Jean-Luc Godard

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Jerome H. Delamater

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Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou is an intricate and complex film, rich in visual and verbal allusion to painting, literature, and other films. It moves with its two leading characters, Ferdinand and Marianne …, in a somewhat picaresque journey through a life of trying to escape from society, hypocrisy, and commercialism to a life of crime and violence, ultimately arriving at death, perhaps the only true liberation. Godard's style, an introverted and self-consciously cinematic one, is so closely linked with his narrative and his thematic elements that the two are almost inseparable. Pierrot le Fou is a profound film that contrasts the humane and the inhumane in revelations of the best that man can accomplish versus the worst, which seems to be his more natural tendency.

Godard's use of color is the first noticeable attribute of the film. Pierrot le Fou is not simply a color film; instead, it uses color as part of the journey theme and as an emphasizing device. Colored filters, for instance, show mood and make distinctions, and a progression throughout the film from dark to light signifies the progression of Ferdinand and Marianne from society's strictures to death's liberation. Simply put, it is a film that could not have been photographed in black and white and still have retained its essence. (p. 5)

Godard's use of color is akin to his use of visual and verbal allusions to paintings and painters. The opening sequences of Pierrot le Fou are, in fact, covered by Jean-Paul Belmondo's voice-over reading about Velazquez from a book on art history. Considered in retrospect, it is an almost too obvious comment on the film itself. As the world of Velazquez was sad, so is the world of Ferdinand; the world of Ferdinand, like that of Velazquez, is inhabited by princesses, midgets, and clowns. (p. 6)

Other paintings by Picasso and Renoir as well as by Modigliani, Rouault, Rauschenberg, and others either decorate walls or are inserted at particular times throughout the film. Those painters whose work Godard shows in the film have, like Godard, defied tradition. They sought freedom in their art away from traditional restrictions just as Ferdinand is seeking freedom.

The literary references in Pierrot le Fou are also strong and important…. Art and literature seem to represent human values for Godard, and Ferdinand and Marianne emphasize this several times in discussions about the nature of novels and in quick replies about particular writers. As they are riding through Paris that first night, for example, Marianne comments that she wishes real life would have the clarity, logic, and formality of life in novels. (pp. 6-7)

In a way, Pierrot le Fou is a modern Aucassin et Nicolette. Aucassin et Nicolette is unique of its kind because it is written in alternating verse and prose; it is generally believed that when presented originally, the prose was recited by one performer and the verse sung by another…. Aucassin et Nicolette is a somewhat ironic tale, a mild parody of the roman courtois; likewise, Pierrot parodies not only the gangster movie but also the musical and in many ways the art of film in general.

Bernardin de Saint Pierre's Paul et Virginie and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe are closely linked with the period of isolation that Ferdinand and Marianne experience…. Paul et Virginie is not just a pastorale of two innocent young lovers living apart from society whose idyll is broken when society intrudes; it is also a novel of colors and painterly precise descriptions, much as Pierrot is a movie of colors and painterly precise photography. Ferdinand and Marianne gain almost...

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as much freedom as possible through their Robinson Crusoe return to nature, yet their isolation becomes a decided limitation. They find, of course, that they cannot stay away from life; their retreat is like the world of Jules Verne novels, Marianne says, but they must return to their detective stories with cars and guns and nightclubs.

Perhaps the most fundamental references in Pierrot le Fou, however, are those to movies. Not only does Godard force on the viewer a self-conscious awareness that he is watching a film, but also throughout the film Godard makes his characters talk about movies. For Ferdinand, knowing movies is as important as knowing books; immediately after his lesson on the world of Velazquez, while talking about the maid's having gone to the movies, he equates seeing Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar with getting the right kind of education…. [If] Johnny Guitar does not fit into the genre of the Western, [and] it is its own genre, then Pierrot is the same kind of film. It does not fit neatly into the genre of the gangster film; it is its own multi-faceted genre film. Likewise, the reference to [Julien Duvivier's] Pépé le Moko, possibly the prototype of the French gangster-romance, shows an affinity with Pierrot le Fou.

Life as it is seen through film is special. No one is more aware of this than Godard, and in Pierrot le Fou he constantly reminds the audience that they are seeing a movie—not real life. The references are often subtle and exclusively cinematic, but occasionally they are overt, as well. Marianne, for instance, remembers an incident from a Laurel and Hardy movie to help them get away without paying for gas. Later, as they are planning to burn the Peugeot in order to give the impression that they have been killed in an accident, she tells Ferdinand to pull the car closer to the wreck; it must appear authentic since, after all, they are not in the movies. This type of reference draws attention to itself precisely because of its amusing irony: they are in the movies, and denying it emphasizes that fact.

