Monday, June 29, 2009

Movie Review: Pierrot Le Fou

French director Jean-Luc Godard's was the most literal adherent to the auteur theory of film making popular in the Fifties and Sixties. Auteur theory holds that a sole creative force in the person of the director should dictate every element in his or her work, including the dialogue of every character. Godard's films, Pierrot Le Fou being one of them, tread perilously close to autobiography or self-parody at times and this is frequently what some critics find objectionable and presumptuous. In particular, this work is best understood as a contemplative summing up of Godard's marriage to Danish actress and muse Anna Karina, one which had begun with great promise four years before and was now spiraling downward to divorce. Karina in many ways is playing herself through Godard's perspective and she must have been aware of this during filming, since the dialogue spoken by her character was at times identical to things that she said in real life. Two years earlier, Godard used the same device in the film Contempt, instead using female lead Brigitte Bardot as a stand in for Karina and even requesting that Bardot mimic as closely as she could the acting style of his then-wife.

Godard employs Jean-Paul Belmondo once more in the character of Ferdinand Griffon, an intellectual and disgruntled artist who is quite unsurprisingly Godard's personal mouthpiece. Belmondo played a crucial role in much the same capacity for the director's acclaimed debut film, Breathless, filmed five years earlier, and adopts here the same general devil-may-care cocky swagger that served him so well in the prior effort. Griffon, largely out of sheer boredom, leaves his wife and children to engage in an affair with the babysitter, Marianne Renoir, played here by Karina. As the movie unfolds, Karina turns out to be a femme fatale of the worst sort: one who kills people without remorse, flaunts her connection with underworld figures, and ensnares Griffon into adopting a role as accomplice to her crimes and her own fickle nature.

The best features of a Godard film, of course, are the witty one-liners, editing experiments that disregard conventional narrative altogether, and vicious swipes at American consumerism. In the first part of the film Renoir decides to ditch the car they've been driving for the past several hours to throw the cops off of their trail, but not before issuing a command to Griffon that they ought to make it look realistic, because, after all, this isn't a movie. Later in the film an Algerian gun runner sports an omnipresent over-sized bottle of Coca-Cola. The effect is made even more prominent by the fact that the hoodlum is a midget and quite literally seems to be in danger of being overwhelmed by the size of the bottle in proportion to his slight size. In addition, characters periodically, and very deliberately break the fourth wall, speaking directly to the camera. Godard's leftist political side shows plainly when Belmondo and Karina stage a slightly over-the-top theatrical caricature of America's barbaric, inhumane treatment of the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, which was by then heating up to a boiling point. Subsequent films would be entirely political in nature, so Pierrot Le Fou represents the end of the French director's first period.

Godard, ever the consummate literary and film aesthete, filled his works full of cerebral allusions to favorite books, influential works of art, and movies he admired. At times he took it too far, which is evident if ones reads a published interview with the director, whereby in every paragraph he alludes to esoteric writers, filmmakers, and artists with a weary kind of incredulous disdain that pondered why more people didn't take the time to absorb as many influences as he had. At times, the behavior comes across like name-dropping. Similarly, Pierrot Le Fou is often criticized by film scholars and reviewers alike for daring to be presumptuous enough to take this attitude a step farther and include many direct allusions to his own prior films, not merely those of others.

Self-referential scenes might be more acceptable nowadays, but in its time the practice was seen as lazy, self-indulgent, and egocentric to the extreme. Being that much of the plot was strikingly similar to Breathless both in style and in scope, the criticism has merit. Part of this effect was purely a matter of the fact that the film went into filming with no script whatsoever and was often a product of improvisation. Godard wrote each day's lines the day before they were to be filmed, so he certainly didn't have the luxury of reflection, time, revision, or the ability to avoid occasionally repeating himself. This in itself is indicative of many art house pictures of the period---frequently unfocused, rambling, and aiming to be unconventionally different while going much too far in the process.

One is often aware of Godard's tip of the hat to other director, but what isn't documented as much are when his influences respond in kind. For example, Pierrot Le Fou utilizes primary and sometimes secondary colors in every conceivable aspect, from the dress of the characters, to the color of the cars, and even to the opening and closing credits. Godard had filmed Contempt along similar lines with the same slowly-moving, moving image-as-still-painting aesthetic of Italian director and fellow auteur Michelangelo Antonioni. Antonioni, obviously touched, would return the favor when it came time to film Blow-Up a year later. Buildings in the area of London where filming took place in that film were deliberately and conspicuously painted in these same basic primary and secondary colors, and the director even had the grass of the park where, famously, the movie's murder was accidentally photographed, painted solid green for effect. Godard, after all, like many New Wave directors had begun his film career as a respected critic and theorist in widely published cinematic periodicals. It is through these journals that ideas and concepts were exchanged and formulated. Nowadays, underground film critics would probably contribute to a blog or a internet-based magazine but in those days, of course, electronic media did not yet exist.

Pierrot Le Fou has its detractors, for sure, and for understandable reasons, but it is frequently a charming film as well. In it one sees a man emerging from a dark period in his life while trying to make sense of all which has transpired prior. It also is rightly seen as a final homage to Anna Karina, though they would not officially divorce until two years later, and a means of taking stock of her influence on Godard's life. As his first color film, Pierrot Le Fou uses the cinematic effect to a beautiful degree and leaves one wondering what earlier works would have looked like in Technicolor, not monochrome. This film concludes the director's most accessible period of film craft and shows glimpses of what future works would look like. Godard had made one Hollywood film with A-list Hollywood actors and actresses, 1963's Contempt, and found the experience much to his distaste because of studio meddling and perceived constraints upon his artistic freedom. Henceforth, he was more concerned with leftist political theory at the expense of anything madcap or conventional in the least, and was particularly concerned with Maoist treatises and revolutionary rhetoric. After the Contempt experience, subsequent films were made on his terms alone, meaning that he deliberately eschewed the popularity and deliberately commercial works of other French New Wave directors like Francois Truffaut. Godard used increasingly radical techniques in his pictures which placed him firmly in the category of independent, underground filmmaker. This was a role in which Godard was quite comfortable, though it all but assured he'd forever be an acquired taste and a frequently unknown talent.

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