Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pierrot le fou

When I brought up the musique concrète structuring of the soundtrack in A Woman is a Woman, my mind naturally wandered to the likes of Egar Varèse and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Yet the broadly playful nature of the construction reminded me less of Varèse than his chief disciple, Frank Zappa. Zappa and Godard aren't too distant from each other actually: both are symbols of '60s artistic innovation, both toe the line between a deep love for older conventions even as they smash them apart (after all, the cartoony nature of Woman's score isn't so different from Zappa's "doo-wop-ifcation" of Varèse) and both are two of the most readily identifiable iconoclasts of the 20th century.

If we continue to follow this logic -- a term I use so loosely you could bungee-jump with it -- we can line up certain releases from each artists, albeit without perfect chronology. Breathless, of course, corresponds with Freak Out!, a startling debut perhaps more noteworthy now for its impact than its lasting entertainment factor (though each is a great entry in its field). Band of Brothers, with its accessible grab-bag of Godard's invention, recalls Zappa's Hot Rats in its ability to draw in even casual observers without compromising anything. Pierrot le fou must then be Godard's We're Only in It for the Money, a vicious, off-the-wall blast of defiance that jumps down the throat of pop art and eats through its innards, tearing at organs and flesh until it at last bursts from the stomach like the xenomorph in Alien.

Les Carabiniers partially clued me into this, but Godard is at his best when he gives in to his wild abandon. As literate and formalist as he is -- and Pierrot le fou is one of his most literate and formal, despite its madness -- he's got too much of the romantic in him to play by the rules; when he compared directors to the arts (Eisenstein to dance, etc.) and declared, "the cinema is Nicholas Ray," he said more about himself than Ol' Nick. Pierre Schaeffer, who invented musique concrète, stressed the importance of jeu in composition. Translated literally, it means "play," and it connotes the same meanings as the English word, both in terms of playing an instrument and simply amusing oneself. With Pierrot, Godard fully embraces jeu as a method of writing -- though most reports claim that the director went in without a script and wrote as it happened -- and, as a result, he breaks free of the last vestiges of convention that held him.

That is why, when we see Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo, the nihilism he always hinted at now fully unleashed) at a party at the beginning of the film where he walks through shots of bourgeois guests speaking as if actors in an advertisement, all running through stiff promotions of invisible products, we need not concern ourselves with the political message. Yes, it's there, waiting for people to point out Godard's disdain for the commodification of the world, but what it really shows is his distaste for exposition and the scenes one typically needs to setup a story. Listen to Ferdinand interact with the great and irascible American director Sam Fuller, who describes the cinema: "Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word . . . emotion.” Ferdinand shrugs it off with a non-committal "eh," signifying that, as much as Godard loves Fuller, he has his own ideas, and he no longer feels the need to go along with his idols' vision as he fully trusts in his own.

We first see Belmondo in a medium long shot, sandwiched between cheap book stands outside a street vendor. We feel Ferdinand's dissatisfaction with life, and we sense Godard's as well, looking at the cheap commercialization of literature, reducing it to a means of passing time in the bathroom -- indeed, Ferdinand is reading in the bathtub in the next scene. The director places his films in the same league, his art simplified into a here today, gone tomorrow slice of French chic the way that Fellini's masterpieces were touted as a piece of Italian fashion. Ferdinand is clearly unhappy with his life, to the point that he leaves his wife and child for the babysitter, Marianne (Anna Karina), with whom he'd had a previous relationship.

Marianne serves as the catalyst for Ferdinand's rebirth, a violent, cathartic affair that doubles as Godard's kiss-off to whatever vestiges of convention and form still chained him. By 1965, Godard was not only still hung up on Algeria but concerned with the escalating situation in Vietnam, a cause abandoned by the French but picked up by the Americans without valid reason. The heat was rising in Paris, and Godard couldn't spend his time playing around in the sandbox of Hollywood genre pictures when far more important matters were right in front of him at all times.

Nevertheless, Pierrot le fou does, at times, play as a lovers-on-the-lam noir picture: after Ferdinand runs away with Marianne, he discovers that she's done something to anger Algerian gangsters, and their run from those sent to kill her turns into a crime spree. But the structure of Pierrot is something far more blatantly experimental: more so than in his previous genre pictures, Godard breaks up the narrative, not simply inserting shots of the characters pondering themselves and the world around them but editing together contrasting images, sounds and moods. At that party in the beginning, Ferdinand grows so tired of the conversation that he throws cake in a woman's face, and Godard smash-cuts to the image of a firework exploding.

