Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)


Jean-Paul Belmondo (Ferdinand / Pierrot), Anna Karina (Marianne). Screenplay by Jean-Luc Godard. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Rating: 15. Running time: 110 minutes.

A completely anarchic, impenetrable bugger of a film, Pierrot le Fou is bound to leave you as alienated and enraged as cinema can. It’s Godard at his most elusive. He’s made a film here that is plotless, injected with poetry and literature for no reason other than because he likes the words, occasionally exhibiting a musical sequence again for the pure joy of it, and generally stringing scenes together so confusing and seemingly purposeless as to drive us as senile as his two muses here appear to have gone.

And yet, for all its anger-inducing qualities, for all the reservations it immediately provokes about meaningless, pretentious art-house cinema that professional critics pretend to understand when really they clearly get it about as much as we probably do (not at all); despite Pierrot fulfilling every stereotype there could possibly be about such crazy cinema, which even forced me to upon this particular viewing to give up with half an hour still left to run; despite all of this, there is something so evidently bloody amazing about it that I refuse to bring myself to outright condemnation.

I have exaggerated the extent to which it is inexplicable; there is something to be gathered here, and that’s a general existentialist aura (again, ostentatious I know; please bear with me) that’s more beautifully manifested that you could possibly imagine. Seriously, screw Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. You’ll gather more about the philosophy (and a lot quicker) by pulling yourself through this.

To beef up this currently bullshit-sounding claim: the (very basic) jist and structure of what’s going on here is that Pierrot is bored of bourgeois Parisian life, summarised in one quick scene at a high-class party where everyone is so rigidly dull and robotic that they don’t talk to eachother, but instead all face the camera, sitting smoking and drinking and only churning out crap about their favourite cars, deodorants or hair pieces like they’re in TV ads. Contrast this dire consumerism with Pierrot’s earlier lying in the bath reciting French literature, and you soon understand why he walks around smoking and desperate to get home. Godard himself is so bored he shoots the scene in total red and gets one actress to sit topless (I presume that’s the reason, anyway. I’m never quite sure with Godard…)

Alienated with life as much as we are with the film already, then, Pierrot leaves, returns home to the babysitter (Anna Karina) and offers to drive her home. Same formula again – wild colour just for the sake of it. Godard spices up a standard car-bonnet shot of his two actors driving along by having street light reflections sequentially come swirling across the windscreen. The conversation now is suddenly cryptically compelling too – when an announcement of the number dead that week in Vietnam is made on the radio, Karina’s character remarks on how reductionist it is to give a figure so casually when a moment’s reflection reminds one how there’s a story and life behind every one of them. The film isn’t about politics; it just has aphoristic droplets like this scattered throughout it.

But back to existentialism: the adulterous couple opt for chaos. After the most delightful of scenes in Marianne’s white-walled apartment in which she skips around singing (casually past a dead man’s body – she killed a gangster; we’re not told this really. Just quickly shown it), they leave Paris by car, fight Laurel and Hardy style at a petrol station on their way out of town and then burn their vehicle to hide their roots, setting off by foot across the countryside before later picking up a glorious convertible.

I cannot bring myself to watch these scenes whilst trying to think about their purpose in any ordinary way. I know Godard would just sneer at me for thinking he’s trying to do anything that allows conventional analysis. Whatever. None of this changes the fact that however much I want to hate him, the images here are so damn stunning, the music so apt and some sequences so joyous and lines so thoughtful, that the product might be neither be cohesive nor modest, but the resulting mess is so pretentiously wonderful that I can’t help but kick myself for loving it.

There is something amazing about the sight of a man in a suit setting off across fields with a girl in hand, no possessions or money being taken with him. These guys make Up In The Air‘s Ryan Bingham look like the phoniest jerk alive. They could teach him a lesson or two in free-living. The best scene completely capturing this is them driving down the coastline of the French Riviera, the sun high in the sky and sparkling on the sea’s ripples. Pierrot remarks on how beautiful life is regardless of its sadness; he says he suddenly feels free and can do whatever he wants when he wants. Marianne observes the man driving in-front of them sticking devoutly to the road markings despite all the space surrounding him. Pierrot veers off left accordingly and into the sea, leaving them once again carless and even freer…

Most of the film from here descends into beach-living, the couple with nothing but the sun, sea, sand and eachother, Marianne heading into civilisation to steal the odd novel occasionally and Pierrot taking his time writing whatever he wants. From here so much of the film descends into listening to him reciting poetry, you soon understand what I meant about impenetrability and alienation.

I don’t get the point of certain lines being repeated over and over again; I don’t get the meaning of a lot of the literature forced upon us throughout; Christ, I get hardly anything about the whole film. Anybody claiming to do so is a barefaced liar.

It really is quite outrageous how any human mind could conjure up something this boldly ambitious but also utterly balmy. Godard is as polemical and value-defying as Nietzsche himself, with a similar devout adoration of pure aesthetic. I’m almost slipping into bullshit-critic mode here; please don’t forget how frustrating I said (and still insist) this film is. But then just look at that still above, and watch this clip, and then try and tell me how the hell I’m supposed to resent it?

2 Responses to “Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)”

  1. 1 brian

    good review, one of my favorites for all the reasons you listed

  1. 1 Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) « jacob williamson | thoughts on film

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