Jean-Pierre Leaud stars as Paul, a rather aimless young man with the same uncertainties as his famous Antoine Doinel character, but little of his charm. He dabbles in revolutionary activity, performing pranks such as spray-painting "Paix au Viet-Nam [Peace in Vietnam]" on an American ambassador's car, but spends far more time worrying about his romantic prospects. He dates a pop singer named Madeleine (real life star Chantal Goya) who pointedly tells a reporter that she "loves Pepsi-Cola" reinforcing Godard's equation of pop consumerism and femininity, but she periodically tires of him and turns to her lesbian roommate Elisabeth (Marlene Jobert). Paul's friend Robert (Michel Debord) and his love interest Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport), a young woman who prefers the company of Paul, complete the film's romantic geometry.
The film unfolds largely through a series of interviews, with the conversations between the characters (usually grouped in pairs) proceeding by give-and-take with the actors taking turns questioning each other. Godard uses two methods to film these sequences. In one, he has his actor wear an earpiece and then relays the questions he wants him to ask. In other scenes, he interviews the actor directly and then films another actor asking the same questions, a technique that would later prove influential among filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami. Although in most of the interviews, the questioning proceeds by this interactive process in which the characters alternate asking and answering, in one notable exception, the infamous "Miss 19" sequence, in which a young model is set up as an object of ridicule, the interaction becomes relentlessly one-sided.
Halfway through the film, Paul stages an interview with this young cover model, an interview which continues to disturb through its blurring of the lines between reality and fiction and through its brutal aggression. Claiming to work for a polling firm with a sociological bent, he begins asking the woman a series of questions. Unlike the other interview segments in the film, this sequence, which runs six and a half minutes, features only one person performing the role of interviewer and that person (Paul) does not appear onscreen, only his voice is heard. After an introductory intertitle in which she is identified as a "produit de consommation [consumer product]", Godard keeps the camera fixed on the young woman for the duration of the interview, the camera in its refusal to cut away becoming an instrument of oppression multiplying the relentlessness of Leaud's interrogation. Preliminary questions establish that the girl was chosen by a teen magazine as their "Miss 19" cover girl for the current year. Since the actress who plays the young woman, Elsa Leroy, was, at the time, herself a cover model for a similar magazine and since the character is given the name Elsa, the fictionality of the scene is called into question. According to Chantal Goya who knew Leroy, "she was exactly like you see in the movie. We knew she'd talk like that and she didn't disappoint." In other words, by Goya's account, Leroy was answering the questions as herself and not in the guise of a fictional counterpart.
As the interview progresses, the questions become increasingly aggressive, as Godard establishes the young woman as a representative of blind consumerism, blissfully unaware of any events transpiring outside her limited worldview. Godard is careful to insist, through his mouthpiece Leaud, that "Miss 19" represents "a typical French woman", suggesting an essential link between womanhood and vacuous consumption. After quizzing her on the material advantages she enjoys through the magazine's promotion, Leaud turns the interview to political questions. "Do you think socialism has a future?" he asks. "I know nothing about it," Leroy answers. A further exchange sinks the questioning into deeper levels of degradation by allowing the woman to misdefine the term "reactionary" and then milking her misunderstanding for further ridicule:
"Does the word 'reactionary' mean anything to you?"We cannot know in what terms Godard represented the scene to Elsa Leroy, but she must have had some sense of the fictional nature of the production, especially since we know from cinematographer Willy Kurant that the scene was shot at least four times to get the lighting correct, a level of thoroughness that would be out of place in a simple sociological survey. Yet, as the scene progresses, she increasingly registers as an unsuspecting object of ridicule, uncomfortable with an escalatingly intrusive line of questioning that she clearly did not anticipate. Set up as a vacuous representative of the consumer mentality, the audience eventually comes to sympathize with her in opposition to Godard's cruel manipulations, this unexpected sympathy serving to undercut the director's purpose. The scene reaches its pinnacle of sleaze when Leaud forces Leroy to define the term "birth control" and to list various methods of preventing unwanted pregnancy. Only after a final line of questioning in which we learn of Leroy's obliviousness to contemporary world conflicts does Godard finally bring the interview to a close.
"Reactionary means being in opposition, reacting against lots of things, not agreeing with what might happen."
"Is it good or bad?"
"It's good. I don't like people who say 'amen' to everything."
The "Miss 19" scene finds its parallel in a later sequence which reverts to the previously favored give-and-take interview format, this time recording an interaction between two supporting characters, Catherine and Robert. This sequence, which takes place in a bathroom, alternates close-ups of Catherine, who chews on an apple, and a cigarette-smoking Robert, the camera focusing on the character answering the questions. The scene begins with Robert trying to convince Catherine to go out with him. After she expresses little interest in a romantic involvement, Robert, like Paul a part-time radical, begins drilling Catherine about her political indifference. (Interestingly, earlier in the film, Paul says that he thinks Catherine would make a good revolutionary, the only time in the picture Godard allows the possibility of a woman's entrance into the political sphere.) "Do you have any opinions on democracy?" Robert asks. "Not particularly," says Catherine. "Are you interested in what goes on around you?" he continues. "Sure," she says, "but it depends. Politics don't interest me, but there are things that do." When pressed to name these things, though, she cannot come up with an answer.
Although the scene is much gentler than the "Miss 19" sequence and it allows for a reciprocal interchange not permitted in that scene (after Robert finishes his line of inquiry, Catherine immediately begins drilling him about his solicitation of prostitutes), the questions and answers reveal the same (exclusively feminine) attitudes of willful ignorance to world events that Godard stressed in the earlier scene. Along with the pop-culture obsessed Madeleine and the cold lesbian Elisabeth, Catherine completes a triumvirate of beautiful, but vacuous female leads. The young men in the film may come off as immature, lascivious boys whose commitment to political causes is ultimately superficial, but at least they show some concern with the world beyond their immediate environment and are not linked to the blind consumerism Godard so clearly despises. By tying these conflicting concerns so explicitly to gender, Godard enforces a unnecessarily misogynistic program that makes the film an expression above all of the director's gender bias, an expression that undercuts any of his more successful observations on youth, consumerism and revolution and marks Masculin Feminin as one of the least appealing films of the director's otherwise imposing 1960s output.