Wednesday, August 12, 2009

PIERROT LE FOU (1965): Ideas, Feelings and Images

At one extreme of cinema we have the films we categorize as camp and those I've described as a form of folk art; those films that are unintentionally revealing of truths their makers may never have meant to tell. At the other is the avant garde, films designed to be "difficult," that resist passive absorption by complacent audiences by disrupting narrative expectations, usually in the hope of provoking critical thought. Perhaps paradoxically, film buffs often respond to both kinds of film in the same way, which is contrasted to the alleged losing of oneself in the illusion of reality classical narrative cinema supposedly aspires to. The difference between Jean-Luc Godard and Ed Wood, for instance, is arguably not as great as that between either director and, say, Ron Howard (Godard himself might suggest Spielberg as the counter-example). The difference between the unwitting camp champ and the innovator of vague novelty is still a real one. Wood would have been a Howard rather than a Godard if he could, we suspect. But there's a real similarity as well, because Godard seems always to be grappling with the task of expressing himself on film, and is unashamed of showing his erratic experiments to a candid world.

I haven't watched much Godard. He wasn't one of my early enthusiasms when I first researched what I consider the heroic age of international cinema. His reputation for egotistical pretentiousness preceded him. But when I first bought a DVD player I was in a mood to experiment. At that time Contempt was a recent release from the Criterion Collection, and on sale at the store I shopped at, so I gave it a try. As a matter of fact, there was a fair amount of that pretentiousness I'd been led to expect, but there was also incredible imagery and an overall mood that impressed me more than I'd hoped. Since then I've seen Weekend and liked that even more, and I've thought well of A Woman is a Woman and In Praise of Love. On the other hand, I couldn't get through either Band of Outsiders or Notre Musique. That could be me, or that could be him. I find myself still willing to give him chances. Besides Pierrot le Fou I have a copy of Made in USA yet to see that I picked up during the last weekend of the Barnes & Noble Criterion sale from last month.

Maybe I'm a mark for the mystique of Godard and I'm willing to try each film as another chapter in the Auteur saga, an episode of the great man's life and thought. For fans of Godard, I suppose, that attitude is obligatory. The stereotype is that Godard films are about Godard, though I think that can be overstated sometimes. Pierrot, for instance, is supposed to be a commentary on his failed relationship with Anna Karina and a somewhat mean-spirited blow-off to her (though she returns once more in Made in USA). Even knowing that going in, I thought the film was more fair than some say. But I'd still say that Pierrot is a film about Godard, though not just in the most obvious way.

Godard crafted Pierrot le Fou out of a novel by noir author Lionel White, who's also the source for Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. You can see some vestiges of the crime story in the captures I included in the preview post. The story deals with Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a bored intellectual sick of the bland life of his wife's society, including a party only partially enlivened by special guest Samuel Fuller. His desire to live the life of the mind compels him to run off with the governess, Marianne Renoir (Karina), who turns out to have family ties to heavy-duty crime and a lethal way with scissors (the dwarf may be her second victim) that belies her otherwise-apparent vapidity. She represents freedom and playfulness for Ferdinand, but she can't fully embody his ideal because she lacks his obsessive interest in literature. In turn, he resists playing whatever role she intends for him, bristling every time she calls him Pierrot instead of his real name. Despite moments of joy, here mostly portrayed musical-comedy style through song and dance, they are ultimately incompatible, especially so long as Ferdinand insists on a dream of perfect compatibility. You'll notice I'm indicting Ferdinand while the film is often assumed to be indicting Marianne. But Godard is too smart a writer for my impression to be purely unintentional.

A neat Godard sight-gag. He has us focus on the incongrous details in the kitchen (the Picasso, the firearms), and only later lets us notice the corpse in the room.

