*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*
2012 poll rank: #42 (tied with Pather Panchali, Some Like It Hot, Gertrud, Play Time, and Close-Up)
Director Jean-Luc Godard is often the first name that comes to mind from film students when the French New Wave is mentioned, ahead of both Francois Truffaut and Robert Bresson. There's good reason for this: Godard didn't just make films, but also wrote about films, having been a critic for Cahiers du Cinema for years before he made his first feature, Breathless (1960). What set Godard apart from his contemporaries was his willingness to directly dialogue with Hollywood tropes, making films that were based in a classic Hollywood narrative - the film noir, for example - and then deconstructing their conventions with a blast of countercultural "cool." His were the films that '60s-era Greenwich Village hipsters praised to the heavens, and his style would soon be copied by American filmmakers like Arthur Penn, whose Bonnie & Clyde is essentially the Godard film that Godard never made.
Pierrot le Fou, however, was a different kind of film for Godard. Based on Lionel White's novel Obsession, the film follows Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a bored intellectual who feels trapped in a dull marriage and parties full of vapid discussion. He decides to run away with the babysitter, Marianne (Anna Karina), and the two engage in a crime spree that eventually takes them to the Mediterranean coast. The two lovers - specifically, Ferdinand - sours to the situation quickly, fighting off boredom by writing in a notebook. After getting involved in an arms-smuggling ring, things take a turn for the tragic.
More after the break.
The first thing that's striking about this film is how bitter it is. At the time of production, Godard was finding trouble procuring the necessary funding, which led him to casting Belmondo, who had been an unknown when he appeared in Breathless but had since catapulted into becoming one of the biggest movie stars in France. Personal troubles seeped into the production as well: Godard had married Karina in 1961, but by the end of shooting this film they were divorced. Godard was becoming increasingly more political, too, and at the time he had lashed out against the Vietnam War many times in interviews and public appearances.
It makes sense, then, that Pierrot le Fou would come off as the work of a filmmaker who was clearly frustrated. Though it is loosely based on a novel, the film doesn't take cues from any particular genre, and as a result the plot feels even shaggier than normal. In Ferdinand, it's easy to read the character as a thinly-veiled Godard, a man who's grown bored and stultified and seeks inspiration by running away from the life he created for himself. The biographical details are definitely present in the Karina/Marianne parallel: Ferdinand becomes more and more irritated by her, specifically her insistence on enjoying "trivial things" such as pop music to his philosophical rumination.
If this is the case, then Godard is portraying himself as the smartest person in the room becoming so bored with everyone else that he has to escape. Consider the cameo from American filmmaker Samuel Fuller in an early party scene: he describes cinema as "one-word emotions," a shameless admittance of the shallow pretenses of Hollywood films. Ferdinand is clearly disappointed by this remark, and it can be read as Godard being underwhelmed by the overwhelming implication that films are meant for entertainment only, not to stimulate intellectual discussion of their artistic merits. He's fully disillusioned by contemporaries.
However, when the film makes a dramatic turn later, Godard betrays his self-awareness. Ferdinand discovers that Marianne had been using him the entire time, and he seeks to get revenge on her and her real boyfriend. This results in him shooting both of them fatally, then strapping dynamite to himself and blowing himself up out of guilt (he does have reservations about this final act, but can't act in time to stop it). This is the dark twist where Godard acknowledges the destructive nature of absolute pursuit of intellectualism, and how an obsession with being intellectually superior to everyone else is dangerous and delusional. It's almost like a caustic wink at the audience: "yes, this is disturbing, but I recognize it as so."
It's also Godard's admittance of compromise: there's certainly a nobility in wanting to make his films completely his, using only his ideas and committing to celluloid the exact images he sees in his head. Yet that's an impossible task; to make a film, he needs funding. Sometimes funding requires casting actors who weren't the first choice for those roles (Godard had wanted Richard Burton and Sylvie Vartan). And yes, other filmmakers were going to make films that are first-and-foremost meant to entertain, and they may not provoke conversations about filmic technique and construction of the medium. Not everyone is going to follow in his footsteps, and through this ending, he recognizes that trying to change that will ultimately be detrimental to his own career.
Of course, this isn't the sole purpose of Godard making Pierrot le Fou; it most likely wasn't even the inciting reason. But watching it with a knowledge of the frustrations in his personal and professional life at the time, aspects of himself began seeping into the film, and slowly it became an expression of his own thoughts. The film was made on the cusp of a major transition in Godard's career, in which his films became more explicitly political and moved away from clever subversion of classic Hollywood genres. He was changing with the times, and Pierrot le Fou is where he worked out those changes through his work.
On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)