Pierrot Le Fou
“Film is a battlefield. Love, hate, action, violence, death – in a word: Emotions” – Sam Fuller in Pierrot le Fou
If you haven’t made the acquaintance of Jean Luc Godard yet, this might be the best place to start. One of the touchstones of art cinema, Godard is among the most influential filmmakers of the medium, even though his work has scarcely made inroads into the mainstream.
Swiss-born, Godard studied in Paris in the 1950s. Movies were never more passionately adored than they were at that time in that place – you get a taste of the rabid cinephilia in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (and Bertolucci would be the first to say Godard was the most important cinematic influence on his work).
Godard fell in with the young turks at the film magazine Cahiers du Cinema – a home to a new generation of post-war film fans including Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol, all of whom would swap criticism for filmmaking in the late 50s. Despite what you might expect, these guys were crazy for Hollywood movies, and rejected the kind of a serious cinema that traditional French and British critics tended to praise.
The French ‘new wave’ most often turned to pulp American crime novels for their first movies. But they didn’t try to compete with Hollywood movies on their shoestring budgets. Instead they made the material their own, riffing affectionately on movie clichés but making no apologies for being young and Parisian and fancy-free. In the process, they reinvented what movies looked and sounded like – this was the era of bebop, and in many ways Jean Luc Godard is the Charlie Parker of filmmakers. He turned familiar melodies inside out, omitting the refrain and throwing in an unexpected, virtuoso screech when you’re least expecting it.
Godard’s characters talk in quotations from literature, movies and advertising. He films them obliquely, shifting tones at the drop of a hat – they might break into a song and dance routine, a slapstick skit, or put on war paint and ruminate on the atrocities of American imperialism, all within five minutes.
Made in 1965, Pierrot le Fou came only five years after his début, Breathless – but it’s his tenth feature (and that’s not counting his contributions to four compilation movies). Think about that for a second – Godard was burning celluloid like Michael Schumacher burned rubber.
Supposedly based on a crime novel by Lionel White, the film is your basic young-couple-on-the-run scenario. Evidently bored with his wife and her phony bourgeois friends Ferdinand (Belmondo) impetuously takes off with the babysitter, a former lover, Marianne (Karina). Their flight towards the Mediterranean involves a small mountain of corpses, several stolen cars and robberies. It makes some kind of sense, watching Pierrot, that Warren Beatty considered asking Godard to direct Bonnie And Clyde. But how different would American movies be if he had gone through with it!
A film is not its plot. Especially not this film, which coolly detaches itself from the messy business of all the “love, hate, action, violence” it depicts. Well, maybe not love. Godard surely knew that his marriage was doomed, and beneath its ironic, post-modern stylings, its supersaturated pop colouring and the dialogue culled from TV commercials, the movie resonates with all the bittersweet regret of a cerebral man losing the wild, free-spirited woman whom he has adored. Why do you look so sad, he asks her. “Because you speak to me in words, and I look at you in feelings,” she responds.
Pierrot le Fou gives us both: words and feelings, ideas and emotions, but not necessarily in that order.
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