By Andy Dimond
Says Marianne to Ferdinand: “We’ve played Jules Verne long enough; let’s go back to our gangster movie.”
For his 10th feature film, Jean-Luc Godard chose to follow the sci-fi noir Alphaville with a return to the genre of his 1st: the crime romance. Jean-Paul Belmondo, the lovable pug whom Breathless had made an unlikely star, and Anna Karina, the most compelling of Godard’s many screen muses, are paired in Pierrot le fou.
In it JLG continues to develop the distinctive color aesthetic of Une femme est une femme and his masterpiece Contempt. Primary colors dominate, with the addition of a bold green. Streetlights, speakers, facepaint and dynamite: wherever possible, Godard prefers the free children’s-menu Crayolas to the puce and raw sienna of a full box. One could write a book on the meaning of this palette. Maybe someone has. But it wasn’t me. Watch closely, and maybe it can be you.
As for plot, a straight telling would go something like this: Ferdinand, a TV writer, ditches his wife at a boring party, takes babysitter Marianne home, and sleeps with her. After breakfast in bed, he learns she is involved in gun-running. Leaving behind one or two corpses, they steal some guns and cash and crime-spree their way south to camp out on the Riviera. His sedate, bookish routine annoys her. Returning to city life, they are caught by the gun-runners, who torture him. Separately the lovers flee, but eventually she finds him working as a dockhand and drags him into one more scheme before betraying him with the gangster boyfriend she claimed was her brother. Ferdinand kills them both, straps TNT to his noggin, changes his mind, but blows up anyway.
Don’t feel slow; figuring out that much took me years of viewing and reading. Godard has always been committed to radical editing, but Pierrot le fou also belongs to his surrealist phase, which included the Eluard-quoting Alphaville and went off the deep end with Weekend, universally seen as concluding his first period (with its famous end-title “FIN DU CINEMA”). His later, political works employ an engaged realism, still structurally avant-garde but mostly literalminded, whereas, for example, Pierrot’s staged car explosion (by a tree-lined road, where one victim has already plunged from a ruined bridge in the middle of a field!) is a powerfully surreal scene, as well as a blatant preview of Weekend.
May 1968 would be JLG’s decisive moment of conversion to his collectivist/propagandist phase. But Pierrot is one of the last films where his Pop Art love of the USA contends equally with his leftist beliefs. In his very next film, Masculin feminin, the writing is on the wall–or the intertitle, famously announcing “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” To put it in very Marxist terms, JLG’s worldview would soon collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.
Of course, Godard always had a lot to say about politics. His 2nd film Le petit soldat anticipated the style and concerns of Pontecorvo’s acclaimed Battle of Algiers, and is echoed in Ferdinand’s “waterboarding.” In the Vietnam War reenactment, perhaps the film’s funniest scene (though the Queen of Lebanon holding forth about her spaceship while Ferdinand eats a giant cheese comes close), JLG shows the Esso (Exxon) tiger and magnifies the “SS” in its logo. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that many years would pass before he made a less political film than Pierrot le fou (though it shares its initials with one of his pet causes).
“With you it’s all mixed up,” Ferdinand says when Marianne’s heist plot combines Chandler, Faulkner, Jack London, et al. Searching for a unifying theme in all this (the wonderfully half-assed musical numbers, Laurel and Hardy, Pepe le Moko, Velasquez, Buelleresque fourth-wall breakage) is futile. It’s just a digressive, kaleidoscopic view into JLG’s mind circa 1965. (He gave the film the interesting description “life filling the screen, as a tap fills a bathtub that is simultaneously emptying.”) It’s a seminal work of what we came to call the postmodern… but don’t hold that against it. Remember, this brought us the equally delightful grab-bag that is Pulp Fiction; Tarantino also stole Karina’s look, the streetlight trick, plus the Lionel White inspiration (from this and The Killing).
The highbrow Ferdinand and pop Marianne represent two sides of JLG himself. The latter embodies his view of women as free-spirited but by the same coin essentially capricious, even treacherous. His only honorable women are protagonists, not love interests. They tend to be prostitutes or repressed housewives (or both!) and often appear more case-study than character (which is not to knock the clinical gaze that lends great power to Vivre sa vie or 2 ou 3 choses)
However, allied to this arguably misogynistic perspective, as in the end of Breathless, is a wonderful existentialist conception of death as random and absurd. Godard well understood the glamour of cinematic violence–witness Sam Fuller’s oft-quoted cameo–but he treated it as anticlimax more often than any director I can think of. Paradoxically, this makes it more shocking. We’re used to operatic justice or operatic tragedy; Godard mocks them both.