Confounding categorical critical responses, Jean-Luc Godard’s tragicomic Pierrot le fou gathers strength from what appears to be its weaknesses. One can be stern, if one wishes, and pronounce the film shallow, too given to providing lighthearted entertainment, and at points incoherent, but, as it happens, its poignancy—and indeed this is among Godard’s most poignant films—accumulates precisely from its lightness, thinness, restlessness and offhand manner. The most tender and most troubled of love stories, Pierrot le fou shimmers with the beauty of love’s and life’s volatility and transience.
I’m not going to synopsize the scattered, often incomprehensible plot, presumably derived from the novel Obsession by Lionel White, the American author of Clean Break, on which Stanley Kubrick based The Killing (1956). However, its mainspring is the lead character Ferdinand Griffon’s abandonment of wife, children, job and so forth—in sum, his bourgeois lifestyle—in order to take off with his children’s young babysitter, Marianne Renoir. Early on, Ferdinand and his unnamed wife (how cruel Godard can be!) attend a party so that his father-in-law can introduce him to the right people at Standard Oil, now that he has quit his job as a television executive. Ferdinand passes through a series of monochromatic tableaux, each with a different group of guests engaged in discussion. In each case, the “discussion” consists of dialogue from TV commercials or related comments about commercial products (“My hair has kept its shape all day, thanks to Aquanet”). Ferdinand walks through the very funny scenes without noting a word that’s said, but the artificiality of these party moments, and the whole sense of commercial vampirism it implies wherein people’s personalities have been taken over by the bourgeois consumerism of capitalistic society, help motivate Ferdinand’s taking flight. What we “see” here—the use of monochrome is a distancing device that nudges us to consider the satirical import rather than simply be amused by the comical parodies—surely, though, represents Godard’s understanding of bourgeois limitations more than it does Ferdinand’s, whose discontent is vague and nagging, and who isn’t thinking about what’s going on around him at the moment. That’s why Godard shows Ferdinand deep in his own thoughts while merely, almost like a sleepwalker, passing through these scenes. What is Ferdinand thinking about then? He is thinking about the girl, of course! He is thinking about Marianne, whom he pretended to be meeting for the first time when his wife, whom he married for her money, introduced them earlier but with whom, five years earlier, he had had a brief affair of the heart. Ferdinand is in love—madly (hence le fou in the title) and utterly. His isn’t, then, a purely reactive action. Returning home early without his wife, he sets out with Marianne in order to follow his heart.
The context of this deliciously sudden romance certainly contains the element of Ferdinand’s dissatisfaction with his lifestyle and life. He will abandon these for an unsettled life, one on the run in fact, explained generally by Marianne’s capricious nature and, more specifically, by the fact that they have stolen money from gunrunners whom they are attempting to elude, one of (I guess) whose members, Marianne’s brother, if only they can find him, can set the matter right. (Marianne has also apparently committed a murder.) Two commentaries crisscross for Ferdinand to discover or, more to the point, will or invent his love for Marianne, one prior to the party and another during it. From his bathtub, that is, the centerpiece of the vortex of bourgeois living, the bathroom, Ferdinand discloses a hidden life, an interest in art that the lifestyle he has (it appears) largely married into stifles. More specifically, he is reading aloud, to himself and his little daughter, from a book about Diego Rodríguez de Silva Velázquez. The immediate subject is a radical shift in the seventeenth-century Spanish painter’s life and art: “After he reached the age of fifty, Velázquez no longer painted anything concrete and definite. He hovered around objects with the air, with twilight, catching unawares in his shadows and airy backgrounds the palpitations of color, which formed the invisible core of his symphony of silence.” This strikes a responsive chord in Ferdinand, whose own “drifting” from one tableau of guests to another visually connects the Velázquez account with his own life and predicament. Ferdinand isn’t fifty years old—he is in his early thirties; but dissatisfaction makes him feel fifty. He, too, may be due for a change for which quitting his job has paved the way, and he seizes upon Marianne as an occasion for this change.
