Sunday, November 20, 2011

Classic Throwback: Pierrot Le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

Pierrot Le Fou is considered to be a turning point in the career of Jean-Luc Godard, shooting him the direction of the highly cynical, outrageous and postmodern, especially in its parodic attitude towards American pop culture and genre conventions, which continued in films like Week End (1967). This is actually one of the few Godard films from the 60’s that his legendary cinematographer Raoul Coutard shot in Techniscope colour, and like Contempt, it is stunningly beautiful - especially in Criterion high-definition digital transfer.



Initially there is this brilliant energy to the film, but the film does slow down and become more philosophical in the latter half. Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Marianne Renoir (Ana Karina) go on the run together and find themselves in one ridiculous circumstance after another. Ferdinand is dissatisfied with his marriage and life in general, and following an insufferable Parisian party with shallow members of the bourgeoisie, he decides to leave it all behind him, hitting the road with his ex-lover, Marianne, who was their babysitter for the night.

Having walked into Marianne’s apartment to find a deceased corpse, Ferdinand (who is given the unwelcomed nickname Pierrot) discovers that ruthless gangsters are after Marianne. When they turn up, the pair barely escapes, and though Ferdinand has a female partner and a gun (all you need to make a film), they also utilize the dead man’s car. Without remorse they burn this car (and a bag of money in the back seat) and steal another, but not before taking down a trio of gas station attendants who try to stop them.


They make for a secluded island in the French Riviera to simply ‘exist’ together. But they experience growing pains as a couple when they find that their pursuers have caught up with them. As two of Godard’s most watchable and likeable actors - Belmondo appears in Breathless, while Karina was rarely absent throughout Godard’s new wave films - they each possess individual energy and supreme acting chemistry, and give this an animated boost entirely on their own.

They are somewhat cartoonish in action. Belmondo climbs trees, reads from novels aloud, scribbles in his notebook and on several occasions has a large bird perched on his shoulder. Karina can’t keep still either. She has this hyperactive energy and is very often the instigator, but grows tired of their living situation and desires a return to town. While Karina has been incredibly sexy in each of the films I have watched in this Godard series, I don’t think any of her roles top Marianne for sexiness. The fact that the story is unpredictable (and contains blood) further enhances the experience.


Like Contempt this is another of Godard’s films where he subtly attacks Hollywood cinema while simultaneously working in a consumerist satire. He draws influence from low-culture and genres like slapstick and violent pulp crime thrillers. While I’m sure there were a plethora of references to 50’s and 60’s Hollywood cinema, most of them were lost on me. The film is a confounding and befuddling one to say the least. In response to a question about Samuel Fuller’s involvement in the film – he plays an American director at the party who explains cinema to Ferdinand, stipulating ‘emotion’ – Godard declares that “the comparison between film and a commando operation is from every point of view – financial, economic, artistic – a perfect image, a perfect symbol for film in it’s totality.’

The island’s natural beauty, the colours in Karina’s clothing (the red dress and blue pants in particular) and the intermittent blood spillage – there is plenty of ‘red’ in Pierrot Le Fou – pop from the screen. There is an early scene that features splashes of colour on the windscreen of the car they are travelling in. Greens, yellows and reds shoot across the character’s faces and works in conjunction to the coloured filters used at the party a couple of scenes before. Rather than being immersed in this consumerist life, it now only exists as brief flashes, indicative of what they are leaving behind.



Once again, and I don’t know how he does this, but each of the scenes just seem to happen as a result of chance or fate. There seems to be no order or organization, and Godard in interviews regarding the film, has described it as a completely spontaneous film (including the scoring, which was mixed without preparation). The actors move, do something odd and inexplicable, but are captured beautifully by the camera that always seems to have been tipped off, moving at the precise moment to get in frame a figure emerging from another room or a vehicle that has driven off screen, only to return.

It is a great example of Godard’s ‘cinema as happening’. Much like when Pierrot drives his car into the water, the entire film is comprised of spontaneous tangents, almost as if the events play out without a sense of order. I don’t know how to describe Godard’s skill, but it’s as if real events are being documented in an ultra-stylish way. Throughout the first half of Pierrot Le Fou I was convinced it was going to be my favourite Godard film, but as events transpired, my interest was tested, and a lot of the cultural references were lost on me. Still, this is a fantastically odd film and without doubt is one of the most radical of Godard’s career up to this point.

