Pierrot le Fou – Godard and the ecstasy of words.

One of the lines in Pierrot le Fou (Pierre the fool or Crazy Pete) is a quote or at least an echo from Rimbaud, Une Saison en enfer – A season in hell. This is one of many art references in this film, but possibly sums up this intense period of film making for Godard. Between 1965 and 1966 Godard made five films; Alphaville, Crazy Pete, Masculine Feminin, Made in USA and 2 or 3 things I know about her.  In many ways this is an intense period of a cry from the heart for Godard.  These films can all be analysed through the critical analysis perspective to come face to face with Godars fiery reason for being.  However there is an artistic bent coming through here, an ode of sorts to a kind of poetry, according to James Monaco in his book The New Wave, which I take a lot of the ideas for this short review from.

Jean Cocteau is the poet that Godard most likes to quote and this particular phrasing from Cocteau’s Le Secret Professionnel sums up this period and particularly this film:

Do you know the surprise of suddenly finding yourself facing your own name as if it belonged to someone else, seeing its form and hearing the sound of its syllables without the blind and deaf habit which a long intimacy provides? The same phenomenon can take place for an object or an animal. In a flash we see a dog a cab a house for the first time. What is special, mad, ridiculous beautiful in them is overwhelming. But immediately afterwards habit runs out this powerful image with its eraser.  We pat the dog, hail the cab, inhabit the house. We don’t see them anymore.  

That is the role of poetry.  It unveils, in the full meaning of the term. It strips bare under a light which shatters our indifference, the surprising things around us which our senses register automatically. 

It is this irrealisation, this stripping bare under a light which shatters our indifference that best sums up Godards focus in Pierrot le Fou. Cocteau ads that it is better to expose the unseen real we deal with every day rather than to search far afield for some sort of exoticism with which to wake the daily dreamer. That is what a poor poet tries to achieve.  This is what we have in Pierre le Fou. A balance of a cold icy poetry balanced against the film makers fiery passion and reason. These are the two poles of Godards cinema.

Because of who and what Godard is (particularly at this time) this poetical essay on film has existentialism at its heart. Godard is going to great pains in this film to explain  analyse and capture the miseries of modern life as he called it.  Because of the poet in Godard, emphasis is on image and sound, the power of words and their validity in and of themselves without reference to the outside world. This period and therefore this film is part of Godard’s passionate attempt to inject reason into absurdity.

In Alphaville (the film completed just before Pierrot le Fou was started) many of the characters talk of heading south and getting away from the sadness of the city. In Pierrot le Fou, Ferdinand and Marianne complete it for all of them. There are other references to earlier films as well, for example the time cited by Ferdinand and Marianne when they last met is exactly the time of A Bout de Souffle, another Godard and Belmondo film. Like previous films Ferdinand and Marianne have to contend with the political around them and the universal in the backdrop – in this case the machinations of Marianne’s life and the complexities of the Vietnam war. The party that finally causes Ferdinand to leave (one of the best Godard moments I have ever seen – a FANTASTIC display of domesticated drudgery  compulsive pedestrian sex that is all prepossession no desire, and the perpetual discussion of commerce and products) is shot in primary monotones reflects Contempt back to us.  Like Bande a Part we also have characters who find refuge from reality in the plots of pulp fiction.

So in many ways Pierre Le Fou is a summary of what’s past.  Godard did very little planning for the film. He had the book, and a few of the settings worked out, but in his own words he had never been so worried about a film in the weeks moving toward it. This attitude also represented a kind of artistic cruises he was going through at the time when he was questioning the very notion of cinema.  He says he wanted to depict life. He was not sure if what he was making in the past was capturing his vision, and this almost led to a paralysis that comes through in the film. He claims at the very moment he captured life, it also escapes him for some reason. The very same thing that occurs to Ferdinand and Marianne.

For Godard language is so important, one should almost see his films with the script. Of course those of us who see it translated have, in this way a kind of bonus because we see the words as they are spoken, but as with all translations we are at the mercy of a translator which still places distance between us and the words that are so deeply important to Godard. In Pierre le Fou, Ferdinand’s diary is a seen and unseen essential representation of Godard’s focus on the words. For Godard the most important thing is to be aware one exists. The snippets we hear of Ferdinand’s diary are always an encounter with his surrounds – particularly when he and Marianne are trying to live in the natural environment.

Ultimately this is a traditional romance film, and it is a film about obsession, sex and betrayal. But it is also a type of medieval romance since it deals with the voyage of discovery. Godard says of these characters that they are abandoned to their own devices, they are inside their adventures and themselves  They are caught up in their own logic. Their self awareness will lead to their deaths. Of course there is also the perpetual miscommunication between the lovers. Ferdinand can’t even get the woman he loves to call him by his real name, and Marianne says to him “You speak to me with words and I look at you with feelings.” Pierre is a tragedy because the active intelligence of Marianne and the passive intelligence of Ferdinand will never combine. For the existentialist there is no more terrifying tragedy than this. As Ferdinand says “love has to be invented all over again.” Marianne sees him in many ways as a comic foil which he isn’t, and resists, until in lighting the fuse of the dynamite he wraps around his head, he changes his mind, tries to remove it, and makes even a mess of his choosing his own death.

I will sum up this very long post with a quote from Monac’s book:

For all the similarities with other films (both his and those he is honouring) this is still very much an experimental narrative. One of the reasons Godard is my favourite director is his passion for words and his passion for experimentalism – something that makes this film one of his greats. He also experiments here with time which makes the film very confusing and interesting. Ferdinand says:

For words in the midst of shadows are a strange power of enlightenment.

Marianne adds,

Of the things they signify

and then qualifies ironically

in effect.

Immediately we see a close-up of a drawing of Rimbaud with coloured vowels dotted over his face, like a disease  Marianne’s voice: “Language often retains only purity.”  As if in answer to this Ferdinand is seen drawing in red in his diary. He breaks down Marianne’s name into: Mer, Ame, Amer, Arme, Ariane.

Sea, soul, bitter, arms, and an allusion to the famous lines from Racine, “Ariadne my sister! Wounded by what love, You died abandoned on the shore.”

In the following scene in which Ferdinand goes to the cinema to watch newsreels of Vietnam, Godard quotes himself to explain what is happening. Jean Seberg, holding a movie camera (the shot is from Le Grande Escroc) notes,

“We are carefully looking for… that moment when one abandons the fictional character, in order to discover the true one…. if such a thing exists.”

Ferdinand stares at the screen. Seberg points her lenses at him, across the void of years, defiantly. Only those in the past who have the gift of death who have already committed their words to paper and film can help us. Ferdinand longs for the freedom life that the authors he quotes rate.  Near the end he tells Marianne:

The only thing I want is for time to stop. You see, I put my hand on your knee which is marvellous in itself… that is life. Space… feelings… but instead of that I will follow you, and continue our story of blood and thunder.  Its the same for me wither way.