Why can’t life be like in books? Gorgeous women, dead bodies, boats, fast cars singers film stars crooks. Why can’t it be intellectually exciting, and have the unity of a work of art; with its beauty and its meaning, and with its perfect form? Those necessities for the thinking mind. And life is so fast in fiction. Never is it dull. Always it is changing: one day you’re jealous of a staid accountant the next you’re playing badminton with an actress; and always you can be on the run….
I want to live inside hard covers! But your wife won’t let you. Job, kids, the daily round of social convivialities; all are doors you must open to a world that exists outside your own mind; where you are assaulted constantly by contingent facts, the congested traffic of our daily lives. It exhausts us. And it bores us too. Even here, amongst the haute bourgeoisie in Paris, life has become tedious. Ferdinand tells us so. The job’s stupid and tiresome, it is something in media, so he resigns; to laze about on the pages of his library.
Oh no you don’t! Your rich Italian wife wants you to go to a party with her father and his friends: they will find yet another boring job for you; a post particularly debilitating to the mental instincts, no doubt. An executive role in some corporate office would be especially appropriate. Reluctantly, marriage after all is another all too pressing fact, you submit and go. Dull, dull, dull. The men talk about cars; then wait for the women to talk about perfumes, before they talk once more about Renaults and Mercedes. The party is so tedious that some women go topless: the only way they can remove the boredom; though everyone is so jaded that nobody seems to notice… It is the same faces, and the same words; always the same effort to fill up a few long hours with people who you know too well. They bore you; and you, it is inevitable, bore yourself.
Ferdinand asks a woman why that guy over there looks unhappy. He is an American film director who can’t speak the language, she says. Ferdinand then has a conversation with Sam Fuller through this woman. He asks him what the movies are really like. The director can find nothing to say…
Godard is always very smart. But will such intelligence sabotage this film? Right at the beginning there is a moment of tension, when we have our doubts. Will all be lost? Will Pierrot le Fou lose its art to its self-consciousness, that curse of the intelligent but untalented?
The first few scenes suggest not. They are beautifully shot: a low angle view of the cluttered outside of a newsagents; two pretty women playing tennis in what feels a light and airy summer space. Afterwards, there is an interlude amongst the jumbled contingency of home and family life. Then we are in the party, where nearly each shot has a different colour – green, grey, red. We are unclear what this is means.[i] We begin to wonder if Godard is too consciously manipulating our expectations. Here is the moment when it may go wrong…
Ferdinand smashes up the party and the director cuts to his flat. In full colour he runs off with the baby sitter. They were lovers five years previously. What a strange coincidence. Just like in films.
Ordinary life is so dull. Now is the time to grab a car and get out of here!
The film begins with a voice over. We see the game of tennis, we look at Ferdinand amongst the newsagents, then we watch Ferdinand in the bath as he reads Elie Faure’s L’Histoire de l’art. He is reading about Velasquez; his technique and his life amongst rogues and dwarfs, and the non-entities of the king’s court. He reads from the book for a long time; we see now he is reading to his daughter, until his wife removes her from the bathroom. Is art dangerous to little children? It is certainly a threat to real life….
This film is extraordinary, an authentic masterpiece. Like the meta-fiction[ii] of the 1960s it is an example of a new kind of movie, that creates its own reality out of its own medium; and the products of pop culture and art. However, like Borges and Calvino at their best, this film is not an empty self-referential game (which it later became for their imitators).[iii] It is not the cinephile exhibiting his knowledge through in-jokes and obscure references;[iv] or a gifted technician mucking about with different genres to see how far he can go; of how many different things you can throw into a film and still make it cohere… Ok. It is all of these things. But they are a function of the work, not an end in themselves.[v] For these techniques form part of the texture of the film; the very reality Godard is trying to capture; that strange world of art where the unreal can be real, and truth is mostly fiction. This is a film about this particular kind of reality, which has its own special qualities that sets it apart from life; enhancing and elucidating it, with its own truth, its own shape; and its own fabulous impossibilities. In Pierrot le Fou Ferdinand exchanges his real life for that of the hero: in a comic book, thriller, a musical, or a gangster movie. Here is a film about living life as if it were really art. It is about those moments when we take a break from the daily round and immerse ourselves in the richer world of novels and the cinema. A world that follows its own rules; and which is independent of the habits and contingencies of work, job and family. It is a world where you can live on no money at all, for something will always turn up; in places that are more beautiful than the drab streets we know only too well. Bertrand Russell has captured these aspirations perfectly:
Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry. What is best in mathematics deserves not merely to be learnt as a task, but to be assimilated as a part of daily thought, and brought again and again before the mind with ever-renewed encouragement. Real life is, to most men, a long second-best, a perpetual compromise between the ideal and the possible; but the world of pure reason knows no compromise, no practical limitations, no barrier to the creative activity embodying in splendid edifices the passionate aspiration after the perfect from which all great work spring.[vi] Remote from human passions, remote even from the pitiful facts of nature, the generations have gradually created an ordered cosmos, where pure thought can dwell as in its natural home, and where one, at least, of our nobler impulses can escape from the dreary exile of the actual world. (My Philosophical Development)
Russell came to reject that view, preferring the messy reality of empirical fact: we have to accept this contingent world, he thought, if we want to understand it – the goal of all his thinking.[vii] The danger in the position quoted above, and to which Russell himself alludes, is that such thinking can be become, if it is not touched by a sense of reality, simply an empty formalism: a sort of vacuous academic game (the solipsism of the highly intelligent who find that their minds, like their well-furnished studies, are too comfortable to leave). However, if the art can keep in contact with reality, so that somewhere within that beautiful structure there are hard concrete facts, then it can evoke some truth about the universe; a truth that will generate a receptive response, will, to use Henry James’s phrase, vibrate inside us; providing, of course, it is done well. In Pierrot le Fou the concrete facts are film itself, where reality is unreal. And truth? The aesthetic experience, which presents and organises this fictional material.[viii] Do I have to add: this is a work of a master?
