Jean-Luc Godard | Pierrot le fou

“To be immortal and then die” Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard has always considered himself as much a critic as a filmmaker -indeed, the two functions are inseparable for him- and in both areas he has made it his mission to shake up established formulas as radically as possible. “We have to fight the audience,” he told critic Gene Youngblood in a 1968 discussion. By this he meant no hostility toward spectators, but just the opposite. Moviegoers, he believes, should be treated with far more respect than typical Hollywood products allow. The task of the morally alert filmmaker is to challenge us, provoke us, prod us out of the passive viewing habits instilled by manipulative techniques of commercially driven studios. Only thus can artists like Godard realize the goal he acknowledged at the end of that 1968 interview: “I am trying to change the world. Yes.”Source

Godard’s fascination with motion pictures has walked hand-in-hand with a love of words. He began his career as a writer for French film magazines, including the widely read Cahiers du Cinéma, where his dense, elliptical articles helped establish the politique des auteurs -claiming that a director can be chief creator or “author” of a film -as an influential new way of thinking about movies. He considered his directorial debut a change of format rather than a quantum shift in his career.Source

And Godard has a style linked with his love of words. His camera often flashes to full-screen intertitles or snippets from books, periodicals, and billboards; many of his films foreground dialogue as well as music and sound effects in an effort to “liberate sound from the tyranny of sight,” thus combating the lure of the materialistic, often dehumanizing spectacles peddled by the mass-market culture industry. And while many directors think in terms of eye-dazzling pictorialism, he regards language as an expressive tool at least as powerful as imagery. While commercial studios pre-plan and pre-test their projects down to the smallest detail, he treasures the truthfulness that emerges from spur-of-the-moment improvisation, a key ingredient of his major films.Source

If a viewer is not used to the films of the French director, then Pierrot le fou can be an extremely frustrating experience. Like other great artists (Bergman, Fellini, Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Tarkovsky), once you get used to the world that Godard has created for you, you end up appreciating and enjoying his films much more. And even if you personally don’t think Godard is one of the world’s greatest directors you can at least come to the conclusion that he is probably the most courageous and audacious. Source

Pierrot le fou

Film is like a battleground: love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotion.” Samuel Fuller’s famous epigram during his cameo in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou is a concise summary of the film itself. Not only does it have love, hate, etc., but it is a battleground on two fronts: Godard’s attempt to break away from genres and his need to exorcise Anna Karina, his frequent star and the wife who was divorcing him. Source A battleground among moviegoers too as when Pierrot le fou was released in 1965, it was banned for children under 18 years of age for “moral and intellectual anarchy” and aroused much controversy. The movie opposes two forms of life: one, corresponding to the “ethical stage” of life, associated with legality, responsibility, commitments and social attachments (job, sociability, marital and family life); the other, corresponding to the “aesthetic stage”, related to illegality, mad love, defiance of the law. This brought forth an ethical debate, especially among amateur cinephiles: can we and should we live like this : outside, if not against, social norms? Source

The Script

Pierrot le fou  presents the adventures of countercultural heroes Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina). Loosely based on Obsession by the crime writer Lionel White, also the source of Kubrick’s The KillingPierrot le fou, released in 1965, began production without a script.Source Two days before shooting was to begin, Godard had nothing to go on apart from the book and the idea for a certain number of sets. Lines were therefore rehearsed on the set, or improvised, and the film was shot, in Godard’s words, “like in the days of Mack Sennett . . . the whole last part was invented on the spot, unlike the beginning, which was planned. It is a kind of happening, but one that was controlled” Source

For his version of Obsession, Godard rejects traditional narrative and bends and blurs genres. Although Ferdinand’s voiceovers allude to chapter numbers, this literary structure is ultimately subverted as the numerical order of the chapters becomes increasingly hypertrophied and chaotic throughout the movie. The madcap journey Godard represents evokes the conventions of road movies, action thrillers, spy films, and even musicals with dance numbers; he apparently saw Pierrot le fou as an amalgamation and continuation of his prior projects. Suggesting that the work confounds easy categorization, he called it “the first film noir in color.” Source

A film Noir in Color

Jean-Luc Godard is often presented as a painter or sociologist of his time.Source Pierrot le fou possesses many characteristics common to pop art. Most pop artworks employed the mediums of painting, print, or sculpture; Pierrot le fou is pop in celluloid. It critiques cinematic conventions, consumer society, and cultural and military imperialism with images in Techniscope and the brilliant hues of Eastmancolor. By sampling and remixing various sources, Godard brought quotidian, commercial, and political subject matter into the realm of film. The director engaged with the world through the camera lens, omnivorously consuming all manner of subjects and weaving them into a common audiovisual fabric, confounding clear bounds between reality and fiction, acting and action. Revealing his own experimental spirit and an expansion of the definition of cinema, the director stated, “Pierrot le fou is not a film, but an attempt at cinema” that “reminds us one must attempt to live.” Godard asks spectators to reassess their relationship with the conditions of modern life as well as modern cinema. Source