The “commentary” at the party that crystallizes Marianne as this opportunity, this agency for change, comes from an auspicious guest. In full color, interrupting the monochromatic tableaux, Ferdinand pauses by a silent guest who appears all alone. This is Samuel Fuller, the American maverick filmmaker, from whom (through an interpreter) Ferdinand coaxes the definition of cinema: “Like a battleground. It has love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word, emotions.” This is what Ferdinand, who didn’t marry for love, feels is missing from his life: emotions. This is what Marianne represents that makes him all of a sudden fall in love with her and suit his destiny to hers.
That said, one must also note the connection between Marianne and cinema that the indirect mediation of Fuller implies. Indeed, Marianne’s surname, Renoir, identifies her with painting as well as cinema (several paintings are glimpsed as inserts throughout the film, a few of them by Pierre-Auguste Renoir), thus enjoining the influences—Velázquez and Fuller—decisive for Ferdinand’s clean break with the rut he finds himself in. Recalling both the French painter Renoir and his son, filmmaker Jean Renoir, Marianne embodies the heartfelt spontaneity of artistic creation. She acts and lives, in effect, according to her own “voice,” not one culturally imposed by consumerist bourgeois society. Now and then she breaks into song. For too-settled Ferdinand, she is the sheer unpredictability of art. She may come at a price (eventually, to save herself she betrays Ferdinand), but the price may be worth it. In this, she is like life itself, which also comes at a mortal price.
But these two tenderest of lovers on the run, sleeping in the wilds in complementary fetal positions as though possessing a single body and soul, remain separate and distinct. Certainly Ferdinand seeks some sort of integration or “unification” through this new muse of his. Earlier, before setting out with her, Ferdinand had expressed his bone-deep dissatisfaction thusly: “A person ought to feel unified. I feel divided up.” In truth, however, their life apart from society, in hotel rooms and out in the woods, or by the shore, becomes their extended occasion for reasserting their differences. Contemplative Ferdinand loves to read books and spends all the money they here and there make buying books (when they burn their car, the stolen money goes up in smoke); but active, in-the-moment Marianne confesses to us, “I don’t give a damn about books . . . I just want to live.” “We never understand one another,” she tells Ferdinand; “You talk to me with words, and I look at you with feelings.” It’s our different natures (distributed here rather stereotypically), then, that keep us apart, and it’s each individual’s incomplete nature that creates the need for some “other” to lovingly complete it. The truth is, we are perpetually ambivalent, torn between egoistic self-love (which we may rationalize as an inner core of being) and loving someone else in order to “complete” ourselves and our partner. Pierrot le fou is the kind of film that can make one squirm a little with shocks of recognition.
The continuing separateness of the lovers on their southward journey from Paris, though, occasions most of all sadness. Marianne is in love with Ferdinand no less than he is in love with her, but, early on, Marianne confesses to him her worry that “[t]his love of ours will be short and sweet.” Marianne in fact sings this; it’s the conclusion of one of her “light,” spontaneous songs, and given the convention—love songs usually imagine the perpetuation, not the end, of love—the musical rendering only adds to the prophecy’s poignancy. This prophecy in effect objectifies the couple’s mutual awareness of the likely doomed nature of their romance. It is to contest bravely this awareness that at one point Marianne tells Ferdinand, “Of course I’ll never leave you”; immediately after, however, she turns to the camera and gives an ambiguous look as if to say, “Of course I will leave him.” Godard immediately repeats both the declaration and the ambiguous look, compounding the poignancy of the discrepancy between self-awareness and the language of the heart. Like Robert Browning (whose name at one point Marianne invokes), Godard is a great poet on the subject of (what he perceives to be) the inevitable end of love.
Several times, as here, Godard repeats a bit of action as soon as it’s finished. Good or bad, the moment goes, and the repetition underscores “the going,” the transience of life with which the transience of love resonates. Throughout, images of transience or evanescence abound: scenes of twilight, for instance, or a closeup of their bare feet as Ferdinand and Marianne briskly walk across wet sand, leaving footprints that soon enough will vanish from any possible sight. Although Marianne may hate books, she is a natural poet, and Godard gives her many heartcatchingly beautiful lines to speak as voiceover accompaniment to her journal—utterances in the direction of these themes of transience and evanescence: “We crossed France like shadows, as if through a mirror”; “Countless centuries fled into the distance, like so many storms.” Once Ferdinand has shot Marianne dead and committed suicide (the film ends wittily but not happily), moreover, these two characters whom we have grown to cherish evaporate into disembodied voices heard against a vast and implacable sky. This moment, the conclusion and culmination of the film, ironically (and powerfully) posits the lovers’ eternal separateness. Conventionally, eternity should have at last erased their differences and united them; but Godard’s fatalism on the score of romance extends even beyond the grave. For him, eternity has no power beyond perpetuating what already was.
