For some films, the history of cinema, popular culture and the media have transformed them into cultural objects, into myths, into symbols. Their poetic scope intends to go beyond borders with a single glance and is measured above all by what is said about them, by what they represent.
This is the case with Pierrot le Fou (1965), the seminal work of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Fifty-five years after its release, we may now have enough hindsight to decipher what made the director’s tenth feature film such a pop culture phenomenon and emblem of the French New Wave.
Jean-Luc Godard. (Pictures: Shutterstock)
The classic film, a real mix of auteur film, road movie, gangster film, romantic comedy and more, will be screened today at the Rainbow Theater in Amman in honor of its emblematic French-Swiss director. Godard. The event is organized by the Royal Film Commission in collaboration with the Embassy of Switzerland, the Embassy of France and the French Institute of Jordan.
An explosive affair
Pierrot le Fou is the hero of the film, but his name is not Pierrot, his name is Ferdinand Griffon. At least that’s what he constantly repeats to his children’s babysitter, Marianne, who always calls him “Pierrot le fou” to tease him. And indeed, the story of the unlikely couple, on the run in the south of France in search of love and freedom, seems quite crazy, at least for them.
Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who begins as a good Parisian bourgeois, educated, married and father of a family, leaves his decent social life to flee with his daughter’s young guardian, Marianne (Anna Karina). The couple had been involved in an affair five years prior, but that experience had been short but sweet. From now on, they have decided to rekindle their passion in a crazy flight.
Over the course of their incredible adventures, we learn that Marianne is being chased by two criminals. The story is told in a fast-paced manner; the couple’s quest is literally explosive, dangerous, romantic and poetic.
Surf the wave
Pierrot le Fou is a film that has stood the test of time. This emerges most strongly from the many quotes that have been incorporated into popular culture and from the later works of many other directors (Quentin Tarantino and Xavier Dolan, for example) who, have taken up stylistic elements that flavor Godard’s works, sometimes despite of themselves.
From the outset, the film was a major critical and popular success. The year of its release, it exceeded one million cinema admissions in France; a rare feat for a work with such an experimental staging. The success of “le Fou” most certainly has its place in the current of the French New Wave.
Spearheading the wave, Godard is at the height of his art in cinema, which reinforces his aesthetic signature marked by a symbolic approach to colors, the desynchronization of images and sound, and theatrical staging.
In Pierrot le Fou, we notice the strong symbolic presence of blues and reds, faithful to the “Godardian style”, as well as a pop approach to lighting. Sometimes the filmmaker uses color filters; he sometimes applies strongly colored and assumed lighting to nocturnal scenes. In short, Godard creates a universe close to that of comics, deviating from realism.
“JLG” was one of the most iconoclastic filmmakers of his art: sunglasses, cigar in his mouth, he marked generations of moviegoers with cult films like Contempt.
“I only want to talk about cinema. Why talk about anything else? With the cinema, we talk about everything, we touch everything, ”he said with a drawling accent.
The director made around fifty feature films from the 1960s, to which were added dozens of short films. One of the most studied filmmakers in the world; he was honored with a César and an Oscar for his career, as well as a special Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018. The films of the man with the tortoiseshell glasses were distinguished by a singular editing and nervous, a very personal use of quotes literature, or their provocative spirit.
JLG has always divided critics and audiences: for some, he’s a genius; for others, a filmmaker with hermetic work. He had a way of attracting attention and occupying the ground of film theory like no other, delivering his precepts: “When you go to the cinema, you raise your head. When you watch TV, you turn it down.
When Godard decided to direct Pierrot le Fou, the filmmaker was far from suspecting that he was creating the future icon of a generation.
Make fun of Hollywood
To speak of art in the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard would obviously require more than one article. An encyclopedia would not be enough to deal with the subject. A theme could be approached by bringing up his later films, including Goodbye to Language (2014) and The Image Book (2018). Both are sensory and reflexive cinematographic experiences, mixing poetics and politics. This omnipresence of art within the seventh art itself is a constant in the filmmaker’s career, the first hints of which appear in Pierrot le Fou (1965).
The film is, in fact, at the junction of three trends.
