(Dir. Jean-Luc “Cinema” Godard, France, 1965)
Jean-Luc Godard’s postmodern jaunt down the rabbit hole, as it were, is simultaneously an extension of his groundbreaking, crowd-pleasing debut Breathless as well as a thesis statement for his entire career. Ten films into his impressive ‘60s output – now both affectionately and derogatorily known as the New Wave – Godard, it seems, was ready for something new while refining the familiar. This, then, is both the appeal and the drawback of Pierrot le fou, a film that foreshadowed its maker’s future twelve-year stint as a political activist-cum-director and provided an apt summation of his rule-breaking techniques that had defined his cinema thus far. As a political document, Pierrot is relatively tame – pervasive, yet veiled critiques of the Vietnam War and the ensuing Cold War between the U.S. and Russia abound – and if anything, it’s more a parody of proto-revolutionary zeitgeist captured in the inanity of Anna Karina’s implausible babysitter/arms smuggler. In this way, Godard’s typical anarchic approach fits the material perfectly and works better here than in Breathless (its most obvious comparison from his body of work), but there’s something still markedly forced or disingenuous about this aesthetic too.
Thus, Pierrot le fou – more than any other of the filmmaker’s many films – provides a microcosm of my feelings on Godard as a whole. I find myself compelled by the man’s audacity, yet repulsed by his arrogance. Both attributes coexist in nearly every one of his works, which has subsequently kept this cinephile from every truly loving any one of them. (Contempt comes close, but that film also found Godard coming as close to crafting a regular ol’ movie without compromising his principles.) Pierrot – though probably one his most interesting films – is no exception. While viewing it, the experience is nothing short of rhapsodic. It’s a kaleidoscope of beautifully composed images and boasts a plethora of ideas bursting with potential. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s casual turn as a disgruntled Parisian bent on escaping his painfully bourgeois life is worth the price of admission alone. But, when the film ends, an unmistakable feeling of hollowness settles in. Godard’s once fresh fragmented, montage style suddenly seems stale, the incessant philosophizing becomes grating, and the token allusions to pop culture, cinematic history, and literature have all but worn out their welcome. Pierrot is Godard’s most perfect beautiful mess. And maybe he intended that way.
As far as narrative goes in Godard’s cinema, it’s never as important what he tells as how he tells it. That’s never more apparent than here. The plot that kickstarts Ferdinand’s (Belmondo) adventure with Marianne (Karina) is a flimsy, wholly unconvincing story if there ever was one. Godard barely seems convinced himself. He cushions this Hollywood-bred outlaw setup with so many narrative detours, increasingly outlandish shenanigans for his two leads, and literature quoting to stand in for his characters’ emotions, that we – as well as Ferdinand it seems – forget why he left in the first place. Karina’s unfortunately one-note faux-revolutionary driven to the edge by boredom doesn’t help. If Godard was going for skewering the growing counterculture that swept youth on both sides of the Atlantic in the late-‘60s, he should have left Karina’s gun-toting babysitter a peripheral character. And yet, her inclusion to the very end signifies another, perhaps unexpected success for Pierrot le fou.
Godard’s personality is without question infused in every one of his films from Breathless to Goodbye to Language, but what perhaps makes some of those entries more interesting is when his personal life shines through too. His marital troubles with Karina lent an extra layer of pathos to Contempt, particularly given her notable absence from that film. And so it is with Pierrot. The pair’s marriage ended shortly following the release of this film, and it makes the startling finale all the more poignant. Ferdinand, as a stand-in for Godard, follows his lover as they forge a new life together, but she also leads him dangerously close to self-destruction. Are we to read more into Marianne’s insistence that Ferdinand give up his newfound happiness consuming books and ruminating in a diary in seclusion so she can once again enjoy the thrill of life on the run? Is Marianne’s late-film betrayal a mirror for Karina herself? When Ferdinand pulls the trigger, then, it’s as if Godard has severed ties at last. That love is forever gone. And, though Karina never drove Godard to suicide as Ferdinand meets his self-inflicted violent death, Pierrot le fou marks the end of a fruitful partnership (though she appeared in one more of his films Made in U.S.A. released a year later) and the beginning of a new artistic direction without her. Oddly enough, it seems, when Godard tries his hardest to be existential, he’s all the more interesting when it winds up being intensely personal too.