Musings: Pierrot le fou (1965)

Pierrot le Fou is Jean-Luc Godard’s road movie based on Lionel White’s novel ‘Obsession’. After World War II, there was a rise in cinephillia across France when Ciné clubs became popular. These clubs allowed people to immerse themselves and engage with cinema from around the world. The cinématheque Français was key to the French New Wave movement as it provided the future directors and critics with the majority of their knowledge of the film industry. The French have always had a deep love for cinema. It was often called the 7th Art, but cinématheques created an intellectual climate around film. People had enjoyed it but now also took it very seriously. Journals dedicated to cinema came onto the scene, most notably perhaps the ‘Cahier du Cinema’, which was set up in 1951 by André Bazin. The ‘Cahier du Cinema’ changed some of the basic principles of film criticism and theory, for example they developed auteur theory. It was also a key part in the creation of the Nouvelle Vague movement as it created a space to nurture talent. The writers of the magazine included Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer, who went on to direct the films that created the New Wave.
The writers borrowed money from friends and began making their own short films. There were a number of features that distinguished New Wave cinema. ‘The most obviously revolutionary quality of the New Wave films was their casual look. To proponents of the carefully polished French ‘cinema of quality’, the young directors must have seemed hopelessly sloppy’ (Bordwell and Thompson page 486). With advancements in technology, cameras became more portable and lightweight, meaning they could be handheld and provided the filmmakers with more freedom and flexibility, as did the faster film stock. They aspired to reveal and break the conventions of film form, producing films which paid homage to films of the past and laid their techniques bare to the audience. Much like their writings, the films this group of directors produced were also criticisms. Significant inspiration was derived from Neorealist film, the New Wave films were shot on location to oppose the mainstream studio films being made at the time. The French New Wave challenged typical narrative construction with its protagonists who tended to go through the film without purpose and drastic changes in tone along with discontinuous editing which disturbed narrative continuity. Rapid changes of scene, the utilisation of jump cuts and crossing of the line are techniques which were also used. These features brought a new aesthetic to cinema, which served as a constant reminder that audiences were simply watching a sequence of moving images. This was done using techniques such as direct address, breaking the fourth wall and looking straight down the camera lens.

‘There was no more ‘typical’ New Wave film artist, in terms of the traits and interests he had in common with his contemporaries….for example..with Alain Resnais the central figure of the so-called Left Bank school, Godard shared a love of mixing high and low culture and a taste – which coexisted with his Rivettian love of long takes – for montage’ (Alan Williams 2000 pg 47). Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou is a significant film of the time as it features many of these common traits that the French New Wave contemporaries’ films shared. Pierrot le Fou alludes to Hollywood on multiple occasions, for instance Ferdinand/Pierrot calls Marianne (Anna Karina) ‘My Girl Friday’ which is a reference to Howard Hawks, who he has often cited as one of his favourite American film directors, and his 1940 film His Girl Friday. During the party scene, there is an appearance by American auteur film director Sam Fuller as well. Ferdinand and Fuller discuss cinema, Fuller defines it as ‘emotion’. ‘It was in the 1960s that highly self-concious narration became respectable. Godard…revelled in it’ (Bordwell 2006).One of the ways Godard made the film’s narrative aware of itself is that it is in parts a film about cinema. It reminds audiences that they are just engaging with a cinematic experience. There are deliberate continuity errors throughout the movie such as the clothes Marianne and Ferdinand wear suddenly changing colour. This paired with the use of jump cuts makes the editing style has a jarring effect which draws further attention to itself and Godard’s self conscious approach to filmmaking.

The discontinuous editing also contributes to the meta-narrative of the film, the story behind the story. Audiences watch Ferdinand and Marianne in visual sequences, but the description they give in the narrative may be unrelated to what is shown on screen. They describe what has happened, is happening and will happen, which divorces the story from the images. Andre Seewood (2008) argues that by limiting what is shown on screen, Godard is able to detach the cinema from its slavish devotion to communicating a story in a linear sequential order and expands what audiences hear. The meta-narrative is also told in the non-linearity of the dialogue. Sections of dialogue are repeated, which reveals information from different periods of time. The images shown are not related to the narrative at times. ‘By emphasizing a meta-narrational strategy in Pierrot Le Fou, Godard was shifting the cinematic emphasis of traditional narrative representation. He does this specifically by using meta-narration at points in the story where most classical Hollywood directors would dramatize the expositional events’ (Andre Seewood 2008).

‘Perhaps most important, the New Wave film typically ends ambiguously….the looseness of the casual chain leads to endings that remain defiantly open and uncertain.’ (Bordwell and Thompson pg 486) Pierrot le Fou leaves many unanswered questions for the audience to ponder over once the film has finished and despite the deaths of its protagonists, the ending is left relatively uncertain.