Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pierrot Le Fou

Jean-Luc Godard. Curmudgeon. Visionary. Jerk. Genius. He may not be the most likable guy, but he is, regardless, almost universally adored. Pierrot Le Fou was the first film of Godard's that I ever saw. At the time, I lacked the necessary film-historical context to truly appreciate it. As a result, I might have appreciated it even more for simply being what it was. Unlike many visionaries whose vocabularies have been absorbed into the lexicon over time, Godard remains fresh and outside. There was a recent NY Times article that speaks to this, actually: Despite being deeply influenced by Hollywood, as well as being an influence on many Hollywood filmmakers, his films are distinctly Un-Hollywood (apologies if you need an account to read the article). Anyway, at the time I saw Pierrot, I had definitely seen nothing like it, which is pretty astonishing, given how influential Godard is. Unlike Hollywood movies, which aim to absorb and carry you through a story, Godard's movies seem endlessly to be seeking the opposite. He aims to jar you out of any kind of comfort zone into which you might have unwittingly slipped. With Godard, you are watching a moving canvas, a Joycean meta-encyclopedia of references where the story is often "all mixed up," and probably the aspect of the movie least deserving of your attention.

As a collaborative project, my girlfriend Maureen did the screen captures for this particular entry. She is my copilot, in movie-watching and in life, as well. Please take a look at her beautiful photography, here.

Pierrot seems to riff on every Hollywood genre imaginable. Overall, one would probably describe it as a technicolor gangster romance with about three musical numbers scattered throughout. Godard brusquely establishes the ennui of Ferdinand's (Jean-Paul Belmondo) bourgeoisie, family life. Luckily, he doesn't waste much of our time on that, and just as quickly, Ferdinand and his mistress, Marianne (Anna Karina) are driving off in a kaleidoscope of swirling colors that contrast the still vignettes of the party he has just escaped. Godard seems to have a love affair with color in this film, with a special focus on primary colors, the building blocks all colors. The color palette is just one of many ways in which Godard goes about addressing the metaphysical questions he is consistently addressing. Colors represent perception and emotion, two ideas that are intertwined within the film.

Blue is an especially important color in Pierrot's mis-en-scene. Blue is the color of the sky and the ocean, the edges of the world, existence itself: eternity. When Ferdinand attempts suicide, he paints his face blue, seemingly to blend in, to eliminate himself from the earth by means of camouflage. It is almost like he has begun to recognize his presence on film, and he need only erase himself from a two dimensional space. Cinema is nothing without life and death, indeed, cinema is life and death, and merely existing, the line that connects the two. Godard reduces life to a microcosm-- two lovers awash in the technicolor entropy of the world. Two people balanced in limbo with existence, struggling to discover what life is.

Above is one of the most iconographic images from this film. These two shots are somewhat inconsistent with the rest of those in the movie. I don't know what their true intention is, but the gun and the scissors make me think of the film making; the movie was shot, and then edited into a jumble. Shot and cut. And, as the legend goes, made up on the fly. Then, Anna Karina owns every frame she is in. One of the most magical things about cinema as an art form is the role that a singular performance can have in memorializing a film. An actor can come to embody the zeitgeist of a particular time period. Even this movie would be lesser without its key players--without Belmondo's pout, Karina's doe eyes.

I always find it difficult to write about Jean-Luc Godard. It can seem pointless to attempt to add to the girth of criticism that already exists on him and the other New Wavers. Pushing all technicalities aside, this movie is great because of its incredibly simple subject matter (bear with me). Godard paints an immaculate portrayal of a relationship. Not only is this movie about a romantic relationship, but it is a reflection of how the qualities that make us unique, the same qualities that make us love one another, are the qualities that inevitably push us apart. Here, we see the incredible beauty, and the awful brevity of true connection. Godard may be unbearably erudite at times, but underneath the philosophy and symbols is honesty, reality.

Let's face it: even I get bored of talking about self-consciousness in films, particularly when Godard makes it so easy to do. Self-reflexivity is merely a reminder that the boundary between real life and film is incredibly tenuous. To Godard, cinema was life, and this is just what he celebrates in this movie. Here, life is often beautiful, often silly, often just a painful, humiliating joke. It is all of the events between life and death, all mixed up and out of order.

It's ours again
What is?

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