First there is the resurgence of the caustic Godard, which simultaneously pays homage and mocks classic Hollywood cinema, as seen in Breathless (1960). The story of the couple formed by Marianne and Ferdinand has hints of detective film within a frenzied road movie punctuated with philosophical variations on impossible love. If it mixes and subverts these different cinematographic genres, the work also anticipates the more openly militant turn taken by Godard at the end of the 1960s.
The political tones of La Chinoise, released on the screens in 1967, were already announced in Pierrot le Fou, which denounces both the consumer society and American foreign policy. The screen zooms in on advertisements, including one for a brand of women’s underwear that elicits an ironic comment from the hero, in English voiceover: “There was the Athenian civilization, there was the Renaissance, and now we let’s enter the civilization of the ass. .”
The art is both inside and outside the story. From the outset, it is intended as a critical cinematic tool, superimposed on the narration whenever it is not simply included. With this, Godard enriches the film and the story it tells, bringing additional meaning to the staging. For example, we go from a close-up of Marianne to a painting by Renoir, renamed “Marianne Renoir” on occasion. Some scenes are downright interspersed with shots that have nothing to do with the above. Take, for example, the action scene interrupted by the neon lights “Las Vegas”, filmed in close-up to the sound of classical music.
These contrasts can sometimes take a much more explicit path. How not to follow this background when we see paintings by Picasso enthroned next to Kalashnikovs? To superimpose two objects so conceptually distant in the same frame seems like a cynical travesty that lowers art to a highly dubious capital market.
“Made of Dreams”
Art is not only a material element appearing in the narration, it also insinuates itself into the dynamic between the heroes. We see it when Marianne confides to Ferdinand that she would like “life and the novel to be the same: clear, logical, organized”.
Pierrot le Fou is a work that lives in chaos, which constantly crosses a vast cinematographic gap, ranging from burlesque to detective, and from romance to musical comedy. In the same scene, we go from laughter to tears. The bubbling energy that the film conceals preserves the DNA of the “New Wave” at the same time as it anticipates the political turmoil of May 1968. By staging protagonists breaking taboos, Godard subverts the “cinema of and the bourgeois society to which he is attached.
The story that Ferdinand and Marianne live, full of sound and fury, is also that of characters who choose to live as on screen. By deciding to escape their everyday life, they acquire a new freedom. They quickly become the heroes of their own “adventure film”, as they themselves declare in voiceover. With them, every act or event is likely to transform in unexpected ways. They make their cinema in the cinema itself.
This mise en abyme is not the only one at the center of the film. Pierrot le Fou is indeed structured around a reflection on the value of art and, more specifically, that of cinema. The work is based on the postulate of the eponymous hero, who affirms: “We are made of dreams and the dreams are made of us.
The phrase should not be seen as a celebration of psychoanalysis. For the director, dreams are entirely artistic — one could even say exclusively cinematographic — since they are realized, in the film, only through the bias of the seventh art. Ferdinand is an informal self-portrait of the filmmaker, which reaffirms through his character the limitless imaginative power of cinema. If art can influence life (and vice versa), it can also create interference with it, going so far as to blur the boundaries between life and artistic fiction. Ferdinand gradually becomes Pierrot le Fou the fictional character, the hero he himself built with Marianne, even if it leads to his death.
Death on blue background
This fiction that the characters act out, within what is already a cinematographic fiction, immediately has a morbid tone. Pierrot le Fou constructs a meta-image within the image, where art puts itself to death.
This fatality is omnipresent, and constantly recalled by various artistic means deployed both by the characters and by the director. Art therefore has a dual function: both to announce the future of heroes and to delay it.
Think of this moment at the beginning of the film, where the narration is cut by a close-up of a comic strip, imbued with the writing: “Appointment with death”. When Ferdinand is assaulted by mysterious strangers, the director moves the encounter offscreen, replacing it with a painting by Picasso. The distancing of the event does not attenuate the violence it presupposes.
Godard stages a story that recounts the birth and death of a couple. If art initially allows the reunion of Marianne and Ferdinand, it very quickly becomes a vector of misunderstanding between them. Unlike Ferdinand, Marianne is a young woman who sees existence with as much lightness and incoherence as the heroes of novels.
The final scene of the film is the poetic and political culmination of the plot. Godard manages to condense in a single scene all the obsessions of a film which permanently asserts itself as the cinematographic chronicle of an (artistic) eternity announced.
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