Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pierrot le fou

Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou is a road movie, but one in which the characters move, not through any physical geography, but across the well-traveled terrain of Godard's own cinematic corpus, revisiting key themes and familiar scenarios from the nine feature films that Godard made in the five years preceding Pierrot. The film's pivotal placement at a turning point in Godard's career — after his most successful Nouvelle Vague hits but still before his increasingly radical Maoist period — makes it particularly ripe for analysis in terms of Godard's filmography as a whole. It features two of Godard's finest actors and his most iconic figures, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, the latter appearing in her penultimate role in a Godard film, with their divorce still looming ahead. Godard is also revisiting one of his key concerns from his pre-Maoist period, namely the nature of romance and the adversarial relationships that society sets up between man and woman. Not least of the film's echoes of earlier Godard ventures is the way its plot and denouement mirror the feminine betrayal at the core of Godard's first feature Breathless, in which Belmondo was also led to his death by romance and female duplicity. What's different here, and what may help Godard avoid the charges of misogyny that (often justifiably) have been brought against his films, is the extent to which Pierrot interrogates and examines this archetypal relationship.

At the start of the film, Ferdinand (Belmondo) is a discontented bourgeoisie, married to an heiress and himself unemployed after an unsuccessful career in television. He goes to a party where, in a brilliant parody of both TV advertising and Godard's own earlier commercial work, all the characters speak in lingo apparently stolen from ads, extolling the virtues of cars, naked women, and deodorants with the same antiseptic language. Ferdinand wanders through the party, and as he moves from one room to the next Godard arbitrarily applies garish color filters to delineate one space and set of characters from the next. The arbitrariness of the color-switching underlines the extent to which these people are, despite superficial differences in favored topics, all the same; their language, the language of corporate culture, erases all distinctions. The filters also inevitably bring to mind Godard's one big-budget production, Contempt, in which the producers demanded more nude scenes for star Brigitte Bardot, and Godard famously obliged with a lengthy bedroom scene, during which color filters similarly rotated at random across Bardot's bare butt. The device's recurrence here is a subtle in-joke, a reminder that Godard too had sold out and spoken with the language of commerce — and also a reminder of how a device of commercial necessity had been transformed into art.

In any event, Ferdinand soon leaves the party and returns home, where he encounters the evening's babysitter, Marianne (Karina), who is by chance also his ex-lover. The duo set off on an absurdist road trip that seems ill-fated from the start, triggered as it is by Marianne's never-explained murder of a man in her apartment and their flight from a gang of gun-runners looking for the money and weapons she'd been stashing for them. This sequence plays out with Godard's typical wit and obscurity, the actual visuals reminiscent of a slapstick Keystone Kops routine, with the lovers dashing in circles, grabbing the blatantly fake prop guns, and running in and out of cars. Godard fragments the scene, repeating key moments again and again, destroying the moment-to-moment coherence in favor of a vague sensation of danger, hilarity, and action. The voiceover track, meanwhile, further exacerbates the confusion, as Belmondo and Karina take turns narrating the events, sometimes finishing each other's sentences in a contradictory manner and sometimes looping back to something already said. Repetition is a key component of Godard's aesthetic, and it comes into its own in this film, a central element in the film's deconstruction of the road movie's place-to-place narrative.

Indeed, this film doesn't follow a trajectory from place to place so much as from idea to idea. Places are mentioned, but only rarely as concrete markers of locations. More often places and their names are representative of abstract ideas: America, Vietnam, the Riviera (which, as Godard points out, contains the word vie for "life"), Las Vegas. Oftentimes, when Ferdinand and Marianne are traveling, they seem to be moving from one Godard film to the next. Pierrot is littered with remnants of earlier films, especially Le Petit Soldat (a bathroom torture sequence and constant references to the Algerian War), A Woman is a Woman (a few ragtag musical numbers with Karina at her most charming), and variations on Godard's oft-reused trope of enumerating a lover's body parts to declare one's love, first seen in the previously mentioned opening of Contempt. Pierrot also looks forward in interesting ways to the next half-decade of Godard's work, already containing hints of the apocalyptic road movie vibe of Week-end in the staged car crash where Marianne and Ferdinand fake their deaths. More broadly, the theatrical undercurrent of the film, its brilliant use of color and blatantly manufactured settings, is the first suggestion of the Brechtian agitprop theater that Godard would incorporate into his work more and more with films like Made In U.S.A. and La Chinoise. And if the landscape of Pierrot is a microcosm of Godard's films, it's also a pastiche of world literature and pop culture, as the characters themselves sometimes make explicit. When Marianne gets bored of staying in one place for too long, languishing in a seaside hideaway surrounded by friendly animals, she suggests that they ditch this Jules Verne scene and get back to the gangster novel they'd been living earlier.