Godard marshals many techniques to evoke a sense of the lovers’ separateness. One is the use of silence, which is bound up in Velázquez’s “symphony of silence.” Many times Godard’s soundtrack disappears and we hear nothing, the nothing that is. This is correlative to the invisible mysteries intervening between individuals and dividing them. Also, once they take to their island “paradise,” the characters’ isolation—their separation from the mainland—ironically reflects on their separateness “together.” Moreover, Godard’s script—if “script” it can be called, given that Godard composed it on the run in pursuit of Ferdinand and Marianne in flight from the gunrunners and the police—posits the different worlds that his two main characters occupy in a quite astonishing series of references to two different countries, France and Italy. Anna Karina, Godard’s wife at the time, plays Marianne. She speaks (and sings) French with an accent—in her case, a Danish accent. She is Copenhagen come to Paris. But another country than Denmark plays in the complex of associations Karina brings to the film. Karina was to be the star of Godard’s first feature film, A bout de souffle (1959), but she turned down the role that the American actress Jean Seberg (brilliantly) came to play. One of the refrains of the character Karina might have played—she subsequently starred in Godard’s Le petit soldat (1960), Une femme est une femme (1961), Vivre sa vie (1962), Band of Outsiders (1964) and Alphaville (1965)—is her desire to go to Italy. Indeed, the France-Italy connection is at the heart of Pierrot le fou. The fugitive couple is headed for Italy. Velázquez lived in Madrid his whole adult life except for his two visits to Italy. Browning, the Victorian poet Marianne mentions, exchanged England for Italy, which more greatly inspired him. Ferdinand’s wife is Italian-born. Marianne, to his annoyance, continually addresses Ferdinand as “Pierrot,” the sadsack French clown derived in fact from Pedrolino, a character in Italy’s popular seventeenth-century theater company, Commedia dell’Arte. (Heart-piercing: Marianne’s calling Ferdinand this is intended to warn him that she is his Pierrette—someone incapable of ultimately reciprocating his love.) Finally, gloriously, the actor who (superbly) plays Ferdinand, providing (among other things) bemused reactions to Marianne’s spirited singing and mugging, is Jean-Paul Belmondo, the young French actor par excellence—at one point his wonderful impersonation of Michel Simon drives the point home—whose surname, however, reveals Italian ancestry. (Simon starred in such 1930s French films as Renoir’s La chienne and Boudu Saved from Drowning, Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, and Marcel Carné’s Drôle de drame and Quai des brûmes.) I can’t resist adding this: At the end, after Ferdinand, in a self-targeting guerrilla act, has blown himself up with explosives, his disembodied voice, along with Marianne’s (he has already shot her to death), may be coming from Italy, the country that world poetry has most often identified with eternity. Certainly the blue with which he paints his face before committing cinema’s funniest suicide—poor Ferdinand tries too late to undo his fatal course by defusing the dynamite wrapped around his head!—is a bittersweet comic reminder of Pierrot’s white-powdered face. The comic genius of Godard’s associative mind, often played out in verbal and visual puns, amazes.
