Une histoire compliquée

Pierrot Le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

I haven’t written about any Godard films yet, and it’s probably about time. Two or three years ago I had a big Godard phase during which I watched most of the films from his golden age, but he made so many in the 60s that there are still a few major ones I’ve yet to see. His stuff is so packed with content that it can dazzle and I needed to view this one twice before I got a grip on it.

Pierrot le Fou would be a good introduction to Godard as it bridges his early and later stuff; it’s simulatenously a farewell to the pulpy pop stories and an indication of where he was heading to. The film is bursting at the seams with ideas and it conveys a sense of tension. Its range of references are voraciously diverse; people are always recounting anecdotes, spouting cod philosophy. Narrative cinema about a murder, robbery or other maguffin is no longer big enough to contain his curiosity, his restless impatience.

The references to Céline might be a clue towards the form of the film. No doubt it seemed odd to namecheck a persona non grata fascist novelist in 1965, but the defining character of Céline’s books was always their avant-garde style. Chatty, digressive, cut-up, he embraced argot and paid less heed to plot -or basic sentence structure- as he went on. They said that he had “blown a hole in the ceiling” of stuffy classical literature. With his vaulting ambition to experiment and push out boundaries, Godard was trying to do something similar to cinema.

The film does still (just about) employ a criminal-couple-on-the-run storyline, but in the loosest sense possible. The interest is elsewhere and when the plotty action bits take place, poetic voiceovers and jarring soundtracks are placed over the top; it’s easy to miss what’s actually happening. Like Le Mépris it has lovely photography of the Mediterranean coast; sunshine, bright primary colours, lots of beach hotels and motorboats. It also resembles said film in that it’s preoccupied with the end of a love affair, the impossibility of a man and a woman getting on with each other long-term.

The film casts Godard’s most iconic actors, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, just as his marriage to the latter was ending. This is another cause of the restless feeling; in moments of tranquility the two leads agonise over the unknowability of one’s lover, their failure to truly understand one another.  Amidst all the culture and politics some personal stuff is being worked out here. 

One could say that it’s a clash between Old Godard and New; Marianne (Karina) throws herself into the Bonnie & Clyde routine and wants intrigue, action, dancing and music. She rows with Ferdinand (Belmondo) because he’s put aside childish things and wants peace and quiet in which to read, write and think. She suggests Monte Carlo, Vegas or Miami for possible destinations, he prefers Athens or Florence. 

Politics don’t quite dominate the film, but they are already barging into places we wouldn’t normally expect them and throwing their weight about. Although it has nothing to do with the characters or the story, there’s a tourettes-like compulsion to talk about the Vietnam war. Politics would soon take centre stage for my two favourite Godard films, La Chinoise and Weekend, before the tension between his Maoist callings and the set-up of commercial cinema got too much and he had to pack it in. It’s when the tension was at its greatest, though, that he produced his most thrilling work.

We begin with playful credits, an alpahbet soup of neon letters as mournful, noirish music with a touch of Bernard Hermann plays; this theme will recur throughout. Belmondo reads a poetic voiceover about Velazquez as we see girls play tennis, JPB in a bookshop, a sunset over a harbour.

Ferdinand is disclosed sitting in a bath, reading about Velazquez to his little daughter. The painter lived in a blighted time- at the King’s court he was “surrounded by idiots, dwarves and invalids”. One senses that Godard is inviting us to draw comparisons. The flat is luxurious. Ferdinand’s nagging wife tells him he must come to her parents’ tonight to meet a man from Standard Oil who might give him a job. Her friends bring Marianne, the babysitter- a schoolgirlish Karina with her hair done up. Ferdinand starts ranting to the bemused couple about Balzac and Beethoven; with a quick blast of the Fifth, they head out.

At the party, suave guests (almost Marienbad dummies) recite bland advertising blurbs about different products in lieu of conversation. Everything is put through filters of blue, red, green. In a famous cameo, Samuel Fuller tells Ferdinand that cinema is “love, hate, action, violence, death- emotions”. A couple of women with cocktails and fancy necklaces are topless. All look languid and bored, but none more than Ferdinand. “You speak too much, listening to you is tiresome”, one of the ladies tells him.

