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Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou on Criterion

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Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou on Criterion

“A film is like a battleground. It has love… hate… action… violence… death… in one word, emotions.”

True, that is what Samuel Fuller famously declares early on in Pierrot le Fou as his definition of cinema. But while Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 feature certainly has those first five components contained within its wildly free-form structure, emotions aren’t exactly in abundance here. Or, to put it more accurately, there are emotions, but those emotions are deconstructed and examined to the point that standard reactions to such moments no longer apply. How you are supposed to feel about the plot and the characters in the film remains frustratingly elusive—and perhaps, in the end, irrelevant. Pierrot le Fou is quite possibly the “movie-about-movies” par excellence, because by the end of it those moments of love, hate, action, violence and death don’t matter so much as one’s own unsettled awareness of just how familiar and concrete movie emotions—especially those within the kinds of genre films often adored by Godard and his Cahiers du cinéma peers—often seem compared to the messier and more complex emotions one encounters in real life.

Thus, the heart of this seminal Godard work lies not so much in its “last romantic couple,” not in Raoul Coutard’s eye-popping color cinematography (capturing both privilege and freedom in lush comic-book colors), not even in its many plot twists and tonal and genre shifts. All of these are certainly important to the film’s being, of course, but its real heart and soul lies in its middle section: that lengthy passage set at the edge of civilization, in the south of France, as Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo)—now liberated from the alienating clutches of his privileged life—strives to live out his dream of intellectual freedom, while the less introspectively inclined Marianne (Anna Karina) yearns to “go back to our detective novel, with fast cars and guns and nightclubs.” This passage is perhaps the most personal and resonant in Pierrot le Fou: no longer shackled by the chains of narrative and genre expectations (which of course Godard tries to undermine in his usual postmodern way), Godard himself, ever the intellectually searching mind, is free to give full rein to all the philosophical and political inquiries that are weighing on him.

What exactly is on his mind, then?

Pierrot le Fou, of course, abounds in a wide variety of artistic references (Premiere.com critic Glenn Kenny recently compiled an ambitious three-part bibliography explaining Godard’s literary references here, here and here), but one work that he doesn’t reference explicitly is Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, in which the controversial 19th-century German philosopher famously suggested that art—Greek tragedy and music, specifically—was, at its height, an intertwining of Apollo and Dionysus: the former signifying “plastic” truth, the latter representing intoxication and madness. Thus, great art, Nietzsche believed, was a juncture between those two poles—the Apollonian supported by the Dionysian, or (to risk oversimplifying Nietzsche’s argument) intellectual awareness propped up by emotion and feeling. We buy into the artistic illusion because the Dionysian elements rope us into accepting and becoming lost in it.

In Nietzsche’s own words (from the Francis Golffing translation):

“At the point that matters most the Apollonian illusion has been broken through and destroyed. This drama which deploys before us, having all its movements and characters illumined from within by the aid of music—as though we witnessed the coming and going of the shuttle as it weaves the tissue—this drama achieves a total effect quite beyond the scope of any Apollonian artifice. In the final effect of tragedy the Dionysiac element triumphs once again: its closing sounds are such as were never heard in the Apollonian realm. The Apollonian illusion reveals its identity as the veil thrown over the Dionysiac meanings for the duration of the play, and yet the illusion is so potent that at its close the Apollonian drama is projected into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysiac wisdom, thereby denying itself and its Apollonian concreteness. The difficult relations between the two elements in tragedy may be symbolized by a fraternal union between the two deities: Dionysus speaks the language of Apollo, but Apollo, finally, the language of Dionysus; thereby the highest goal of tragedy and of art in general is reached.”

As far as I know, Godard hasn’t been connected much with Nietzsche, and for good reason. Even when his films—specifically his early-’60s works—still relied somewhat on story and character, Godard was rarely interested in maintaining any kind of façade: he was more often than not tearing down the fourth wall, reminding us of the precariousness of the cinematic artifice, and analyzing the mechanisms underneath (fiddling around with the soundtrack, jolting us from classical Hollywood complacency with “shocking” jump cuts, etc).

Because of this, many have tagged him as a Brechtian, carrying on elements of the German playwright’s “epic theatre” tradition, which, through alienation techniques, attempted to bring the spectator closer to a drama’s content without the distraction of emotional involvement—in a way, zapping the Dionysian right out of art. And yet much of Godard’s early-’60s films, true to Nietzschean form, balance intellectual provocation with feeling and vitality. Witness, for instance, the depth of feeling bridging the emotional distance of Contempt, the effervescence underlying the musical-comedy genre analysis of A Woman is a Woman, or the fondness for his low-down characters in Band of Outsiders.

Pierrot le Fou, however, represented a turning point in Godard’s artistic development. Looking at it in the context of the films that came before and after it, one can view it as a synthesis work, one that summarizes his thematic and sensual fascinations while anticipating the more distinctly Brechtian cinematic essays that would populate his late-’60s output, when characters didn’t matter so much to him as political ideas and detached examination of youth, French society, the world around us. The Hollywood genres he loved so much could no longer contain his intellectual enthusiasms, and Pierrot le Fou burst the boundaries completely—filled to the gills with B-movie thriller conventions, quicksilver changes in tone and style, social satire, pointed political commentary, and eye-popping primary colors—in an attempt to reinvigorate his own energy for filmmaking and point the way toward future, more radical artistic directions.

But Pierrot le Fou isn’t just a sensual celebration of one movie-obsessed director giving free rein to all of his impulses. Ever the questioning and engaged cinephile, Godard applies a distanced contemplation of that aforementioned Nietzschean artistic dichotomy of intellect and emotion, of Apollo and Dionysus. This clash between two human extremes of feeling goes all the way down to its form and style: there is a method to his surface madness. On a stylistic level, he accomplishes this as he has almost always done: he takes an interested but cool attitude toward his characters while indulging in his own passions for Pop Art imagery; film, literary and artistic references; and dexterous genre and formal play—with the effect that all those Hollywood-inspired genre elements are defamiliarized, put in quotation marks, made self-aware.

