Precious Bodily Fluids

Pierrot Le Fou

Jean-Luc Godard might be a genius. Certainly he’s an artistic genius, but he might also be an unqualified genius. Before Pierrot Le Fou, I had only seen Breathless, which he apparently regretted in a number of ways. But this one has a style unto itself that demands notice. The French New Wave had a look and feel that made people think that the filmmakers simply threw anything up on the screen that came into their heads, regardless of meaning. And I think that blurs the real distinction that exists between French New Wave and avant-garde. If there are films that encapsulate both, then the exceptions prove the rule. Godard was deliberate and incredibly structured with Pierrot, beginning with Ferdinand’s symmetrical placement among the bookstands, identifying him with his dreams. The early bathtub scene with his daughter (dressed in blue, matching the towels, each an accessory of his life) has him explaining Velasquez’s need to reinvent himself and his work midway through his career, setting the stage for Godard’s own reinvention that is this film. When one looks into Godard’s personal life for context, one sees that he just experienced a difficult divorce (with none other than Anna Karina, the actress from this film), causing him to doubt his future work.

The question “What is cinema?” is answered: “Like a battleground, love, hate, action, violence…in a word, emotions.” The party that Ferdinand attends before finally giving up on his boring life of wife and daughter is depicted in flat, symmetrical scenes using strongly-colored gels. The colors are chiefly primaries, and each shot is taken from the same distance, emulating paintings of figures’ top halves while standing against walls discussing products and sounding uncannily like commercials: deodorant, cars, hairspray, etc. The topless women are lost in the wash of the walls and colors, as the bored men stand nearby. Ferdinand, who is seen in nearly none of the shots, seems to be the point of view of these shots.

Godard carefully composes the early scene of Ferdinand and Marianne driving at night with a dark background and swirling primary colors. The lights are similar to passing streetlights, but they have a surreal element to them. Godard divides the scene into a series of shots: Marianne alone, then Ferdinand alone, then both of them, twice through. This scene transitions to a shot of Marianne in bright, outdoor lighting on a boat in bright red and blue colors, signifying a re-genesis of their life together.

In the apartment, we have a twisted musical: Marianne wanders around the rooms singing; we see a bloody corpse on the floor; her bright blue bathrobe shows continuity with her previous scene on the boat in blue; Ferdinand sits in bed ambivalently, smoking, cynical, bored; she continues singing with an imaginary soundtrack playing in the background (we hear it and apparently she hears it, but he doesn’t); she sings of “love with no tomorrow.” She teases Ferdinand, but to no effect.

Then there is a flashback to a murder. The music dies as Marianne strikes her victim on the head with a bottle, which is emphasized with narration: “Silence. Silence.” Following this is a fast-cut montage. The soundtrack orchestration ends when Ferdinand shuts off the car at the gas station and Marianne begins her morbid Laurel & Hardy routine with the attendants, ending with a close-up of a billboard: “TOTAL.”

The film portrays Ferdinand (the man) as defined by action, particularly his own. Marianne (the woman) is defined by her relationship to Ferdinand the man. Yet there remains a degree of co-definition. They narrate together, finishing one another’s sentences.

In general the shots are flat, but with an increasing number of diagonal shots. The accident scene when they pretend they are the victims may have been an influence on Antonioni in The Passenger. Very often full paintings from Renoir, Van Gogh, and Velasquez fill the screen. Many images of America appear: the statue of Liberty, Ford, other American cars, travel destinations (Las Vegas), dollars, space race, etc.

Ferdinand violates the fourth wall rule by speaking directly to the audience, even identifying it as such when Marianne asks whom he’s talking to. Their escapades have no apparent reason or rationale, other than giving Marianne respite from her boredom and allowing Ferdinand to read and gather ideas for his upcoming work. Their position while lying down imply further phallocentrism on her part, identification with Ferdinand. Hints that he reciprocates identification with her are later confirmed. Soon after, he drives a tractor with her sitting on the trailer in tow. He walks above her on a plank while she walks below. He jumps down to her. He orders her, examines her, touches her, while reading aloud. They discuss what they want from each other, and she lists feelings while he says “ideas.” While different both of their lists end with the same word: “everything,” which is reminiscent of “TOTAL.”

“Life” becomes a more important theme of the film as it progresses. A close up of fluorescent-lit letters spelling “VIE” (Fr., “life”) turns out to have been a close-up on the middle of the word “RIVIERA,” a destination Marianna lists among othes that she wants to visit. At one point Marianne talks to the camera, saying that she doesn’t care about anything. All she wants is to live. When she goes missing, still the two of them narrate together as before.

Ferdinand’s close-up journaling reveals him turning the French word for “art” into the French word for “death” – art becoming death, an illustration of the inevitability of Ferdinand’s dreams.

Two things I wish I understood better about this one. First, why “Le Fout”? Synonyms for this are used throughout the film: idiot, stupid, fool, etc. I don’t quite see the significance, other than (possibly) Godard’s own self-effacement. Second, Ferdinand’s last-second (yet too late) hesitation before the dynamite explodes. While this reminds us of the scene at the train when he jumps off the tracks at the last second, why does he hesitate and change his mind? Perhaps it’s no more significant than the lack of decisiveness inherent in a character like Ferdinand. Sure would be cool if someone reading this had seen the movie and could comment. No pressure, though.

This entry was published on April 2, 2008 at 5:44 pm. It’s filed under 1960s Cinema, French Film, Jean-Luc Godard and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

6 thoughts on “Pierrot Le Fou

  1. I think there are many events in the film that support the choice of the title. First of all, it is obvious it’s in relation with this unique way of living and seeing life the two protagonists both have. They live on the road; they have an utopian perception of life, no restrictions and they mostly do whatever they can and want. He reads, she sings, they have fun and they don’t work at all. They are only searching more and more.
    Moreover, the suicide scene reflects how much he can’t stand the idea he just killed the love of his life; Marianne. He paints his face in blue, he ties dynamite around his face; he follows the deep impulse that tells him to get nearer of this woman and only this certainly represents his craziness and, at the same time, it explains perfectly the title.
    Sorry for my English, I would have been much better to explain it in French. Anyway… I found very interesting your article!

  2. Thank you for your thoughts, which are quite helpful. Your English seemed solid to me. I am hoping to watch Godard’s film Weekend shortly. I would appreciate any help you can offer on that one when I’ve had a chance to post something on it.

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