it may appear to be, leaves ground for the influences of past/dormant ideologies to disrupt even the seemingly all encompassing mechanism of Spectacle.
Masculin féminin in its cynical and almost defeatist reading of 1960’s Paris, despite itself, plays a very important role in the circulation of oppositional ideas into the current of public discourse and opinion. It creates a situation of contradiction, of conflicting ideas and realities, and of specific identities versus a general lack of collective meaning/truth.
By acknowledging itself as spectacle and as the product of an inherent contradiction between a radical message and commodified medium, Masculin féminin not only cements itself as a thoroughly postmodern work, it also acknowledges the possibility for true systemic change within the hyperreal space that exists between Marx and Coca-Cola.