Right at the center of Pierrot le Fou, however, are the two characters, Ferdinand and Marianne, representing the two sides of the Nietzschean coin. They both escape from the endless drone of bourgeois existence, epitomized by a party scene in which most of the partygoers speak in the language of magazine ads (“To combat underarm perspiration,” says one woman without a trace of irony, “I use Printil after my bath for all-day protection”). However, once they drive their car into the Mediterranean Sea and Ferdinand decides to start a new life—one in which he can read, write, and concentrate on his own artistic development—a rift between the two develops. For Ferdinand, this kind of Jules Verne-like existence represents the height of freedom; for Marianne, his secluded-artist lifestyle is just as stifling as her previous life back in Paris. Marianne is the one who acts on her emotional impulses: she breaks out into song and dance at two memorably random moments; she instigates the rekindling of their love affair (when she passionately says “I’m putting my hand on your knee,” Ferdinand disinterestedly responds “Me too, Marianne”); she’s the one who would rather listen to the latest pop single instead of reading (“Music after literature,” Ferdinand implores). She’s all sensual pleasure, while he’s all hardcore intellectualism—she’s Dionysus, he’s Apollo.

The scene that best summarizes this contradiction begins with Marianne walking along the Mediterranean shore, frustratingly crying out “What am I to do? I don’t know what to do!” Ferdinand, of course, is reading while soaking in the sun (with a parrot on his lap). When he asks Marianne why she looks so sad, she responds, “Because you speak to me in words, and I look at you in feelings.” When they both try to have a real conversation, they name things that immediately come to their mind. Marianne comes up with “flowers… animals… the blue of the sky… music… I don’t know, everything.” Ferdinand responds with, “ambition… hope… the way things move… accidents… What else? Well, everything.” Note that: everything. They’re both thinking about the world, it seems, but through totally antithetical perspectives—one attuned to the sensual beauties of the world, the other approaching it from an abstracted, dispassionate distance.

This entire middle section—which mixes in such philosophical ruminations with anti-American (read: anti-Vietnam) political commentary, documentary-style interviews and loads of primal nature images—represents the fulcrum of the film, because not only does it detail the developing rift between the two characters, it also creates a rift in the film itself. Once Ferdinand gets dragged back into Marianne’s “detective novel” in the film’s final third, the film itself seems to drag its feet, piling on plot twist after plot twist past the point that they actually matter to the characters, to Godard, or even to us. (Sure, there are moments of playful Godardian digression here and there—a piece of pop philosophy from Marianne explaining why, simply in numerical terms, no one really, truly knows one another; and of course the comic monologue from French humorist Raymond Devos about the piece of music he keeps hearing that leads him to romantic misadventures, marriage and some kind of psychosis—but such moments appropriately become few and far between.)

By the end—as Ferdinand, seeing his lover die in front of him, and seeing his intellectual Utopia permanently dashed, decides to give himself an absurd “glorious death” by painting his face blue and wrapping dynamite around his head—all that is left is, well, some kind of higher plane of existence, as exemplified by a slow pan right to the enveloping blue sky and the shiny ocean underneath after Ferdinand explodes in the distance. Even in Heaven, however, Ferdinand and Marianne are still carrying on their Apollonian/Dionysian dispute:

Marianne: It’s ours again.
Ferdinand: What is?
Marianne: Eternity.
Ferdinand: That’s just the sea, gone…
Marianne: With the sun.

Marianne sees the poetry in Godard’s image, while Ferdinand merely notices the prose. The argument between sensuality and intellectualism continues beyond the final frames of Pierrot le Fou, and that reverberating argument, I submit—even more than its still-dazzling embrace of everything cinematic, political and intellectual in one arguably overstuffed work—is the source of the film’s continued fascination and relevance today.

Image/Sound/Extras: Having caught Pierrot le Fou at its Brooklyn Academy of Music revival last year, I can attest that the Criterion Collection’s high-definition digital transfer is as amazingly bright, colorful and impeccable as seeing Janus Films’ newly restored print on a big screen—maybe a bit more so, since even the print I saw at BAM had its share of flaws, little of which I noticed on the DVD when watching it on my widescreen LCD monitor. The soundtrack is probably as good as mono soundtracks get; Pierrot may be large in scale and ambition, but it was still a relatively low-budget feature after all.

All of the significant extras reside on the second disc, and while it isn’t the most loaded package of supplements I’ve seen from Criterion, there are some interesting things to be found. In lieu of a commentary track, former Dziga Vertov collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin dissects the film’s first 20 minutes or so, making a fascinating case that this introductory section lays out the film’s geography and thematic concerns economically and precisely—classical exposition that isn’t applied to characters as it is to style and theme. Other than a trailer, an interview with Anna Karina—in which she focuses mostly on the experience of making the film, making no mention of the supposed rift between her and Godard at the time—and an archival interview with Jean-Paul Belmondo, the only other supplement of possible interest is Godard, l’amour, la poésie, a 50-minute documentary that surveys Godard’s body of work up until Pierrot, especially his features with Karina. For smitten Anna Karina fans, it might be worth seeing just to see the soap commercial that first attracted Godard’s eye to the Danish-born French New Wave icon.

Finally, there’s Criterion’s usual, and typically thoughtful, accompanying booklet, featuring an essay from Richard Brody which suggests that Pierrot le Fou is, in some ways, an impassioned hate letter to Karina that blamed her for interrupting his own dreams of deep artistic exploration. Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it…