Godard edits the picture as a collage of images across artistic media: Marianne's last name is Renoir, and Godard cuts to one of Renoir's paintings when we first hear her full name. Often, Godard shows us close-ups of other paintings, but he also cuts to images from cheap comic books. The director always understood that film can be either trash or high art, but here he crystallizes what he toyed with even in Breathless, that a film can actually be both at the same time. It features noir-esque voiceovers from its two leads, but they're played at the same time, interrupting and clashing with each other. Taking from Contempt's pop art aesthetic, Pierrot le fou's color scheme is based on primary colors, and the presence of secondary colors -- the pink dresses of Ferdinand's wife and, later, Marianne -- often signals disharmony. In a way, the film, with its nihilistic lovers plot, use of color tinting, postmodern structure and collage of styles and art, plays like a well-read version of Natural Born Killers.

With this paratactic setup, Godard crafts his most blatantly political film yet. As Ferdinand drives Marianne home at the start just before deciding to stay with her, she discusses the situation in Vietnam as a radio news bulletin announces the death tool of a failed Viet Cong strike and bemoans the fact that the dead enemies are reduced a simple number as a means of dehumanizing them. "They say '115 guerrillas,'" Marianne sighs, "and it doesn't mean a thing to us. Yet each one is a man, and we don't even know who he is." France had abandoned Indochina years earlier, but America had inexplicably taken up their cause for the vaguely defined need to curb communism. At one point, Marianne and Ferdinand run into a group of American sailors and decided to throw a play for them to get some money. "What kind of play?" asks Marianne. "Something they'll like," Ferdinand responds, and we then see the two acting out a racist farce, with Belmondo as a cocky Yank sailor (hilariously, he drawls out random words like "communist" and "New Yawk" and punctuates them with the odd "ya" like some old gangster) and Karina in yellowface yammering in a made-up Asian language. The Americans love it, and Godard cuts to a sign nearby, closing in on an "SS" in one of the words, emphasizing America's re-commitment to imperialism under the guise of protecting the world.

Godard also hasn't forgotten Algeria. The fact that the gangsters who come for Marianne and Ferdinand are Algerian and are incapacitated by the two French lovebirds shows the complicity of even the intellectual community in allowing the atrocities of the Algerian War to occur (there's even a waterboarding scene in the film, recalling Le Petit Soldat, Godard's first critique on the war). This is further complicated by the middle section of the film, following the couple's initial tear across France, in which Ferdinand seeks to settle down in the Riviera with Marianne and spends his days philosophizing. He does nothing with his intellect, choosing to hide away and prove his intelligence to himself while the world crumbles around him. Even Marianne grows tired of his self-absorption, eventually leaving him for another boyfriend.

Here the political and personal converge, and Pierrot unmistakably allows Godard to vent some of his anguish over the dissolution of his marriage to Karina. I deeply resent, however, the shockingly reductive assessment of the film by Richard Brody, whose article appears in the accompanying Criterion booklet, that "Pierrot le fou was an angry accusation against Anna Karina, and a self-pitying keen at how she destroyed him and his work." Brody's piece is often sharp and points out some terrific quotes from the artist about his thought process behind the film, but this summary is so lunk-headed, so regressive and so downright simplistic that it makes Godard out to be some sort of petulant teenager even when Brody later marks it as the "herald of even more radical rejections and reconstructions to come."

Yes, Karina's character lures Ferdinand into a life of crime. Yes, she breaks him out of his comfortable life in nature to bring him back to the corruption of modern civilization. But she rips him out of his denial to see the existence he leads. He's no less doomed at the end of the film, after he kills Marianne in a jealous rage and ties dynamite to his head in anguish and regret, than he was at the start, shuffling from party to party listening to the doldrums of "The Age of the Ass," as Ferdinand dubs their current, ad-dominated culture. And if anything in the film can be said to directly comment on the relationship between Godard and Karina, it must be the moment where Marianne voices her displeasure with Ferdinand: "You speak to me in words," she says, "and I look at you with feelings."

