Friday, September 09, 2016

Pierrot le fou (1965)

France / Italy, 110 minutes
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writers: Remo Forlani, Jean-Luc Godard, Lionel White
Photography: Raoul Coutard
Music: Antoine Duhamel
Editor: Francoise Collin
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Dirk Sanders, Raymond Devos, Graziella Galvani, Samuel Fuller, Jean-Pierre Leaud

If it's possible to name a movie that is a generic version of director Jean-Luc Godard's body of work, Pierrot le fou might be it. It's not in black and white (but neither is Contempt) and otherwise it has many of the signs: Jean-Paul Belmondo as a gangster-loving aesthete, Anna Karina as his beautiful disaffected girlfriend. Guns and cars all over the place. Arch and intellectual dialogue, encompassing multiple languages. Punctuations of images from great paintings and other cultural markers. Sound, image, and words which can all be at odds suddenly with one another, yet produce intriguing paradoxes of synchronicity—they work as montage, in other words. It loves Hollywood but hates America. It's full of literary and cinema references and it's playful beyond all reason. If you're not delighted you're only baffled, and that's OK too, seems to be the idea.

If it's given me any new insight into Godard, it's the degree to which he's shambolic, like a drunken rock band that turns to playing covers of pop songs others claim they would rather forget. This loose and freewheeling sloppiness may be Godard's single greatest charm, reflecting some kind of opposition to professionalism as inhuman, perhaps, as mere artifact of capitalism and Coca-Cola marketing, as he might put it. But it's a deliberate choice on his part, because it's obvious from the images he casually sows through all his films, this one no less than any others, that he's a gifted visualist. As a filmmaker, he's a natural.

Among other things, Pierrot le feu is a great pop art movie, with comic-book-reading lovers on the run, with guns, fast cars, and murder, with supersaturated color so ripe and decadent it feels like some kind of indictment. Dramatic bewitching music frequently plays on the soundtrack—though, again, the use of soundtrack often seems to be deliberately unprofessional, cutting in and out, swelling big at not quite the right times, jumbling musical styles randomly. As with his famous jump-cuts, it's Godard's assertion that he can do what he likes, that cinema is essentially a plastic medium. He can create the immersive fantasy and he can bust it up again at will—he never seems to put any more than 10 minutes at a time into anything. In fact, I think he's opposed to the hypnotism itself of the immersive experience. He'd rather we stay back at a distance, enabling room for self-knowing irony. He'd prefer we stay awake and alert rather than lulled into nodding complacence for the sake of a night's light entertainment.

Marianne (Karina) and Ferdinand (Belmondo) are lovers reuniting, with no place to make a life. He's in a bad marriage and they've started murdering people. Marianne frequently calls him "Pierrot," which he furiously denies every time. This is never explained, though perhaps it helps us with the title, "Pierrot the crazy." Listening to a radio report in the car about the Vietnam War, Marianne deplores the anonymity. "They say '115 guerrillas,' and it means nothing to us. But each one is a man and we don't even know who he is, if he loves a woman, if he has kids, if he prefers movies or plays."

Ba-da-boom. We know which one Godard prefers. The story in Pierrot le fou is straight out of Hollywood noir, the desperate young couple on the run. They seem to be murdering people but never feel like murderers, more like hipsters. "I know a trick from Laurel and Hardy," says Marianne when they are having a problem getting away with stealing gas. "Get in the car." I believe someone ends up dead in that scene, but all scenes of violence are much closer to Laurel and Hardy in mood. There is blood but it looks like splashed-on food coloring, just a signifier, and often there is also a musical number in the vicinity.

You might as well call Pierrot le fou a comedy. It defies classification, but it probably plays hardest for obvious laughs, as one scene where Ferdinand enters a restaurant through a window. Groovy music starts up and chicks are dancing. A man sits down at his table. "Remember me?" he says. "You stayed at my place last year. I lent you 100,000 francs. You slept with my wife. So you've come south? Everything OK?" Then he salutes and walks off. Rimshot. Or this, which is actual dialogue in voiceover: "There's a little harbor, like in a Conrad novel." "A sailboat, like in Robert Louis Stevenson." "An old brothel, like in Faulkner." "A steward turned multimillionaire, like in Jack London." "Two guys beat us up, like in Raymond Chandler." No, I can't remember how that even fits with the plot, such as it is. It's more like a temporary fit of name-checking.

The whole movie, really, is a series of temporary fits, like an album full of one-minute songs. Jean-Luc Godard, punk, and the DIY aesthetic. There is a through line there of some kind, which this picture helped me see more clearly than I have before. At the same time, it's deeply marinated in the pop art of the '60s, at moments objectifying color itself for the sake of effect—I might call that trying too hard. I could wish the tone were a little more serious and a little less self-serious, with playfulness not quite so much a kind of passive-aggressive expression of hostility. But I also like the heady way it proceeds, with all impatience for conventional niceties. For me, it's fun and annoying in about equal parts.


  1. I once wrote that this movie might be what Bonnie and Clyde would have been if Godard had ended up the director.

  2. Thanks for sending me on the fast-car ride of this movie, Jeff. I'd never seen it before, so borrowed the DVD from the library, and enjoyed it immensely. It's a celebration of '60s liberation in that European/pre-hippie mode I prefer. If I'd seen it when it was new in 1965, when I was 18 and without a girlfriend yet, I would have taken Anna Karina's lovely face and her pop-art-surreal adventures with Jean-Paul Belmondo as a promissory note that the '60s would work out for me, too. It would have been a welcome revelation that we were no longer trapped in Grace Kelly's stodgy mainline ballrooms of the '50s, and could start connecting with our potential lovers in everyday-if-surreal life.

    You're right about "Pierrot le fou" being "a series of temporary fits." Midway through my viewing of it, I heard one of our cats tossing her cookies in the next room. I didn't bother to pause the DVD, just let it go on playing while I went to clean up Bella's emetic event. I figured Godard might even approve of me making my own jump cut, especially if vomit was going to be shown, and I knew that the movie would still make perfect sense to me when I went back to it (and it did!) even if I'd missed a scene or two.

    I'm with you as to all your critical insights expressed above, but I'm also perfectly fine with Godard "objectifying color itself," as my first cinematic experience of the new sensibilities coming out of France, which I actually DID see in its own '60s time, was "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", with its super-saturated colors, and I've loved that film ever since. Great to see Godard daubing it on in "Pierrot le fou" too. -- R. Riegel

  3. I've seen this film many times and even if I'm able to hang on for a while I usually fall off somewhere by the end. Yet I keep coming back to it - there's something deeply fascinating in it even if I *like* other Godards more. I got to see it in New York earlier this year with Karina herself presenting it (she was vivacious as ever at 75, and a good deal more bubbly/cheerful than most of iconic screen performances).