*. Pauline Kael: “It gets to you.” Or else it doesn’t. It hasn’t gotten to me yet. I’ve gone back to some of Jean-Luc Godard’s work recently and developed a greater appreciation for it (and I’ve always liked films like Alphaville and Weekend, at least when I’m in the mood), but Pierrot le Fou still leaves me cold.
*. I’ve never been sure what Godard’s point is here, and (as usual) his own disingenuous and contradictory explanations for what he’s up to are no help at all. There are lots of nouvelle vague stunts but they all seem like empty distractions to me. And I’m not even sure what it was I was being distracted from.
*. There are critics who will tell you what the point is. Which makes me wonder if the point was to enlist the critics. In his Criterion essay on the film Richard Brody refers to Jean-Paul Belmondo as “a handsome, vigorous leading man.” Vigorous maybe, but Belmondo was one ugly fellow. His pairing with stars like Jean Seberg and (here) Anna Karina is a beauty-and-the-beast French specialty. I always thought that was something behind the pairing of Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci (who were married at the time) in Irreversible. Cassel was vigorous too, but not handsome. As David Lee Roth once said, most music critics like Elvis Costello’s music because most music critics look like Elvis Costello. So perhaps Belmondo was Godard’s way of playing film scribes.
*. Within the movie itself we get a cameo by Samuel Fuller at a cocktail party, who tells us that what movies are all about is “in one word: emotion.” An odd invocation of purpose, I would have thought, for a film like this. But in the interview with Karina included with the Criterion DVD she talks of how there’s “a lot of sentiment, there’s a lot of emotions in every scene.” I don’t see any of this, but Brody’s essay suggests I may be looking in the wrong place: “Rather than have actors act out emotions on-screen, Godard wanted to find a way to signify emotion and thus to arouse it in the viewer — so that emotion would go from the filmmaker to the viewer not analogically but in concentrated, sublimated form, by means of style.”
*. I’ve tried, but I have to say I find this explanation by Brody to be even more mystifying than his calling Belmondo handsome. Emotion is not expressed by the actors. I got that. Ferdinand really is a fool, so stuck in his own head that he can’t even see Marianne as a muse, and Marianne is clearly just toying with him. Where the style represents a sublimated emotion, however, escapes me. I didn’t have any emotional response to Pierrot le Fou at all.
*. So what’s it about then? I come back to this because the story is disposable. Godard was writing the script as he went along, and called it “a completely unconscious film.” I couldn’t really follow what was happening. So what does this parade of images and music mean?
*. David Thomson, another sympathetic, even admiring, critic has his own theory. He sees Ferdinand and Marianne as representing the division between words and feeling, which “is not just a weather system for the couple, it’s the storm in Godard’s own head between being a writer or a filmmaker.” Alas, I can’t say I’m feeling much of that either.
*. Thomson also calls this “the last great romantic movie.” This echoes Godard’s own assertion that he wanted “to tell the story of the last romantic couple.” As I’ve said, I don’t see how this applies to Ferdinand and Marianne, neither of whom seem to be in love. And in so far as there’s a masculine-feminine binary being developed I don’t think it’s very illuminating either (as well as being a long way from progressive). Men read Joyce and women read fashion magazines. Welcome to the Age of Ass. And a pop-art movie by a guy who rejected the central tenant of pop — that it’s about liking things — by showing how much he despises all of modern life and culture. Weekend was more honest in its nihilism.
*. I don’t want to pile on the critics here, but Godard really has been a critical darling, and very nearly only a critical darling, throughout his career. In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll Pierrot le Fou ranked as the 42nd-greatest film ever made as chosen by the critics (it actually tied with five other films in that spot). I don’t get it. I don’t find it interesting to think about or even to look at, as devoid of emotion as it is of thought. That may sound like a real put-down, but the thing is I don’t hate Pierrot le Fou. I just don’t think there’s anything to it at all.