Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Jean-Luc Godard | Pierrot le Fou

what is a film?
by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Luc Godard (screenplay and director) Pierrot le Fou / 1965, USA 1969

Early in Godard's marvelous Pierrot le Fou, Ferdinand Griffon (wonderfully performed by Jean-Paul Belmondo, with a cigarette almost always dangling from his thick Gallic lips)—forced by his wife (Graziella Galvani) to attend a terrible party of greedy business men and mindless women—sees a man standing against the wall, all alone. "You seem to be lonely," he mutters, without the man's response. A woman seated nearby explains that he speaks only English, and serves for their short conversation as translator. The man, Sam Fuller (the beloved American director of grade B movies, who plays himself in this film) tells Ferdinand that he directs films. Ferdinand asks a truly unexpected question: "What is cinema?"  Fuller replies: "Film is like a battleground. There's love, hate, action, violence, death...in one word: emotion."

     Throughout the rest of Godard's film, the director explores that very notion, hardly coming up for air in his phantasmagoric mix of genres involving film, art, fiction, poetry, music and almost anything else that strikes Godard's fancy.

     When describing this film, many critics have somehow made it literal, detailing Ferdinand's escape with the evening's babysitter, Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina), the first step in abandoning all normal societal relations, as the two, like a less violent, but crazier  version of Bonnie and Clyde, embark on a spree of crime which takes them across France, ending in torture, murder, and death. Godard would not deny that, I am sure.  That does happen in this film—sort of. But that supposes only one reading, which Godard has clearly denied the audience, which may explain, furthermore, some viewers' distaste for this film.

     From the very first scenes of Ferdinand reading about the artist Diego Velázquez to his very young daughter to the party itself, filmed in only three colors: blue, red, and green, Godard has made clear that he is not at all interested in "reality." His subject here is art, art in all its many diverse and multiple selves.

     The partygoers are like stick figures who speak in a language of television ads, which is why the former television employee is so disgusted that he must leave the party and, soon after, his wealthy wife. These are not real people anymore than is his car ride with the babysitter—suddenly described as a former lover—is a real drive. The car seems to be moving only because Godard has bathed it in moving lights, perhaps representative, like fireworks of a few minutes before, of the overpowering emotions of the couple. Their new relationship, moreover, does not begin with action, a kiss or embrace, but with words, language that tells what they are imagining they might do: I am putting my hand on your knee, etc. From the very beginning, in short, Godard signals that his real subject is Ferdinand's very question. How do you determine story, what to film or not film, how to light it, how to convey its ideas or feelings—in short how to best express that group of "emotions" that make up a movie?

     Like a hyped-up music sampler, Godard presents the couple's imagined adventures together as combining everything from the kitchen-sink (or refrigerator) realism of their first room, to comic book capers, crime adventures, musical comedy, political statement, mime, improvisational acting, poetic expression, travel scenes, and love scenes where the characters straight-forwardly say "Let's have sex."

    If this sounds somewhat academic, at times it is. The long passages which Ferdinand reads, his aphoristic-like journals, and the hundreds of references to literary books (including another Ferdinand, Louis-Ferdinand Céline) at times grinds Godard's work to a halt. But such things, at least in meaningful films, exist at the edges of a film, and are often behind their creation.

     Most of the time Godard and his characters, in this winding road trip, seem to just be having fun. Indeed, some of the love scenes, singing, dancing, arguing are quite hilariously funny. When, on a whim, Ferdinand drives their stolen Cadillac into the ocean, they walk off not in the direction of the shore, but away from the beach-positioned camera, as if they were seeking out further self-destruction. Moreover, Godard self-consciously positions them in relation to his camera, often treating their conversations as if they were being interviewed for a documentary. At another point, as the couple speak with their backs to us, Ferdinand turns to look at his audience, noting indeed that we are still "there." Marianne asks, "What are you looking at?" to which her Pierrot replies: "The audience."

     Marianne continually refers to Ferdinand as Pierrot, the stock figure of the 17th century who, in his naïveté, loses his Columbine to Harlequin. And, of course, that will happen in this filmmaker's work; it is inevitable. Yet the main character continually corrects, "My name is Ferdinand," as if declaring his true role; the name Ferdinand comes from a combination of farð "journey, travel," and nanth "courage," both of which this hero is linked. In his intellectual concerns, Ferdinand may be a Pierrot, especially when faced with a woman who is only concerned with "feeling"; he may even be "crazy. But he is also a man of daring—at least in his own mind. Perhaps he has no choice, when his love lies to him and runs off with another man, but to cut himself off from feeling by killing her. His self-punishment for  that act is as absurd as everything he—as an actor and a character—has endured in Godard's mishmash of themes and genres. Painting himself purple (instead of the white-face of Pierrot), he ties two brightly colored coils of dynamite around his face and lights it. Some claim that he tries to put out the fire, that at the very last moment, he has had second thoughts. But it does not matter. The work—the film's "story"—the form—its characters—everything, Godard reminds, might still blow up in your face.

     Seldom has a film director taken so many chances, bothering to show us all the choices that go into any work of cinematic art.

Los Angeles, January 6, 2012

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