Ferdinand goes home early and offers the doe-eyed Marianne a lift home. We see them sit in a fake car on a stage set and we learn that years ago, the pair were lovers. Ferdinand tells her he’s been “too lazy” to divorce his wife. Marianne doesn’t want to recount her life story and turns on the radio- atrocities in Vietnam. She confesses her love, Ferdinand plays it cool; fag in mouth, eyes on the road.

The next morning, Marianne is walking around her bare flat and cooking breakfast for Ferdinand, who’s smoking in bed. There are prints of Modigliani and Renoir on the wall, plus magazine photos of African soldiers, rifles everywhere and a bloodied corpse in the other room. In a dressing gown Marianne sings a love song whilst Ferdinand struggles to look tough and indifferent.

Most of these more conventional scenes are linked by voiceover segments; a piece of dramatic music, Belmondo and Karina sharing fragments of conversation or some abstract poetic images, and action shots interspersed with a mélange of classic paintings, cartoon strips and other random images flashing before us. One such segment appears here; we see a man discover the body, Marianne concuss him with a bottle, and the lovers flee Paris. We’re able to discern from the voiceover that Marianne is somehow mixed up in arms trafficking to Angola, and needs to find her brother Fred (like Holly Golightly). On the road the pair embrace their newfound outlaw status by punching out three petrol station attendants.  

Now Marianne is driving and Ferdinand looks redundant. “Have you ever killed a man? You won’t like it,” she warns him. In a voiceover segment we see them stop in a small town and learn that the police are in pursuit. They need money and decide to tell the townspeople stories about some esoteric historical subjects, such as William of Orange’s nephew. The villagers introduce themselves to the camera; a Hungarian refugee, a redhead shopgirl, an old man who’s working as an extra in a film.

To throw off the police, they want to get rid of their car by faking an accident. Fortuitously they come across a capsized car with two corpses and decide to set fire to their own. “It must look authentic, this isn’t a film”, scolds Marianne. The soundtrack is filled with birdsong as we see a long shot of smoke from the car filling the sky, Ferdinand and Marianne disappearing into a field of crops.

Next is the surreal image of the two, in a suit and a dress, wading down the middle of a river. They’re carrying a comic book and a toy monkey (because we’re all big kids?). They steal a sleek convertible from a garage and soon they’re at the south coast. The radio plays sprightly baroque music, Karina’s hair looks blondish in the sun. She accuses Ferdinand of missing his wife; he smells death “in the landscape, women’s faces, cars…”. They sleep on the beach. Marianne points to the Man in the Moon, whom Ferdinand tells her is off; the space race has got him pestered with Lenin and Coca-Cola and he’s going to leave both “to shoot it out”.  

At this point, Godard decides to turn the film into Robinson Crusoe. They have a cabin, Ferdinand keeps a journal of their “hunting and fishing” and they indulge in light agricultural work. He has a parrot who sits on his shoulder, Marianne has a baby fox whom she lets lick her plate. The camera trained on her, Marianne looks away guiltily as she promises never to leave, then gives us a shy smile. Ferdinand reads Céline to Marianne then addresses the camera with a rasping old-man’s croak, talking about the novel he’s got planned. He tells her off for bringing home a record; “You’re only allowed to buy one record for every fifty books. Literature is above music”.

Ferdinand is thriving. On a forest walk, he asks to borrow Marianne’s lipstick and uses it to jot down his ideas. Marianne feels estranged and moans about her boredom whilst stamping along the beach (“You talk to me with words and I look at you with feelings”. “Feelings are no good, you need to have ideas”). As well she might, Marianne soon gets fed up with all of this and tries to change the film back to Old Godard. She’s bored of living in “a Jules Verne” story and longs to go back to being in “un roman policier”. To do this, they’ll need to raise money from the tourists (“ésclaves modernes”).

To entertain the American tourists in Nice, they put on a little play about (what else?) Vietnam. With a bottle of bourbon and a general’s hat, Belmondo points a gun and shouts “Oh yeah! New York! Oh yeah! COMMUNISTE!”. Her face painted bright yellow, Karina snaps and whines in mock-Chinese speak. The watching American sailors declare this to be “damn good”. Afterwards each confides to the camera. Marianne wants to go dancing; Ferdinand doesn’t understand her and she just wants to live a bit. “Who cares if we get killed?” Standing amidst tall crops, Ferdinand muses on this “age of double men” and how he’s never quite sure what his girlfriend is thinking. Welcome to our world, pal.

