Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

According to IMDB, Jean-Luc Godard once said that “Pierrot le fou,” his tenth feature, is “not really a film, it’s an attempt at cinema. Life is the subject, with [Cinema]Scope and color as its attributes…In short, life filling the screen as a tap fills bathtub that is simultaneously emptying at the same rate.”  Now, that’s probably one of the most pretentious things I’ve ever heard, particularly from a filmmaker about his own damn film, and there are certain elements of “Pierrot le fou” that seemed just as pretentious to me.  Quasi-philosophical ramblings from our two protagonists / fugitives / drifters, images and colors beyond random to the point of utter absurdity…things of that nature that defy conventions so severely that I wanted to rip my hair out.  Pretentious it was, but it also happened to be a well-made movie.  A very well-made movie, actually.  The style of Mr. French New Wave himself, Jean-Luc Godard, is damn interesting and undeniably unique, to the point that I could almost forgive the pretentiousness of that hackneyed, wordy philosophy nonsense.  Almost 😛 .

Admittedly, my only exposure to Godard before this was his first feature, “Breathless.”  I have to admit, just like everybody else, that that film was incredibly influential for defying conventions like no film before it had and introduced the world to the idea of the jump cut.  But, that’s about all I got out of it.  The handsomely ugly or hideously handsome Jean-Paul Belmondo’s wannabe crook was a character so irritating that I couldn’t find a single redeeming quality in, and as far as I was concerned the centerpiece of it all was he and Jean Seberg talking about random crap in bed while the jump cuts were there to distract you.  It was an important film from a technical standpoint for trying something new that’s commonplace today (which is good and bad), but to me was an incredibly flawed experiment and little more.

Five years later, though, Godard took those same techniques that essentially kicked off the French New Wave and in “Pierrot le fou” made something that was at least, you know, intriguing.  As far as I know, jump cuts were few and far between, and yes, extravagant colors and shots and cuts were there for style’s sake, but this time around they were used by a filmmaker more sure of himself, who knew how to focus on characters, letting them command the screen rather than letting the style command them (well, at least for the most part 😉 ). 

This is, after all, the story of an ordinary, middle-class man (Belmondo), extremely bored with his life, who runs off with a former flame (Anna Karina) with hit-men on their trail for some relatively unknown reason.  I shouldn’t say that the movie involves their “adventures” on the run, because they simply…live.  Or rather, they drift from place to place, basically as homeless bums making random observations about themselves and the world around them.  So naturally, some of the dialogue at least has to involve some kind of philosophy, some kind of message about the human condition.  But to this extent?  Honestly, some of the ramblings between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, written by Godard, were so lofty, so quasi-philosophical, that it drove me mad.  Twenty minutes in I had more than enough of the big words like despair, bitterness, freedom, and eternity.  I had enough of pretentious phrases like “we are made of dreams, and dreams are made of us,” and this honey of an exchange during one of our protagonists’ many scenes of just sitting around on some beach or another, doing nothing:

“Why do you look so sad?”
“Because you talk to me with words, and I look at you with feelings.”

Give me a break.  Watching this, I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s first feature, “Badlands,” made eight years later with the similar premise of a couple on the run, constructing a makeshift lifestyle for themselves after a heinous crime.  That film was so wonderful because Malick kept it simple: you had the feeling that that couple didn’t feel comfortable simply drifting or living in nature, but did it out of necessity or desperation.  More importantly, young Sissy Spacek’s narration was deceptively simple, like something you’d actually expect a teenager to write in a diary, to the point that simplicity became philosophical profundity.  In “Pierrot le fou,” though, Godard’s certainly trying to be profound, but simplicity is nowhere to be found, so I roll my eyes.  Perpetually skeptical grump that I am, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that a couple of normal, middle-class people on the run could be that well-spoken, know that many literary quotes concerning the meaning of life, and be that attractive to boot.  Must be a French thing 😛 .  A movie like “Badlands” steeped itself in stylized realism and drew its philosophies out of that realism.  “Pierrot le fou” is just…stylized, period (quite surprising considering the first scene at that party gives a wonderful depiction of consumerist, middle-class life and how it so justifiably bores Belmondo’s Ferdinand).  Godard tries to draw the movie’s philosophies and meanings from realms beyond the real, from things and words overly-stylized so that he wants to rub it in your face.  It got to the point that I felt like Godard was trying to convince us how important a film this was in its bizarreness and a perceived profundity in supposedly profound sights, sounds, and words that to me were almost as empty as Ferdinand and Marianne. 

