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Pierrot le Fou
Ferdinand meets Sam Fuller

Pierrot le Fou

1965. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. With Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina.

Someone wrote in this week and asked why the List hasn't had anything to say about Godard, clearly a big gun in cinema about cinema. The answer: cowardice, madam, pure cowardice.

But I've taken a deep breath and returned to a long-time favorite of mine, Pierrot le Fou.

Maybe we could think of Pierrot as an essay masquerading as an adventure. A Parisian bourgeois runs away with the baby sitter, who is involved with Algerian gun-runners and is at least indirectly responsible for a couple of murders. Leaving a trail of vandalism and petty crime, they flee to the Riviera. For a while they live a beachcomber existence, and then the old gunrunning crowd turns up and things end in violence.

The story sounds exciting and romantic, but it's not. Godard has collected several sure-fire Hollywood plot elements—young lovers on the lam, mysterious femme fatale ensnaring a middle-class guy, lovers' paradise achieved and lost--and drained all the drama from them. They stand revealed for the schematic things they are. Neither Ferdinand nor Marianne is a plausible or sympathetic character. There is no hint of sexual attraction between them. The plot developments are arbitrary, often diffidently-explained. Digressions constantly interrupt the narrative momentum. Pierrot le Fou is full of blood, corpses, explosions and car crashes, but adrenalin levels never rise. We're invited to examine what happens, but prevented from becoming involved.

Both Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo are great-looking and engaging, but neither gives a "performance" in the familiar sense. They pose, declaim, recite, conscientiously move through some uninspired choreography, do little self-contained turns (such as Belmondo's party-trick impression of Michel Simon) and seem always to have one eye on the director just out of camera range. They present themselves in a sort of Brechtian sense rather than embodying or interpreting characters.

I don't know if this is what "deconstruction" generally means, but here we've got the two most obvious aspects of commercial movie-making--story and stars--pretty thoughly taken apart.

In their place, Godard substitutes another kind of movie experience, one where "cinema" does not subordinate itself to the material but constantly intrudes. In fact, it is the material. Instead of the invisible editing that Hollywood developed to give the impression of real life unrolling before our eyes, Godard uses jump cuts, mismatched and dislocating, that remind us that we are watching something constructed. Similarly, the music on the sound track starts and stops abruptly, not underscoring the emotions of the plot but living a kind of independent existence. Karina and Belmondo, as we have seen, don't try very hard to convince us that they are really living this adventure. And even Marianne and Ferdinand, the characters they represent, seem to know that they are in a movie.

They often confide to the camera. Marianne even tells Ferdinand once, when he asks who she'talking to: "The audience." As part of a ludicrous gas station robbery, Marianne tries a "Laurel and Hardy gag" (she points skyward, and when the guy looks up she punches him in the stomach and knocks him out!). There are shots of people holding guns right out toward the camera, both in tribute to The Great Train Robbery and a reminder of the distorting power of the lens. And there's that famous scene at the cocktail party where director Sam Fuller ("I'm here in Paris to make a movie called Flowers of Evil") explains to Ferdinand what cinema is: "Love...hate...action...violence...death. In one word: Emotions."

This encounter happens early in the film. You could say that, inspired by Fuller's little disquisition, the bourgeois Ferdinand imagines himself a movie full of love, hate, action, etc. But being a constipated, self-conscious French intellectual, his movie doesn't quite take off. Ferdinand turns out to be more interested in the mechanism for telling the story than in the story itself. To Godard, that is the story of our time.

Well, I have 12 more pages of notes about Pierrot le Fou (I seem to have copied down about half the screenplay; it all sounds so profound: "Centuries flow by like storm clouds..."). I hope I haven't made it sound arid or boring; it's an amazing film, and even a romantic one (though the romance is not the apparent one between Ferdinand and Marianne). It still looks fresh, and much of it is funny. I'd love to hear from other people about it, or about other Godard films.

Helas! I can't resist a small stab at analysis here. Pierrot le Fou looks at fragmentation--of perception, motivation, experience. Godard makes his movie a collage of the artifacts of modern commercial culture—paintings, billboards, advertisements, written words, individual letters fill the screen. His characters spout slogans and quotations. And he never lets us forget that the very experience we are having—watching a film—is itself an exercise in trying to create something logical and coherent from what is just disjoint images, after all.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein