“Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.” – Jean-Luc Godard
It has been more than half a century since Godard released his film adaptation of the 1962 novel Obsession by Lionel White but Pierrot le Fou’s (Pierrot the madman) irresistible charm never fails to hit the viewer like a breath of fresh air. It is extremely difficult to pigeonhole a film like this into a restrictive genre because Godard works so hard to reject those categorisations, creating a work of art that transcends the realm of language. It might not be Godard’s magnum opus but Pierrot le Fou is a masterpiece that has stood the test of time and deserves to be watched again and again.
Although Godard initially wanted to cast Richard Burton, he asked his Breathless (1960) star Jean-Paul Belmondo to be our iconic protagonist Ferdinand. A man who is stifled by the societal structures that bind him, Ferdinand mostly speaks in quotations from famous novels and borrowed ideas. We see him indulging in this from the opening scene itself where he reads to his little daughter about the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, “The world he lived in was a sad one: a degenerate king, sickly infants, idiots, dwarfs, cripples, clownish freaks dressed as princes whose job it was to laugh at themselves…” This prescient commentary doesn’t just mark the beginning of the film but also Ferdinand’s descent into Velázquez’s mad world. Like the famous painter, he tries to understand the world around him by examining the colours and images that fill it only to find himself oscillating between symbols of life and death.
Recently unemployed and stuck in an unhappy marriage, Ferdinand is persuaded by his wife to go to a party thrown by her parents where her father has promised to introduce Ferdinand to the director of Standard Oil. Godard applies tints of primary colours to most of the shots from the listless party in order to paint a layer of ambiguity over the process of signification itself. Ferdinand is not interested by the self-absorbed discussions about hair and perfume, gravitating towards American filmmaker Samuel Fuller who is also a guest at the party. He is the one person who Ferdinand wants to have a conversation with but he can only communicate with Fuller through an intermediary translator. He asks the director about the definition of cinema to which Fuller responds:
“A film is like a battleground. It’s love, hate, action, violence, and death. In one word: emotions.”
Tired of the pointless conversations, Ferdinand decides to drive back home while fireworks light up the sky and to abruptly run away with the babysitter/former lover Marianne who is wonderfully portrayed by Anna Karina. Perhaps one of the most interesting scenes in the film and a recurring one at that, Ferdinand drives Marianne home but gets lost in his own repressed desires and fantasies along the way. The camera never shows spatial movement of the car but we know it’s a moment of transition and unprecedented change as coloured lights whiz past them, engaged in a volatile dance of dangerous dynamism. Ferdinand escapes from his bourgeois life with Marianne who says, “That’s what makes me sad: life is so different from books. I wish it were the same: clear, logical and organised.”
Pierrot le Fou launches a scathing attack on this idealistic desire to confine a narrative within the structures of logic and order. Ferdinand tries to divide the last days of his life under definite chapters but as the film progresses, the distinctions between the chapters become incoherent and the sequence becomes jumbled. Everything is identified by feelings instead of numbers, emotions ranging from hope to despair. Godard’s bold experimentations with the cinematic medium prove that literature and cinema are separate forms of art and hence, should be treated as such. At its core, Pierrot le Fou is a desperate quest for liberation from the human condition and the methods used by the avant-garde director explore the possibilities of the cinematic medium once it is liberated from the tyrannical rules that governed it. How does he do it?
Throughout the film, Godard continuously breaks narrative continuity to endorse his own brand of storytelling. We see a neglected corpse in Marianne’s apartment surrounded by guns only to be presented with the events later, shot in reverse. We see Marianne driving the car only to be shown that Ferdinand is suddenly in the driver’s seat. The narrator’s commentary consists of Ferdinand and Marianne continuing each other’s sentences but it’s all fragmented, atomic parts that do not pretend to be the whole and insist on making the viewer realise that these fragments can never come together again. Godard embraces postmodern self-reflexivity by referring to other works of fiction by Joyce and Proust, mentioning Balzac and conducting a reading of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. He also refers to his own films, partially revealing a poster of Le petit soldat (1963) and interrupting a documentary on the Vietnam war with a clip of Breathless star Jean Seberg from his 1964 work Le grand escroc. Pierrot le Fou becomes a site of transgressive metafiction, a film where extras admit that they are extras and the protagonist claims that he is talking to the audience.
Logic is constantly undermined by Ferdinand, Marianne and the invisible Godard who has no patience when it comes to laying out elaborate motives for the actions of his characters. “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end… but not necessarily in that order,” the director once said but he goes one step further in Pierrot le Fou. There is one scene where the two lovers stage a car accident near an already-existing car wreck under an incomplete overpass. The structure is right beside the main road and there is no way to get on or off it. It has no beginning or end, only the middle which completely demolishes any traditional attempts at subjecting the events on-screen to a teleological analysis. This one symbol/image of a mysteriously incomplete and useless overpass with a casual explosion on one side of it is probably the most appropriate representation of Pierrot le Fou’s chaotic energy: incomprehensibly alluring.
Godard’s contempt for American culture and hostility towards American film-noirs of that time is on full display here. Guns, fast cars and cash aren’t enough to convince Ferdinand to succumb to the demands of the genre. He retreats to an island where he spends all his money on books and lives a Robinson Crusoe-like existence, writing a novel and pretending that Marianne is “[his] girl Friday”. Godard saves the philosophical references for the dialogues and colours every shot like it’s from a comic book, shades that denote the conflict in Ferdinand’s destabilised psyche. Although they con American sailors out of their money by participating in stereotypical caricatures of Americans (Ferdinand keeps saying “Oh, yeah!”) and the Vietnamese (Marianne paints her face “yellow”), it isn’t enough to convince Marianne to put up with this ascetic life where she is constantly surrounded by a self-indulgent Ferdinand, a fox chained to a table, a pet parrot and books that she cannot tolerate. Godard cheekily makes Anna Karina quote Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when she tells Ferdinand:
“You speak to me in words and I look at you with feelings.”
This is also one of the central themes of Pierrot le Fou: an inherent disconnect between the characters who are supposed to be in love but who cannot understand each other. We see images of them on our screens and quite astonishingly, Ferdinand says that he sees an image of Marianne as well. None of it is real and he cannot make up his mind about her, failing to figure out who she really is and consequently, who he is as well. She keeps calling Ferdinand by the name of Pierrot and he keeps correcting her, to no avail. “I’ve got a mechanism for seeing called eyes, for speaking called a mouth. But they feel disconnected,” Ferdinand had said earlier. “I feel like I’m many different people.” Till the very end, Ferdinand’s identity keeps transitioning: from the “degenerate king” to a “clownish freak”.
Ferdinand robs and kills for Marianne. He is tortured (an almost identical scene in Le petit soldat) and harassed because of her but none of it satisfies her. She sails off with the money she made him steal and he is left wondering how he managed to plummet to his own demise. Dreaming of a world where he gets to shoot Marianne and her lover, Ferdinand paints his face blue like a clown and wraps dynamite around his head. Death is the final liberator, we see a beautiful explosion on the cliff where Ferdinand blows himself up as the camera pans to the limitless ocean: the elemental duality of a violent life and a peaceful death. His last words:
“What an idiot! Shit! A glorious death…“