And yet, you get the sense that it couldn’t go down any other way.  You can’t always have the “Badlands” approach to depicting a couple on the run, so I guess this isn’t necessarily a failure, just…differrent.  I might not have necessarily liked much of Godard’s storytelling choices, but in that weird New Wave kind of way, it fits with the story he’s telling.  One of my favorite scenes might be that first scene at the party, where guests aren’t people but hollow shells, speaking as if they’re in commercials advertising various products.  As if we’re seeing things from Ferdinand’s point of view, the color variously changes from startling blue to red to green, and intermittently we see women suddenly naked.  It confused me, so I wondered whether we were seeing things purely from Ferdinand’s bored mind.  It was incredibly random and unexpected and ripe for interpretation, and for that it was brilliant. 

And speaking of being incredibly random, it’s the movie’s randomness that I think is its biggest strength.  After running off with Marianne, Ferdinand sits in bed in a filthy apartment as she breaks into song, with a bloody body inexplicably laing in the next room.  Later, they’ll both break into rousing song while strolling through the forest, and at times each will turn and directly address the audience with some philosophical musing or that.  And a sudden performance of “Uncle Sam’s Nephew Versus Uncle Ho’s Niece”, featuring Marianne in yellowface and Ferdinand’s gangster/military get-up and constant faux-American “YEAH!”’s and “COMMUNIST!”‘s speaks for itself.  This is a movie that features just a jumble of random crap that Godard seemingly threw into a blender and splayed on the screen for us.  Some of it is infuriating, some of it is fascinating.  But you know what?  It’s interesting.  It’s so random that it works in its bizarre little way.  Even the things that I didn’t like and would find unforgivable in just about any other movie, namely the “profound” dialogue that’s ultimately empty, fits.  It fits because Ferdinand and Marianne’s lives are empty.  They are disillusioned with their world and try to make meaning out of it by existing on its outskirts and communicating the only way they know how.  There’s something unusually endearing about these two, even as they knock off a gas station, stage a car accident to make a getaway, and drag themselves through knee-deep water without a care in the world.  The recurring in-joke of Marianne calling Ferdinand ‘Pierrot’ and him saying “my name is Ferdinand” each and every time does get repetitive, but like every other aspect of their lives, it’s just who they are, it’ll never change, so we come to accept it and laugh at it.  Things like the singing and the speaking to the audience and drifting from place to place talking about utter nonsense are utterly random and mean absolutely nothing, but ultimately work in a strange kind of way because this is a movie about emptiness, and just trying to put an interesting and random wrench into that emptiness, even if that wrench is so random that it is itself “empty.” 

Boy, what a strange film for me to consider in terms of being “good” or “bad.”  Many of Godard’s choices I had major problems with, and some I really liked.  Even the problem elements (namely quotes like “And that mystery, forever unsolved, is life” that these people have no business knowing off-hand and just makes any embedded message painfully obvious) are incorporated in such a way as to at least make them work in this bizarre/not-bizarre world Godard’s created.  If the movie’s not about “emptiness,” then certainly at least “randomness.”  It’s a world filled with the utterly boring banalities that we’re all too used too, with things thrown into it that are bizarre beyond comprehension, and yet seem to fit right in.  How natural, then, that when our protagonists do finally run into the hitmen who are after them, the first one we meet is a torture-obsessed, sadistic midget.



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