Though I think I outgrew Michael Gebert’s personal taste in movies at about age 19 (and full-out rejected it later on when I realized I preferred Rossellini, Antonioni, and De Palma to De Sica, Fellini, and Scorsese), I can’t say I don’t return to his Encyclopedia of Movie Awards every now and again to relish a few of his surprisingly trenchant one-liners. In writing about Alphaville, Gebert wrote Godard “was exciting when either you or the whole world was 20.” I’d push the age up at least another decade, but there’s certainly some truth in that notion, and the maxim applied most notably to Godard himself.
The films he made up to and including his 10th feature film, Pierrot le Fou, and perhaps the two or three things thereafter, pit insurgency against insouciance, foreboding against frivolity. If they act a little confused and a lot self-involved, it’s because they’re artistically pubescent in the best possible sense of the misnomer, and their good looks have you giving them the benefit of the doubt even as you yourself start to approach your ugly, embittered In Praise of Love years or give up on cinema for the third or fourth time.
Appropriately, Pierrot le Fou was supposed to be the tale of a May-December affair (or March-August—at least one season apart between the two), but by the time 32-year-old Jean-Paul Belmondo had been cast in the lead role opposite 25-year-old Anna Karina, the film took on a slightly different aura. Formally connected with the later requiem of Weekend by the two films’ shared composer, Antoine Duhamel, Pierrot le Fou suggests the glamour of idealistic suicide, whereas Weekend embodies the residual rage of someone who couldn’t seal the deal. The ideas rattling around in the earlier film are as skeptical as they are profuse (guns, cars, ad copy, catchphrases, and wordplay dominate the mise-en-scène), but haven’t yet rotted into real-deal contempt.
The film begins with Ferdinand (Belmondo) apparently scraping together a nice bourgeois existence for himself and his wife, whose economic contentment is summed up by the fact that she can go to parties in her new pantyless, invisible girdle—a device which Godard, through Ferdinand, declares the apotheosis of modernism. Typical of the film’s high-wire act, the comment is clearly said in mockery of both consumerism and feminine concerns, but the image—that of a perfectly aligned Madison Avenue-engineered derrière—is just as clearly appreciative of what youth, fashion, and mass media can accomplish: great ass.
In the next scene, party guests’ discussions become product placements, with women in particular prattling on about all their new sartorial acquisitions even as they mysteriously lose pieces of their clothing while Ferdinand wanders from room to room. Immediately fed up, he returns home and runs off with the family babysitter, Marianne (Karina). Godard foreshadows the futility of their attempted escape from vapid pop culture by staging their vehicular flight in a dizzying blizzard of richly hued lights (meant to represent passing streetlights), the same colors of the rooms at the party.
Sure enough, once the couple gets past a few shady murders loosely connected with Marianne’s apparent associations with organized crime, and once Ferdinand settles into a Robinson Crusoe-by-way-of-Holden Caulfield lifestyle along a stretch of the French Rivera not a half-mile down from luxurious tourist hotels, the allure of escape begins to fade. Ferdinand tries to devote himself to the lost art of reading, but sneaks into movies (sitting behind Jean-Pierre Léaud), and Marianne insists they move onto their next adventure, preferably one with a little bit more connection with the material world that previously provided her with so many enjoyable 45s.
Both Ferdinand and Marianne ultimately fail to better themselves romantically, intellectually, politically, or philosophically, and it’s one of Pierrot le Fou’s unique charms—and one reason why the film stands out as a particularly beloved entry among those who adore French New Wave—that Godard doesn’t regard their situation with emphatic mockery or inordinate reverence. (It’s worth mentioning that his next film, Masculin Féminin, isn’t quite as magnanimous about the harmless dangers of pop music.) Though the whiz-bang, comic book-panel aesthetic of Pierrot le Fou is as potentially intoxicating as any contemporaneous head movie, it’s also one of his most finely balanced works, one that successfully straddles generational gaps far wider than the one separating Ferdinand and Marianne—even the one separating 1960s-era Godard from latter-day JLG/JLG.