Pierrot le Fou is said to be a sort of deconstruction of crime stories like White's as well as an admission that those genre narratives no longer held Godard's interest. His approach to the genre is clearly comical as Pierrot almost becomes a road movie in the Hope-and-Crosby sense. Marianne beats up a gas station attendant using tactics she claims to have learned from Laurel and Hardy. Ferdinand breaks the fourth wall at one point to address the audience, provoking Marianne to ask who he's talking to. She accepts his explanation without batting an eye. Later, she pleads with him to go back to their crime movie after she grows bored with their reverie on the beach. In a way, too, the comedy reminds me of Woody Allen's work, and this goes to the core. Despite having Belmondo to play with, Godard had perhaps become incapable of imagining a male protagonist who was unlike himself. The absurdity of Pierrot comes from Godard imagining how someone like himself would behave in Ferdinand's position, the same way Allen would deconstruct crime, revolution and science fiction by inserting his nebbish persona into genre situations. Pierrot gets extra absurdity points because the Godard persona is incarnated by macho-man Belmondo. In any event, if the film is about Godard than it's as much a critique of the Godard persona as it is of the feminine preference for feeling over ideas embodied by Karina. The overall black-comedy framework and the spirit of self-criticism allows him to get away with a lot of hit-or-miss experimentation along the way.

Extremes of togetherness and alienation in Pierrot le Fou.

Where he's too smart for his own good, or not smart enough, is his engagement with ideas and politics. It eventually became a cliche that any film Godard made ended up being about Godard trying to make a film. However just that charge, it may be more true that whenever he consciously set out to make a film of ideas, it ended up being about him groping to express those ideas. Here you may see the Ed Wood parallel. I'm not saying that Godard is guilty of dumb ideas, though please remember that I haven't seen a lot of his output. I just think that he too often expresses them clumsily. He seemed to have a hard time integrating his ideas into a narrative that could express them artistically. The way I see it, he prefers to tell rather than show. Godard strikes me as a man who enjoys reading aloud, and there's too much of that in his movies: undigested quotes dropped in for erudition's sake (or agitprop), or sometimes key words or names uttered like spells, as if the quote or the word was argument enough. My hunch is that some of the clumsiness is intentional, driven by a distrust of seamless narrative and an autodidact's lecturing impulse. In Pierrot a lot of it can be excused because the main character can (or should) be seen as a failed man of ideas

Politically, Pierrot finds him not long before he went nutty for Maoism, more cynical than committed. Ferdinand tells a story about the man in the moon leaving home for Earth because the Soviet astronauts tried to teach him Leninism while the Americans force-fed him Coca-Cola. Later, he and Marianne get the odd idea of staging a street play about Vietnam for American tourists. You know Godard's an anti-imperialist, but the little play in which Marianne paints her face yellow and seems to speak in mews and meeps while Ferdinand swaggers about roaring, "Yeahhh!" and "Surrrre!" is so ludicrous that comedy conquers any offense the politics might give. I admit that I found the reaction shot of a U.S. sailor clapping and cheering moronically to be pretty funny as well. In that scene politics merges with the playfulness that constantly tempts Ferdinand from his fantasy calling of serious literature. The scene also demonstrates the overall narrative style of the film, which is structured in a succession of numbers (as in musical numbers) that render the whole of Pierrot a kind of pseudo-intellectual vaudeville with an ultimate bittersweet effect as Godard plays for pathos with the failure of Ferdinand's romantic and intellectual dreams.

Pierrot le Fou is Godard in widescreen color mode, with cinematographer Raoul Coutard in the house. I'd seen enough of their collaborations already to know the film would look great. Whether they're filming idyllic landscapes or Total gas stations, they give the film the epic look it needs for the mock-epic story to have its proper effect. Antoine Duhamel did the often darkly elegiac music, though he gets victimized by some Godardian experimentation. There are a couple of scenes in which Duhamel is nicely building a suspenseful mood only for Godard to cut the music entirely for a few lines of dialogue, only to resume it again. I'm sure he had some rationalization for it, but it smacks of gratuitous audience alienation in order to get them thinking about...what, exactly?

In the end, this is one of the Godards I like, warts and all. I guess that's how you have to like any Godard, since the warts come with the package and sometimes add to its peculiar charm. He's a brilliant visionary but also someone who needs to be admired sometimes in spite of himself. I actually dig his kind of personal filmmaking, especially when it breaks out of pure storytelling and attempts to communicate ideas or impressions. Pierrot le Fou doesn't go that far, and it doesn't really go so far as to turn off casual viewers, as long as they understand what they're getting into.

This is the first time I've grappled with Godard in writing. I don't know if the man himself or his true fans will be gratified with the results, but he got his way, anyway; he made me think.

1 comment:

hysterical paroxyms said...

This was a great piece on one of my favorite movies as a teenager — I'm gonna give the movie another watch and see how it stands up to my memories of it. Your review gave me plenty of new things to look for and think about. Thanks!