Ferdinand wakes up in the bed of Marianne. Expressing her feelings she walks around the flat singing… He gets up... there are guns everywhere and a man is dead… Marianne then kills an ex-lover… they’re on the run… Later they stay on an idyllic island… later again Ferdinand is tortured, a reference to an earlier Godard film…
Cut cut cut cut cut.
As he drives down the motorway Marianne says to Ferdinand that there is only one direction they can go – it is the road that will decide for them. He thinks about this, and palms the wheel back and forth, forth and back, left and right, right and left until… he drives into the sea. Everything is possible! This is the freedom inherent in film, and in love too. For this work is not just about the movies. It is also about love. Those first few months where we live in glorious Technicolor; and where everything is exaggerated; our senses more acute we pay far more attention to the things around us, observing them closely for what appears the first time. One result is that we isolate things – a face, a house, a picture, a word, one single phrase… - and so standing out from the flux of daily experience they take on a particular significance.[ix] Then there’s the mad-capering, the private language, your own references and in-jokes. A love affair is like a work of self-referential art. It is freedom! For a few short months.
In art, of course, it can happen all the time. Everything is eternally possible. Just pick up a book, or sit down in the cinema. Bored with work you can wake up beside a film actress, and be mildly curious over the scissors stuck in a dead man’s neck. It’s a film, so there’s no need to ask for explanations. Why bother? There are more important things to do! A gangster, after a torture session, can simply believe his victim is telling the truth; and leave him to escape through an unlocked door. Everything is possible. Bored with the plot? Get out another book! Pretend to be Defoe or Thoreau… But even beautiful islands can be boring after a while... Back to the road! And so you go to a picture house…
The film begins with a reading from Velasquez. This could be an ironic reference. However, it does suggest something about the nature of Pierrot le Fou: nearly each scene is marvellously well constructed, and beautifully photographed. It is a gorgeous film to look at. During an inept parody of the United States (during which some people left – Americans unhappy with the irony…) there is an extraordinarily lovely shot of Marianne’s face dressed as a Vietnamese actress. Another scene is framed in cinemascope from a low angle that cuts the legs and lower torso of the actors, while above them are huge brown-grey feathered trees. In one scene Ferdinand sits on a tree trunk over the water. He is on the left hand side of the screen, while Marianne walks away to its right. There is a balance of space and intimacy; of stillness and movement; there also a lot of light blue, set off against her pink-red dress…
As the film progresses we become aware of the pervasiveness of the primary colours; which seem to dominate the scenes with increasing frequency, until the final climax, when they take over. In the last scene Ferdinand paints his face blue, and wraps yellow and red dynamite around his head. A few minutes before he had listened to a madman; who believed that one tune was being broadcast continually in the air around him. Art had invaded his life and conquered it, and he could no longer make a distinction between the two. Ferdinand is not so lucky. Love dies. A book ends. A film must have an explosive finale.
Art. It is the only life there is!
[i] His different moods – sick, dull, angry…? Or just life: a series of monochrome episodes…
[iii] Although one could argue this is the fate of all innovators: the originality of the movement petering out into pastiche and copies (of various quality). The original creativity, which is often rough and diverse, replaced by a smooth technique. What follows is often more professional, though it lacks the freshness and vivacity of the initial great works. It has become a series of rather formal conventions.
[v] The usual faults of a person who has skill but no art. They are often people who don’t have anything to say.
[vii] At the time he wrote this passage he thought of reality as exhibiting some Platonic form, which was represented in mathematics.