The French-Italian connection to which all these references tend, then, is as much a “disconnection” as a connection. In the film, France is as drawn to Italy as Ferdinand is drawn to Marianne, in both cases precisely to posit the gap between them that even love cannot bridge. Indeed, it is love that exposes, one might say creates, the gap. But there may be more, besides, to the film’s persistent France-Italy connection. Two of the prolific Godard’s most recent films back then were in effect French-Italian: based on the play I carabinieri by Benjamino Joppolo, Les carabinièrs (1963), to whose script Roberto Rossellini, no less, contributed, and Le mépris (Contempt, also 1963), from the novel Il disprezzo (aka A Ghost at Noon) by Alberto Moravia. On the other hand, this only deepens the theme of separateness and division because Les carabinièrs, at least, is Pierrot le fou’s polar opposite, except insofar as both films employ distancing techniques and are imbued with Godard’s indefatigable humanism. An artist’s œuvre, while the artist lives, is an unfolding body of work, a single entity emanating from the artist’s whole being. Ah, how do we apply this to Godard, as restless a soul as Pierrot le fou is a film? Can there be two more different films than Les carabinièrs and Pierrot le fou?
How are they different? Let me count the ways. Raoul Coutard cinematographed both films, but while Les carabinièrs is (purposefully) in newsreelish black-and-white—to keep its portrayal of war ugly, unsettling and not in the least bit inviting—Pierrot le fou is among the three or four most gorgeous films in color ever made. The terrain in Les carabinièrs is rough and unpretty, but Pierrot le fou describes sparkling sea, blue sky, verdant wonderlands of forest. Les carabinièrs is acted by nonprofessionals; Pierrot le fou stars Belmondo and Karina. Pierrot le fou is full of love, painting, literature and poetry; there is no love in Les carabinièrs, and the mundane postcards from the front are the most cut-rate examples of prose. Pierrot le fou is the non-Les carabinièrs, and vice versa. Let’s face it: While Les carabinièrs demands that whatever interested audience come to it (for which they may have to forsake the customary pleasures of cinema), despite its seriousness of purpose Pierrot le fou nonetheless tries to attract and seduce an audience. It is much, much closer to Le mépris, in beautiful color—Coutard is again the cinematographer—and a film that dramatizes romantic obsession, stars Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli, includes Fritz Lang instead of Fuller, and also ends on a grand and tragic note. But while Le mépris and Pierrot le fou include distancing techniques, Les carabinièrs is Godard’s most Brechtian film—it’s distanced nonstop. (It is also a greater film than either Le mépris or Pierrot le fou, terrific as both these last two are.)
One of Godard’s inserts in the film is indelible. Off their island and on the mainland in order to make a little money, Ferdinand and Marianne put on a little show for a docked American sailor or two. Marianne is in Vietnamese makeup; Ferdinand wears a naval officer’s hat. Fire and a wooden stick, the latter an airplane on this occasion, are other props for the couple’s portrayal of the Vietnam War, with Marianne protesting fiercely in (presumably) Vietnamese, and Ferdinand spouting Americanese: “Sure. Yeah.” Explosions and gunfire fill the soundtrack. The American spectators just love this bit of political theater, too dull to perceive how it excoriates their nation’s imperialism and appetite for unconscionable war. “I like that,” the American sailor says about the performance’s evocation of American barbarism and slaughter; “that’s darn good.” Perhaps time has diluted the acid of Godard’s satire here (the U.S., after all, has moved on to other atrocities), but nothing else in cinema—nothing—now so brings back (however fleetingly) the horror of that moment in time when America sold out whatever shred of soul it possessed in the name of fighting communism.
A final aside: Victorian scholars, take note! Pierrot le fou is the only film I know of that quotes from William Hurrell Mallock’s satire The New Paul and Virginia, which shipwrecks its title characters on an island and observes the results. Ferdinand, on his island with her, reads aloud from the copy of the book he has bought rather than interact with Marianne. (No wonder she’s against books!) Nothing so encapsulates the difference between them—her living the moment; his experiencing the moment at a bookish remove—than this. Still, it’s wonderful to hear the Mallock—and in French!
Belmondo and Karina are a joy to behold throughout Pierrot le fou, and two more incomparable contributors to the film’s haunting mood are Antoine Duhamel’s music and Boris Bassiak’s songs. (Ferdinand identifies Marianne with music.) Jean-Pierre Léaud, one of Godard’s assistant directors on this occasion (and others), appears in a tiny cameo in—where else?—a movie theater audience, eliciting from the real movie theater audience that’s watching Pierrot le fou—us, I mean—a gasp of delight and a round of applause. What a kick to spend just a few seconds with even a mute Léaud, the dearest actor on the face of the earth.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.