Pierrot le Fou J-L Godard ( Fr 1965) Anna Karina, Jean Paul Belmondo
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 6 June 13; ticket £5
Pierrot le Fou (PF) in which Godard potently reconstituting himself as Pierrot le Fou, takes the road movie into the new era.
Setting out the stall
In an early sequence in the movie, at a typical high tone bourgeios party, Pierrot (aka Ferdinand – Belmondo) meets Sam Fuller the American film director. Pierrot asks him what movies are. Fuller replies that movies are like war, battles, money, people. Fuller ends by concluding that: in short films are emotions.
Godard in PF lays out his cinema stall in a manner that is both in accord with and in contradistinction to Mr Fuller. For Godard (G) cinema is PASSION; passion in the making of films. That's where the emotion is: not so much in sentiments expressed on screen, but rather emotion as registered in the intensity with which the ideas and multivariant signage are folded into the material. Godard's films are wars, but fought with ideas, ideas expressed as only cinema expresses them: in a riot of image text sound and graphics. Godard's films are passionate about thinking; what it is possible to think; and how film, with its collision of inputs, makes possible different types of thinking.
G's protagonist Pierrot is a fusion of clown and gangster. Pierrot as a type, the disillusioned romantic, points to the idea of clown. But Pierrot le Fou was also the soubriquet of a ruthless French gangster of the 1940's, a true mean bastard. It seems to me that of the two fused personas, the clown is the basis of the character; it is the gangster who points to the way out, on the run, to the road.
My feeling is that it is G himself who is this fused hoodlum–clown. The role is played wondrously by Belmondo, but the creation is the projection of Godard's schizo nature; part gangster a restless transgressive figure who hates the Bourgoisie, and is alienated and distanced from their world.: and clown. As Pierrot his search for escape is doomed by his hopeless romantic love for Columbine ( Karina), whom he can never win and who will always drop him in the shit.
The poetic fate of both clown and gangster is death. Godard's genius was to create this cultural avatar of hoodlum clown and depict him in film as a satirical response to the conditions characteristic of life in the AMERICAN century.
Road movies existed before PF, but I think it is G who gave this the genre its definitive post modernist form. In PF G replaces the mechanics of plot with process. It is a working out. The road is a pure process, and PF, a psychofilm. The series of cameos on the run provoke dialogues between the characters and the world, using the multivariant nature of the possibities of encounters on the road to elicit social and political observations and statements.
After the brilliantly inventive opening titles, which announce the movie as a magical circus, PF plunges into the bath with Belmondo, who is looking at a book about Valasquez. The book depicts Valasquez as the Court painter, but an outsider, who in old age saw through the empty shallowness of power, and perceived in the peripheral figures of the Court, the dwarves and clowns, a twisted manifestation of the emptiness of regal life.
And so Pierrot is set up. Like Velasquez he is an outsider looking into the vacuity of a class of people, in this case the bourgeiosie, and the parody of Americanised cullture and society they have adopted. Further the montage of the paintings that accompanies the discussion of Valasquez, also serves to alert the viewer that PF will comprise a structure that engages states of mind rather than the mechanicality of narative linearity. The film's structure with interpolated paintings and graphics images breaks up conditoned responses, challenges the primacy of reason and asks the viewer how they understand what they see.
The Vietnam war runs as a leitmotif thorugh PF. G inserts into PF newspaper headlines magazines photos newsreel and most stunning of all a clown show, in which Madeleine (Karina) transforms herself into a Vietnamese Columbine as a piece of mime in which she is playfully and casually shot, at point blank range, by Pierrot. The power of the Vietnam material lies in its random eruption into the film. Without a logic other than that of necessity, Vietnam is spliced into the action. The rudely extruded imagery of course points up the contradiction of normalisation. The televising of the Vietnam war has led to it becoming just another passing image, that might attract our attention momentarily but then just go away. Godard understood that the effect of 24 hour war coverage was to desensitize us and to normalize killing, but also in a more complex way it allowed us in the West to feel that we knew about it, without knowing anything at all about it. It's a long way from but also close to home.
PF is a rolling parody of affects and sentiments, one highlight being the sequence on the dock where the man tries to sing his song to Pierrot. One constant satiric theme throughout the scenario is the manner in which G depicts a society that is colonised by the outlook manner and attitudes of desire and consumption. The advertising industry. The actual effect of advertising is not to persuade us to buy this or that product. Rather advertising changes the whole gamut of social relations that operate between people and between institutions. These relations become based on consumption: on a psychic atmosphere of desire. The cumulative power of advertising, in our culture extends beyond its evident material presence in magazines on billboards in cinema and tv, to become an internalised social reality. Advertising is the way we are. Advertising is the power of propaganda which immobilises and neutralises alternative thinking.
The clown and the gangster point to the way out.