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Pierrot le fou

Pierrot le fou(1968)

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teaser Pierrot le fou (1968)

Making a film that exemplifies the career, personality, and soul of the director usually comes late in a filmmaker's career. Alfred Hitchcock didn't make Vertigo (1958) until he had fewer than ten films to go until the end of his career. Jean-Luc Godard, on the other hand, somehow managed to do it only ten films in. The movie, Pierrot le Fou (1965), has been called Godard's most personal film or, as is probably more apt, his most self-referential. He quotes himself, and the movies, throughout and continued his road trip through the conventions of cinema, ignoring the sign posts and blasting through the stop lights.

The film begins with Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo), stuck in a loveless marriage and recently unemployed, forced into a dinner party with shallow society elites quoting product lines from commercials, like the kind Godard used to make, as if they're having meaningful conversation. The tinted colors of each individual scene jumps randomly from red to green to blue until Ferdinand enters into a dialogue, via willing party guest translator, with American director Sam Fuller. It seems the perfect time for Mr. Fuller to succinctly define cinema for everyone watching and he does so thusly:

"Film is like a battleground. There's love, hate, action, violence, death... in one word: emotion."

The joke here is that while this story and indeed every story Godard had done to that point, and perhaps even afterwards, contains every single one of those defining criteria, emotion itself is never something bubbling to the surface in any work by Godard. His insistence on abandoning cinematic technique must include abandoning sentimentality and, if necessary, the realistic eruption of emotion itself. One doesn't experience histrionic emotion in a Godard film, one experiences Godard blatantly portraying the cinematic artifice of emotion in almost every cut.

After talking with Mr. Fuller, Ferdinand leaves the party (but not before starting a food fight - a pie in the face - that never has more than a second to take hold), heads back home and finds his daughter's babysitter, Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina), asleep in the foyer. He offers to drive her home and the two of them discuss how they were once lovers. She nicknames him "Pierrot" and the two decide to run off together, living a life of spontaneity and adventure, or at least we can assume since Godard never once provides us with the usual cinematic clichs to guide us there. In fact, as the film jump cuts to Ferdinand waking up in her apartment, Marianne breaks into song, taking us into another genre entirely before we have even fully determined what genre we were supposed to be in in the first place. That's when we see the murdered corpse on the bed in the other room, a corpse that Marianne reacts to with utter indifference, which is to say she doesn't react to it at all. Ferdinand doesn't really either and the explanation for the body and the guns and munitions scattered around the apartment are neither forthcoming nor clear. Godard is showing us those Fullerian emotions - love, hate, action, violence, death - without connecting to them, or connecting them to the story, and thus to the audience, in any meaningful way.

When Ferdinand and Marianne go on the run they travel the world, and when Ferdinand, content by the seaside, decides he could settle down, Marianne wants to get back to the guns, the death, the violence. Godard probably wanted to do the same. Coming into his tenth feature with a bigger budget and a star, Jean-Paul Belmondo, acting as guarantor of the financing, Godard probably already felt himself stirring to move into another period, one that would remove him from the settled complacency of the unexpected status he now held as critical darling. In some ways, Pierrot le Fou feels like Godard's farewell to the Godard from Breathless (1960) up to then. A compilation of all those emotions that Godard never really felt in the first place and didn't trust anyone else had either. Exposing the artifice and rules of cinema in combination seemed to be an early goal and one that Pierrot le Fou helped fulfill.

After Pierrot le Fou, Godard had a few more successes, notably Weekend (1967), but moving away from even the most fundamental engagement with the rules of cinema, found himself increasingly ignored by the critical community that rushed to his beatification early on. It was easier to cheer on a director working against the tropes of cinema as long as we could all see him doing it. As the lines obscured, and Godard refused to even give us a basic framework from which to view his indifference to it, the audience left. The critics, for the most part, returned and late Godard has found an audience willing to experience the cinema as interpreted through his lens once again. But it was this film, Pierrot le Fou, that set all of it in motion. It was and is Godard, from beginning to end, both a personal statement and self-reflexive commentary, a slap in the face to convention, and a road map, in road trip form, that outlined the career of Godard even though that career was decades from its conclusion.

By Greg Ferrara

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