9 comments:

  1. Great review, loved the way you ended it. I agree about the first half being super exciting, and then all the philosophical stuff comes in the island. I mean they are great to take screenshots of and use for random references, but in a film, it does get a bit distracting.
    I think you know I am going to say this, but *heart* Belmondo. And Karina is very sexy in this, though I absolutely adored her in A Woman is a Woman.

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  2. I haven't seen this one... well, parts of it I have, but it's definitely one I plan to check out soon.

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  3. @ Nikhat - Belmondo is pretty cool - and yes I know of your infatuation with him :-p I watched this a while back at university and found it enjoyable but really odd. Even though I had worked through a bunch of Godard before watching it this time, it was still a challenge to absorb and interpret. I do enjoy the first half more -but I think the conclusion is a riot. It's beautifully shot, full of random occurrences and I think it is Godard's definitive 'girl and a gun ' film.

    @ Tyler - You should give it a go. Essential Godard - Karina and Belmondo return.

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  4. This one took me a couple of viewings to "get", too, mostly because of the ending. And because the first time I saw it was at a museum screening, and everyone in the audience was determined not to react to anything on screen. Ugh. But now it's one of my favorites of his filmography, especially because, as you say, it's kind of the quintessential Godardian film. In fact, if you count back the amount of time since Ferdinand and Marianne last saw each other (I forget the exact amount, they mention it near the beginning), it's basically the same as the amount of time between Breathless and Pierrot le fou, suggesting that in some way, Ferdinand and Marianne are meant as mirrors and continuations of Michel and Patricia.

    The second half is slower and less madcap, but the two balance each other out. The first half is Marianne's - she likes the action, the exciting stuff. Ferdinand likes the quieter, more thoughtful life. They're really not that well-matched, and even though each puts up with the other's preferences for a bit, he gets frustrated with her always needing things to happen (especially the dangerous things that eventually catch up with them in the end) and she gets bored with his peaceful idylls. It's simultaneously a great romance and a great anti-romance, which is one of the things I like so much. Really, Godard almost should've stopped making movies after this one. It would've been a fitting conclusion. (I'm glad he didn't; I like several of the ones after, but just in terms of thematic completeness, this one's it - the end of romanticism, the end of modernism, the end of cinema.)

    It's also one of the best examples of Godard's intentional subversion of narrative. In most movies, the story would be gun-running and whatever trouble Karina has gotten herself into and how they get out of it. But here, you almost have to dig to find that story at all. It's even more obscured than the crime story in Band of Outsiders. Are you watching Made in USA as part of your marathon? It's like Pierrot le fou on steroids - not nearly as well formed, but a lot of similar ideas pushed to even more incomprehensible extremes.

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  5. Wow, that was longer than I thought it was gonna be. I guess I really like this movie. :)

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  6. @ Jandy - Thank you for taking the time to write such a lengthy and detailed response. I can see that you enjoy the film. It is 5 1/2 years (I think) since Marianne and Ferdinand saw one another, which is about the same time between Breathless and Pierrot Le Fou (and it is something like Godard's tenth or eleventh feature - crazy) so I think the idea that they are mirrors is very acceptable.

    I also see what you mean about the first half being Marianne's and the latter half Ferdinand's. I think it is an evident trend in Godard's films - characters bond and declare their love for one another, but often find themselves bored or irritated, and question their differences. But they always seem to fill a void in one another. Perhaps Godard is saying that no couple is perfect, but if they believe they truly love one another (as Marianne and Ferdinand do here, I think) then they still make it work.

    I wasn't going to watch Made in USA - going to finish with Masculine Feminine, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Week End - but perhaps I'll give it a look too. It sounds zany.

    Thanks for the comment (s) Jandy. I really enjoy your feedback.

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  7. I think Made in USA is a ton of fun - Karina's character at one point describes the film she's in as "film by Walt Disney, but played by Humphrey Bogart--therefore a political film." The story makes very little sense, but the visuals and wordplay are fun. It's like Godard takes ideas from earlier films and just lets them go ahead and burst the film apart at the seams, not even trying to hold to any conventional narrative.

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  8. It does sound fun. Thanks for the recommendation. I'll try and find it :-)

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