Godard has always been inclined to use cinematic devices in an obvious way and to ignore what are generally considered to be "traditional" approaches to filmmaking. Pierrot le Fou is typical Godard in this respect. For example, during the sequence in which Ferdinand runs from the café through the streets and along the beach to the apartment house where the midget is holding Marianne prisoner, Godard ignores screen direction…. [The] problems of involvement and communication that lie at the heart of the film are united with the theme and the technique of Pierrot le Fou.

Ferdinand and Marianne are complex characters, individual and subtle. There is an attraction-repulsion between them that underlies their actions and is a result of their basic differences. Both are searching for freedom; they want to get away from their previous existences, but once they are away, they want to return to the activity they have left. (pp. 7-9)

Ferdinand is caught in [Marianne's] milieu. Ferdinand refers to [Jean Renoir's] La Chienne in which Michel Simon allows himself to be possessed by a girl; the same thing happens to Ferdinand. He is searching for freedom, and she becomes his mode of achieving it. In the process, however, she enslaves him just as his wife did before her.

Though they are not one-dimensional characters, Marianne and Ferdinand are, nonetheless, comic-strip characters…. Their various scenes almost seem inspired by incidents from the book of cartoons which they carry during the film: La Bande des Pieds Nickele, the comic strip of the (freely translated) loafers or ne'er-do-wells. Marianne and Ferdinand are loafers, seeking fulfillment wherever they can find it, by making up stories, by acting out guerrilla theater, and ultimately by killing.

Throughout Pierrot le Fou Ferdinand seems to be playing two roles. One is that of a naturally pensive and philosophical person who knows books and movies and painting and who keeps a diary; his name is Ferdinand. The other is a man of action who steals cars and runs throughout the country with a girl who inspires him to each new pursuit; his name is Pierrot…. Pierrot is, of course, one of the Italian art comedy clowns who are beset with problems of love. Though chiefly a comic figure, the original Pierrot is somewhat sad, as well, for he must work so hard to overcome the society which usually rejects him. In Godard's film Ferdinand gradually assumes more of the Pierrot qualities as the movie progresses…. Whereas Pierrot is the winner, if not the survivor, in the old plays, Ferdinand realizes that there are no winners. At the end of the film, as he paints his face blue, assuming the mask he has rejected all along, Ferdinand actually becomes Pierrot. The thinking man becomes the acting man and blows himself up.

As thinking man, Ferdinand writes a diary during the course of the picture, and the diary becomes an integral part of the visual aspect of Pierrot le Fou. Godard inserts pages from the diary, but individual words rather than complete sentences are often all that can be caught from the way they are photographed. It is through the diary, though, that Ferdinand reveals himself. He ruminates on the meanings of life and decides that those who lose in life are the real winners. He dissects Marianne's name and finds the French words for "sea," "soul," and "bitter." He philosophizes that once one has achieved what one wants in life, life still remains an unsolved mystery. This then is Ferdinand/Pierrot's story. He has run away from his wife and Paris; he has attempted to achieve communication and interaction; he has gained the solace of an isolated existence, but all to no avail. Life has still given him little satisfaction, and, significantly, the last word he enters in the diary is mort. (pp. 10-12)

Pierrot le Fou may be Godard's Fleurs du Mal. During his discussion with Samuel Fuller …, Ferdinand discovers the nature of cinema: it is like a battleground, full of love, hate, action, violence, and death—in a word, emotion. The description especially suits Pierrot le Fou, which, like Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal (the title Fuller gives for his next movie is Flowers of Evil), suggests that beauty and corruption are of an inseparable nature. Like Baudelaire's poems as well, Pierrot is an imagistic movie, especially in its use of water. The sun and the sea together at the end represent the idea of eternity, for example. Life consists of paradoxes. Painting, literature, and film are among man's greatest achievements; war and murder and leading lives of quiet desperation are among his worst, yet the two are inseparable. Ferdinand cannot accept it anymore, and, accordingly, he destroys himself. (p. 12)

Jerome H. Delamater, "Jean-Luc Godard's 'Pierrot le fou'," in Film Heritage (copyright 1975 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 10, No. 3, Spring, 1975, pp. 5-12.


Peter Harcourt