It would be foolish to separate Godard's personal connection to the story from the film, but the clearest objective here is clearly the desire to reconfigure his art toward politics, even in the aesthetics. The opening credits appear alphabetically, the letters of the film, leads and director appearing slowly as the As flash on the screen, then the Bs and so on. It's as if Godard is learning how to do this all over again, like a child learning the alphabet. When the entire title card appears, the names drop out, leaving only the film's title. Then, all the letter but the Os disappear, leaving behind what appears to be a rudimentary pair of eyes. One of the Os vanishes, leaving but that last letter, suddenly made to look like a return to zero. Like a Japanese swordsmith with steel, Godard constantly refines his films, folding over ideas and styles to refine them, occasionally breaking apart what he's made to further check for impurities. Japanese swords were the most durable and sharp of the medieval world, and Godard has at last combined and strengthened everything into the first film of his I would unreservedly call a masterpiece.

It is almost certainly counterproductive to Godard's hyper-literate writing to say this, but I didn't start to like him until I just sat back and let his films happen to me, instead of wracking my brain over references I don't even know anyway. Pierrot le fou, despite being the most aesthetically and thematically dense of his films to date, happens also to be his most playful and inviting. For all its nihilism, it carries an unabashed romanticism, with its frequent asides to nature and particularly the sparking ocean. The popular rumor concerning the film's production states that Godard had no script until they started shooting, but Karina insists that every scene was well-planned, even obsessive in its detail. With this film, both might be true. The film ends, after its chaotic self-destruction, with one final look out on the sea, as the disembodied voices of the two lovers speak one last time. "It's ours again," says Marianne. "What?" "Eternity." This is not the work of a jilted lover; it is a loving kiss-off to the genre filmmaking Godard had outgrown, one last sarcastic but wistful look at American and French pop culture (a love of American cars runs through the picture) as Godard moves into a new style of filmmaking, one that actually doesn't veer too far from Fuller's assessment of film. Where Fuller conveys his emotion through blunt, visceral speech, however, Godard uses Pierrot to communicate through images and sound. "Two or three years ago I felt that everything had been done, that there was nothing left to do today," Godard later said. "After Pierrot, I no longer feel this. Yes. One must film everything — talk about everything. Everything remains to be done."


  1. This is THE film that first hooked me on cinema! Great tribute here. I particularly love this sentence, "PIERROT LE FOU, despite being the most aesthetically and thematically dense of his films to date, happens also to be his most playful and inviting." I couldn't agree more. It remains my favorite Godard and one of my favorite films of all time. There's also a lyricism here for me that is almost unmatched by any other film or filmmaker.

  2. This is the first of the films you've written about that I've actually written up as well. It's a great film, though as I've mentioned there are other Godard films I like even more. This one is a fantastic synthesis of Godard's 60s oeuvre up to this point: it's a return to the widescreen color of Contempt after several years of working exclusively in B&W, it reprises the male/female dichotomy of Breathless, and it directly quotes from several earlier Godard films, most notably the famous "body parts" love declaration from Contempt and the "waterboarding" sequence you mention. So it's the film where Godard, at the midpoint of the 60s, looks back on what he's done so far and critiques it, recontextualizes it, and then looks forward to what's next. It's a transitional film in the truest sense, and a very self-conscious one.

  3. Late comment, but I only just now watched this movie and I just want to congratulate you on this painstaking effort to do justice to the film. Take my word for it: you have! Excellent work, Jake.

    Strange how Richard Brody tries to make a case that the film shows signs of Godard's marriage with Karina disintegrating. I certainly didn't take it that way.

    I have to admit that I'm slow on Godard. I've never craved his films, I guess is what I'm trying to say. The first Godard film I ever saw was Contempt, which I've never been a fan of; maybe that was a bad place to start. Alphaville was interesting, but I don't remember anything that happened in it. Then I saw Band of Outsiders, and found, at last, a film to enjoy. I like Pierrot le fou even more.

    Ironically, I still haven't seen his two most important films: Breathless and Weekend. No thanks to Blockbuster Online, they're both set to "Very Long Wait" status.

    Have you reviewed anything by Truffaut, Jake? I know it's tiresome to compare the two filmmakers, but I do honestly prefer Truffaut's films. Even though he wasn't as radical a filmmaker as Godard was/is, his films are actually more satisfying probably because of it.

  4. I've reviewed The 400 Blows, but it was a fairly early review and I might revisit it later. I've also seen Jules and Jim but I haven't discussed it yet. Back when all I'd seen from either was 400 Blows and Breathless, I was far more interested in Truffaut, but I think that Godard is now seriously pushing to make my top directors list