It's typical of Godard's concern with language that he has taken the tenuous relationship between words and things to its extreme, ignoring the "thing" altogether in favor of the word and the meanings it has taken on. Marianne and Ferdinand both distrust language, but nevertheless acknowledge that it is the only way to communicate, even imperfectly, and so they continuously attempt to understand each other despite the seeming impossibility of it. In fact, for perhaps the first time in these earlier films, Godard seems to be actually interested in teasing out the why of male/female relationships, rather than simply presenting their tortured façades. He occasionally seems to be falling into typically sexist dichotomies — Marianne speaks in terms of feelings, Ferdinand of ideas and art — but here he does so primarily to disrupt and question such bipolar divisions. In one key exchange, Ferdinand and Marianne position themselves along the emotion/thinking divide as they discuss what they like in life, but the actual words they use to describe their supposedly different outlooks turn out to be quite similar. This seeming verbal agreement of course doesn't stop them from reiterating their incompatibility and lack of understanding, but the question has nevertheless been broached. Are male/female disjunctions primarily a result of social strictures that enforce such separateness? Does language help or hinder attempts to eradicate these divisions? Why don't Marianne and Ferdinand understand each other if they seem to be speaking similar words? As usual, Godard doesn't answer any of these questions, he simply leaves them hanging in the air as just one element in this sprawling film.

Ultimately, what all this adds up to is the same thing that nearly every other Godard film adds up to: a dense knot of questions, inquiries, and ideas, tied around a much looser core of plot points and character sketches. It's the perfect summation for his early 60s oeuvre, not only because it draws so many of those earlier films into its orbit, but because it is the epitome of his filmmaking at that time. It's clear, in the sure, sharp aesthetic of the film — its jaw-dropping widescreen vistas, its crisp primary colors — that Godard's filmmaking had reached a new pinnacle and a new stage. Here, he trades in the ragged and jumpy aesthetic of the earlier films, with their endearingly stitched-together quality, and on his first color feature since Contempt, proves himself a master not only of the use of color but of the widescreen frame. In one particularly brilliant shot, he maintains a long view of Ferdinand frantically running along a beach, quickly panning back to accentuate the urgency and then, as though to undermine this atmosphere, executes a leisurely pan to the left, meandering away in the opposite direction from Ferdinand's racing form. As the camera pans up and left across the fluffy clouds and pale blue sky, it eventually reveals Marianne standing on a balcony, held at gunpoint, thereby further accentuating the urgency of the shot and linking the lovers across the expanse of sky. The way in which Godard toys with emotions and meanings in this shot, simply through the movement of the camera, is carried out throughout the film. Despite his continuing (and sometimes overriding) interest in words and ideas, Godard is also among the most visual and sensual of filmmakers, and it is this dichotomy of ideas and sensations that exists at the core of Godard's filmmaking.


Unknown said...

This is a beautiful piece, Ed, on one of my favorite films.

Dennis Grunes

Unknown said...

A very well thought-out and informative review! I just finished this flick a few minutes ago, making it my second Goddard film (the other being 'Breathless'). It's quite interesting to trace the influences of European/French New Wave directors with their American descendants of the late '60's and early '70's. They definitely break with the more "traditional" film-making conventions of classical Hollywood montage editing, or "invisible storytelling" style.