For his story of a runaway couple, Godard initially envisioned a Humbert Humbert-Dolores Haze-like pairing, with Richard Burton and French pop star Sylvie Vartan. When neither proved available, he had to settle for Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo, thereby gaining a completely different perspective on his story. Belmondo is Ferdinand Griffon, a bored bourgeois, who impulsively runs off with Marianne Renoir, his babysitter as well as his former lover. Godard has said that he was inspired by Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, itself inspired by Bonnie and Clyde. Source “I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple”, says Godard in an interview at the 1965 Venice Film Festival, “the last descendants of La nouvelle Héloïse, Werther, and Hermann and Dorothea.Source

With Pierrot le fou Godard more obviously strives to subvert the conventions of crime movies, shooting most of the film in bright daylight, injecting humor with unexplained corpses lying about, making a car theft deliberately boring, and turning the tragic conclusion into a joke. The presence of thugs trying to recover stolen loot is almost an afterthought. All of these measures announce that Godard is outgrowing his Hollywood mentors and wants to do something more personal, if not political. Source

Pierrot et Colombine

In accounts of Godard’s work, the period of Pierrot le fou is also referred to as the “Anna Karina years,” and the director’s personal and professional collaboration with the Danish actress playing the film’s female protagonist, whom he married in 1961, structures the work of 1960 to 1967.Source The reasons are vague about why the marriage went bad, some suggest that Karina was tired of being the director’s muse. In Pierrot le fou he seems torn between loving her and needing to vanquish her from his life, creating an emotional distance, if not vacuum, in the Marianne-Ferdinand relationship. Godard fetishizes Karina in all their films, as the male gaze gang has noted. The way she is photographed in Pierrot le fou, especially in the close- ups, creates a sense of both affection and regret. Marianne, though far from glum, is never really happy. Something is missing, but she doesn’t know what it is.Source

“You didn’t believe we’d always be in love” Ferdinand tells her. She says, “No, I never told you I’d love you forever.” 

Ferdinand and Marianne’s story begins with a chance meeting: Marianne Renoir, Ferdinand’s ex-lover, is posing as the niece of his friend Frank (with whom she carrying on an affair); she is enlisted to babysit Ferdinand’s daughter while he accompanies his wife, Maria, and friends to a cocktail party at the home of his wealthy in-laws, Madame and Monsieur Espresso. Ferdinand had worked in television, but recently lost his job. His wife hopes that her father can introduce him to a Standard Oil executive at the party who might want to hire him. The reencounter with bohemian Marianne prompts Ferdinand to reject his bourgeois life and its associated rituals, and run away with—or back to—her. But tuning in and dropping out proves to be complicated: Marianne is involved in more dangerous activities than Ferdinand expects. His search for adventure and excitement takes him on a path toward gun-running and deadly intrigue. His transformation from upright citizen to secret agent or revolutionary begins to concretize when, early in the film, Marianne baptizes him with the moniker “Pierrot” as he drives her home. She insists on referring to him by this name, despite his protests. Pierrot is one of the stock characters from the Commedia dell’arte, the tragic and naive clown dressed in white and smitten with the female character Columbine. Marianne’s interpolation seems to work: rather than drop her off, Ferdinand stays the night. From this moment, he veers further and further away from staid Ferdinand and toward the “crazy”(fou) Pierrot.Source

A film about painting

In an interview with Godard and Karina at the 1965 Venice Film Festival, Godard said about Pierrot le fou : “It’s a film about painting… Well, not exactly.” Source Indeed, Pierrot le fou establishes that it will blur boundaries of culture from the beginning. Quoting—literally—from the history of art, and pulling it into the movies, Ferdinand soaks in a bathtub while reading aloud passages on the famed Spanish baroque painter Diego Velázquez from a paperback edition of Élie Faure’s Histoire de l’art. In addition to the characters who recite art history, Godard situates reproductions of works of art throughout the film. Artworks form one element of the sets’ décor. Marianne’s flat is replete with posters and postcards: the women of Amedeo Modigliani meet Paris Match, Picassos share the screen with automatic weapons—props equally proper to Hollywood and television news images of Vietnam. At different moments, both Ferdinand and Marianne are flanked by reproductions of Picasso’s Portrait de Sylvette (1954) and Jacqueline aux fleurs (1954), implying parity between filmic and painterly representations. Source

Furthermore, Ferdinand sleeps below a trio of postcards—including Picasso’s Paul as Pierrot (1925), a work whose title evokes both Marianne’s moniker for the character and the actor Belmondo’s given name (Jean-Paul). Marianne’s surname, Renoir, is echoed in the paintings by the impressionist Auguste Renoir that Godard weaves into the scenery, in order to redouble the presence of her character. Paintings that are visual puns on the characters’ names are also inserted into the film as close-up shots that cut up the action.(…) Godard’s juxtapositions and ruptures do not occur lightly. Instead, they are deliberate and pedagogical. As film scholar Richard Dienst argues, Pierrot le fou “offers lessons in seeing as a political act.” Source

“It’s ours again. Eternity”

Pierrot le fou wasn’t very well received when first released and it was initially booed when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1965. And yet there were some critics who supported the film like critic Michel Cournot who wrote, “I feel no embarrassment declaring that Pierrot le fou is the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen in my life.” The poet and novelist Louis Aragon wrote a front page review saying, “There is one thing of which I am sure….art today is Jean-Luc Godard.” The film even inspired the director Chantal Akerman who after seeing the film at age 15 decided to become a filmmaker and later made the experimental masterpiece Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles. Even if disliked when viewing it for the first time, like every great Art film, Pierrot le fou deserves to be seen… more than once. Source

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