(Pierrot Le Fou)
There’s a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou where the main protagonist (Ferdinand) reads out a poem that his mistress has written describing him. It goes “Tender and cruel / Real and surreal / Terrifying and funny”. I can’t think of a better description of this gem of a movie.
Pierrot Le Fou is vintage Godard – a movie as whimsical and dreamlike as any the director has ever made. As such, it is an excellent example of the elements that make Godard (IMHO) one of the century’s finest film makers.
To begin with, there’s the sheer restlessness of it, the sense of constant, often arbitrary motion, the ever present element of surprise. There’s a Beckett like quality to Godard, the way he has of jumping from one scene to another, of tossing in casual asides, episodes that go nowhere and seem to have no relation to the main script, as if there was really no need for one thing to lead to another. This is a little disconcerting if you’re used to linear narrative, but it also creates a more authentic sense of being alive. At one point in the movie, for instance, Ferdinand suddenly begins to talk like an old man, for no reason other than the fact that it seems like an interesting thing to do!
Coupled with this playfulness, is the sheer inventiveness that Godard brings to the script. Where else but in Godard could a couple driving along a seaside highway suddenly decide to drive their car into the sea as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Where else could a desperate gas station robbery be orchestrated based on ideas from a Laurel and Hardy film. Where else could a couple, desperate for money and finding some American tourists on the beach, put on an impromptu skit of the Vietnam war, complete with snarling American accents and a dive bomber made from a comb and a bunch of lighted matches. The overall effect is that you’re always caught off balance, always struggling to hold on to the movie that constantly threatens to overwhelm you, get away from you.
That feeling is made worse (or better, depending on your point of view) by the self-referential nature of the movie. At various points in the film it’s clear that the main characters understand that they’re exactly that – characters in a movie. So at one point in the movie Godard stops the action to take a closer look at the bystanders in the shot – interviewing each one of them in turn to find out who they are and why they are there. In the course of this one of them confesses to being a professional movie extra, currently working in a scene in a new film! In another scene, Ferdinand wonders aloud why the police haven’t arrested them yet, since they should be easy to find to which Marianne replies: “They’re smart. They just let people destroy themselves.” There’s also this incredible scene where the two main characters are living in an idyllic home on an island and she’s bored and tells him that she’s had enough of playing Jules Verne and wants to get back to the violent gangster movie they escaped from!
That reference to Jules Verne is the key to the second of Godard’s great accomplishments – his ability to incorporate high art / philosophy in the everyday lives of his characters. The film starts for instance, with a discussion of the later paintings of Velasquez, and references to poetry, literature and art abound throughout the movie. In fact, almost all the dialogue in the movie, has this impressionist, almost poetic feel, as if the words were clues hiding a deeper meaning within them. The incredible thing is that these poetic, polished references are interwoven with the more prosaic action of the film. A plot to steal money at gunpoint is laid out thus: “A small harbour, as in Conrad / A sailboat, as in Robert Louis Stevenson / A steward turned millionaire, as in Jack London / Two guys who beat me up, as in Raymond Chandler”. It’s this dissonance – the violence and action of a Tarantino movie combined with conversation that could come straight out of Henry James or Rimbaud – that makes the movie such a mesmerising watch.
But unlike in Tarantino, dissonance is not Godard’s main point here. In some ways, Godard’s films are an exercise in nostalgia – they celebrate a more golden age when the art of conversation was still alive (early in the movie Godard satirises modern conversations by showing us a high society party where everyone talks like a commercial for some product or the other) and people talked about books and poetry and art rather than about cars or beauty products. This decay of the world into Americanised Pop culture is something Godard feels strongly about, but rather than be preachy or supercilious about it, he makes the simple point that the old conversations were more interesting. It’s not that people who were in touch with culture were any more admirable or purer morally, it’s just that they were more fun to watch.
In making that point, Godard relies heavily on the third of his great gifts – the ability to create a sort of spontaneous magic on screen. There’s a scene in Pierrot Le Fou where the Ferdinand and Marianne are walking through a forest along the beach, and Marianne begins to sing a silly little song (accompanied by a faintly heard piano) about the line of her fate (which is too short), which Ferdinand counters with his own silly tune about the line of her thigh (which he claims is much more ample and interesting). The scene is vintage Hindi cinema – two lovers dancing around trees, singing a song. Yet there’s a naturalness and spontaneity about the scene that every single Hindi film director I’ve ever seen would kill for. Part of it is just that Godard refuses to stylise – the movements of the actors seem genuine because they are awkward and unpolished, the song seems spontaneous because the words are silly, don’t really rhyme and make little sense. But more than that, Godard is able to create a sense of pure chemistry between these two people, so that the screen seems charged with the electricity of their presence and you can truly feel the giddy happiness that they must be feeling.
It helps, of course, that the two main actors are serious talents in their own right. Jean Paul Belmondo brings a sense of scruffy coolness to the part of Ferdinand – creating a persona at once hard-edged and casual. As played by him Ferdinand is a man who walks calmly into disaster, a man who combines an almost helpless yearning for life with an easy fatalism. And as for Anna Karina – has there ever been a more engaging cinematic presence? How can you not love an actress who is just one syllable short of being a Tolstoy heroine? It’s not just that she’s beautiful (though she undoubtably is – those wonderfully expressive round eyes, that perfect nose, that entrancing hint of a smile; in the movie, Ferdinand compares her to a painting by Renoir – the comparison is apt) it’s also that she’s the essence of blitheness, of elfin charm. Alternating between wide-eyed child, petulant woman, predatory seductress, cold blooded and ruthless killer (she kills at least four people in the movie) and a simple and sensitive young girl, Anna is impossible to pin down. She remains a thing of mystery, a creature wild and unnamed (what was it Keats said: “Full beautiful – a faery child / Her hair was long, her foot was light / And her eyes were wild”) and therefore alluring. As such, the two of them work well together*, her impatience matched against his casual sense of balance.
Bottomline: To watch Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou is to be plunged into an engaging, fascinating dream and to experience cinema at its most inventive and most poetic.
*To see just how well, see also Godard’s 1961 film Une femme est une femme – particularly that incredible scene where the two of them sit together in the cafe listening to Aznavour.