Pierrot Le Fou

Lawrence Russell

Pierrot le Fou, 1965 writ. and dir. Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel Obsession by Lionel White) cine. Raoul Coutard star. Jean-Paul Belmondo (Pierrot/Ferdinand), Anna Karina (Marianne)

invasion of the double men

The artist in search of a subject should be as valid as any theme, but somehow it's usually supremely irrelevant. Writing about writing, films about films... in some ways Godard's post-modern adolescence is his charm, a view of life through a camera and other people's fantasies. It's pop culture cannibalization, a media cut and paste, very avant in the sixties. Does it work? Not always.

Like many of his films, Pierrot is more improvisation than substance, more rhetoric than experience. Belmondo plays a Paris ad man who impulsively runs off with his baby-sitter, ends up on an island in the Riviera trying to be a writer while his lover Marianne (Karina) sets about fulfilling his fantasy of betrayal by a gangster's moll. It's a simple story made complex by the fusion of literal and speculative action. This French Walter Mitty is another example of the anthropology of French culture under the spell of Hollywood. It's as if Godard is erecting effigies for a cargo cult in a desperate effort to import American sex and crime.

"...the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 offers so much more, its design is handsome and strong, its line powerful yet sober, a rare elegance which proves that beauty is not incompatible with high performance."

Everybody is playing at being something, groping towards a method of excitement in the world of the mundane. Pierrot reads art criticism in the bath, goes to a party where women stand around topless in the dim light and smoke. Bored, he demands the keys "of the Lincoln" from an American film director and heads off into the night in the American car, sealing his fate.

The babysitter is the "niece" of Frank, an ambiguous client or partner in the Ad business. She's no teenager and it's obvious from the start that she's a woman open to possibility. He drives her home, has off-camera sex with her, next morning wakes up in the full flight of his fantasy. Machine guns lean against the wall, and there's a body on the bed... which might or might not represent the old Pierrot. In any event, he's now "Ferdinand", a character in the fiction he and Marianne are creating.

There's a shootout with some invented terrorists and the lovers escape into the conditional in a Red Pugeot. They rob a gas station using a routine Marianne says she saw in a Laurel and Hardy film. They drive into the night, deep into their fantasy and the French countryside. There are occasional cut-ins of pop-art (Roy Lichenstein), magazine ads, Renoir.

They pull over, kiss. "Ferdinand" studies himself in the rear-view mirror.

Pierrot/Ferdinand: I'm looking at myself.

Marianne: And what do you see?

Pierrot/Ferdinand: The face of a man who's about to drive over a cliff at a hundred kilometers an hour.

They've set in motion an end-game in which Ferdinand will be an advertisement for Pierrot's fate. At dawn they encounter a crash scene where a smoldering car stands on its nose piled against the fragment of a freeway overpass in a field. The image is bizarre, ludicrous, a fragment from a dream. The driver hangs dead from the wreck as if he and the freeway fragment were tossed here by a tornado... or left behind by another movie maker. Marianne shoots the gas tank of the Pugeot and they abandon the burning car as part of the accident tableaux.

"Chapter 8. We crossed France...."

It's here that the film loses its forward momentum, buries itself in rhetoric and infantile montage. They steal another American car, make it to the Riviera. As is usual with Godard, the transitions are compressed or eliminated in an attempt to isolate the existential moment. They have a stone cottage on the beach. Pierrot has a blue cockatoo and writes his insights in a large notebook. He wanders through the eucalyptus groves, babbles, makes entries. Marianne brings him books from somewhere and they bicker a lot. "We've played Jules Verne too long," she says. "Let's get back to our gangster movie."

They visit Toulon in search of her "brother" Fred, cavort for some American sailors. Pierrot does a crude Bogart parody as the ugly American in Vietnam. They return to the woods.

Pierrot/Ferdinand: We have come to the Age of Double Men. We don't need mirrors anymore to talk to ourselves... we are made of dream and dreams are made of us.

He delivers this speech like an animal looking out from the cover of the swamp grass, the sort of direct address to the audience that Godard uses like a commercial for his insights. Fine. But like a T.V. randomly shifting through the channels, the narrative is uneven, a confused melody of monologues, song and dance routines, scene shifts and cut-ins. Despite the surf and the sun, and the French condom karma of Anna Karina, it's all a bit tedious.

Frank eventually returns with a couple of hoods and a dwarf with a pistol, reclaims Marianne... or is it "Fred" to whom she really belongs? There's more play violence, more American cars, more political rhetoric. The fantasy of "Ferdinand" is completed when Marianne deserts him with "Fred" in his launch. He tracks them down in some ruins and shoots them. He carries the mortally wounded Marianne to a nearby villa and lays her down on a bed where she whispers, "Please forgive me, Pierrot."

Pierrot goes into a workshop, paints his face blue as he talks on the phone to the maid back in his Paris apartment, asks about his children. He finds a couple of belts of dynamite (conveniently), goes to a cliff, straps them around his head, lights the fuse. He has second thoughts about his act but it's too late -- Crazy Pierrot the Double Man explodes as the camera slowly pans to the blue horizon of the ocean.

When asked about his disjunctive narratives with their arbitrary cut-ins, Godard said that he didn't see why anyone would be confused as television functions continuously on action interrupted by commercials. Yes. In fact, the real program has become the commercial and the interruption the drama.

Pierrot Le Fou? Between the love/hate duality of its American affirmation and French denial, these days this film seems to be little more than an affair between two bohemian undergraduates in good old funky, sixties France.

© LR 20/6/99


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