WATCHING Jean-Luc Godard's "Masculine, Feminine" -- its full title: "Masculine, Feminine (in 15 Acts)" -- is to appreciate a sort of hip antiquity. The movie is set during Paris in the 1960s, when communism still seems (to many people) a viable alternative to capitalism. (In fact, within the movie, Godard famously suggests an alternative title: "The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.") And people are still playing pinball. And smoking. And the women are wearing those funny white boots.
But even though all that's so 1966, there are other elements that don't seem so outdated. Godard's political tapestry is about the eternal schism between militarism and intellectualism, and French outrage over a protracted American invasion. What has changed here, essentially? Even the young woman who, at the end of the film, seems to know nothing about current events has an alarmingly familiar MTV glaze in her eyes.
And speaking of MTV, Godard's then-fresh filmmaking style -- the jump cuts, the innovative use of intertitles, the jarring camera angles, the breakdown of the invisible wall between performer and viewer -- have become almost lazily commonplace in the cinema parlance of every indie filmmaker. Yes, there's a direct link between "Masculine, Feminine" and Kevin Smith's "Clerks," even though Smith doesn't know the first thing about Godard.
In this free-form movie, whose 15 segments are punctuated with a gunfire sound effect, a young man named Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) has returned from military service to Paris. A half-baked intellectual who is flirting with the romance of socialism, he pays close attention to the Vietnam War, the strikes and demonstrations of workers around the globe, and the differences between the genders.
When he becomes involved with a young woman named Madeleine (Chantal Goya) who is a pop singer, his opinions and questions about the world, politics, sex and other pressing matters have a target. By peppering her with his random, frank questions ("Look at me in the eye. What are you thinking right now?"), he's really in a dialogue with himself.
This is a pastiche, too, an audio-visual scrapbook of '60s Paris. It's also a chance to see a different side to Leaud, who's traditionally associated with the films of Francois Truffaut. Under Godard's direction, he seems determined not to be endearing (as opposed to his performances for Truffaut). The result is a harder-edged persona; he seems, at times, to outstare the camera.
The movie (black-and-white, unrated, 110 minutes) is in French with English subtitles. It screens at the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre through Thursday. Admission is $8.50. For more information, visit www.AFI.com/Silver or call 301-495-6720.
'THE MAN WHO LAUGHS'
Speaking of antiquity, the National Gallery of Art will show you how silent movies can truly come to life. Saturday at 3 in the East Building Auditorium (Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW), there will be a presentation of the 1928 silent, "The Man Who Laughs" (also known as "L'Homme Qui Rit"). Paul Leni's film, adapted from the Victor Hugo novel, is about Gwymplaine (Conrad Veidt), the child of a 17th-century British nobleman who's kidnapped and disfigured with his face carved into a fixed grin. He's forced to perform as a circus freak with a troupe of traveling players. This expressionistic German movie may be silent, but the performance is definitely not; Canadian composer-pianist Gabriel Thibaudeau and the Parisian musical ensemble Octuor de France will perform the live soundtrack. Admission, as always at the museum, is free. For more information, visit www.nga.gov/programs/flmevent.shtm#man or call 202-737-4215.
-- Desson Thomson