After this interlude, the nominal story rears its head in the form of a dwarf who has something on Marianne. In blazer and tie, carrying a walkie-talkie and a bottle of Coke, he trains a gun on the camera and threatens her with a napalm bath “comme a Vietnam”. Ferdinand visits a café where a familiar-looking chap tells him, “Last year I loaned you 10,000 Francs and you slept with my wife,” before walking off grinning. I’m guessing it’s a reference to a Belmondo film I have forgotten or never seen. When he walks into their flat, the dwarf is dead; Marianne has stabbed him with scissors. Two gangsters show up and torture him in the bath-tub; we see details of a painting as we hear him being overpowered and beaten.

Ferdinand sits down on train-tracks, but jumps away at the last moment. A Karina voiceover informs us that he couldn’t find Marianne anywhere. We see him in a cinema, with J-P Léaud and a sailor. There’s a newsreel of Vietnam and Ferdinand dozes off, then starts reading. He only gains interest in the cinema screen when Jean Seberg shows up; now that’s definitely a reference to an old film.

In Nice harbour, Ferdinand chats to the exiled Queen of Lebanon (don’t ask me). When she leaves, Marianne turns up and professes delight to have found both him and her “brother” Fred. He reminds her they are wanted for murder, then reluctantly agrees to rejoin the “tale of sound and fury”. They board a speedboat; the adoring camera is fixated on Karina, sunlit sea and a flapping French flag behind her, as she answers Ferdinand’s practical/banal questions about the truth of her background and all this gun-running stuff.

On a beach, Marianne tells Fred that “he’ll do anything I want”, then the film drags itself through the rushed motions of plot/action in an extended voiceover sequence. Belmondo and Karina comment on the images and compare them to stock clichés from novels as the two gangsters drive around, a suitcase is exchanged, and Belmondo has another skirmish with them. “There’s no reason why soft thighs and breasts should stop you from killing everyone”, Marianne tells us as she shoots the gangsters with a long-distance sniper gun. We see her grin in satisfaction.

They meet in a bowling alley; Ferdinand has two plane tickets for Tahiti. Marianne agrees but we don’t quite believe her. Soon she’s back on the speedboat kissing Fred; they pull out from the harbour just as Ferdinand arrives, and he’s left to hear some crazed random tell a very funny story about the record that has haunted him all through his life. It’s playing in the background; Ferdinand insists to the man that he can’t hear a thing, but he hums it to himself as he hitches a boat ride to the offshore island.

He shoots Fred and Marianne (Le Mépris again), then carries the girl to bed and tells her “It’s too late, you brought it on yourself.” Her face is covered in blood. Crazy with grief, a bawling Ferdinand paints his face blue then ties two bundles of dynamite around his head. After the fuse is lit he has a moment of clarity (“Shit, what an idiot I’m being!”) but cannot see to stamp it out. The camera pulls back and we see an explosion on the coastal rocks. The camera calmly moves right to take in the sea, the horizon and finally the sun. There is silence, before our stars share one last whispered voiceover; “It’s ours again. Eternity.”

The film is slightly overlong and Godard can be like Herzog in that you have to sit through an amount tedium to get the inspired bits of brilliance that one just doesn’t see most films; and it is a quite brilliant ending, with images that will stay with me. However it’s belligerent, it points a great big arrow towards my favourite period of Godard and it’s a film with one hell of a lot on its plate- and more still to say, if you listen. I watch stuff like this and come away thinking what a travesty it is that A bout de souffle is his best-known film.

One aside- I remember that one of Kenneth Williams’ more angst-ridden diary entries describes a visit to the cinema for Pierrot Le Fou. He was deeply wounded that when asked “Who are you?”, Belmondo jokingly replied “un homosexuel” and got a big laugh from the crowd. At one point in the film, Karina does indeed ask Belmondo who he is. I’m fairly certain he answers, “un homme sexuel”.


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October 2009
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