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Notre ami Pierrot

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 omnibus rides again
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  September 12, 2007
4.0 4.0 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Pierrot le fou

Pierrot Le Fou | Written and Directed by Jean-Luc Godard | with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Dirk Sanders, Graziella Galvani, and Samuel Fuller | Janus Films | French | 110 minutes
“Film is like a battleground,” American director Sam Fuller pronounces famously at the cocktail party in Pierrot le fou. If that’s true, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 crazy quilt — which is screening this week in a new 35mm print at the Brattle — is an arena where ignorant armies clash by night, Matthew Arnold being one of the few outposts of Western civilization not visited in a movie that cites Velázquez, Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani, Aucassin et Nicolette, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Balzac, Hugo, Poe, Robert Browning, Baudelaire, Jules Verne, Rimbaud, Joyce, Céline, Scott Fitzgerald, García Lorca, Les Pieds Nickelés (a French comic book), Beethoven, Madama Butterfly, Mack Sennett, Laurel & Hardy, Pépé le Moko, Johnny Guitar, and every one of Godard’s previous films — not to mention Standard Oil (“Put a tiger in the tank!”), Playboy, Coca-Cola, the invisible panty girdle, Algeria, Vietnam, JFK’s assassination, and the Statue of Liberty relocated to the Île de la Cité in Paris. Godard’s first color film, shot in June and July and premiered in August in Venice, it’s a road trip, a political screed, a gangster flick, a love story, a tract in æsthetics. In his 1965 Pierrot essay “What is art, Jean-Luc?”, the French Surrealist Louis Aragon wrote, “This film defies review. Go count the units in a billion!” Godard himself said that “Pierrot is not really a film. It is an attempt at cinema.”

An attempt at the plot: out-of-work (he was fired from his TV job) Parisian Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) leaves the cocktail party he’s attending with his panty-girdled Italian wife (Graziella Galvani) and returns home, where his former girlfriend Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina) is babysitting. He drives Marianne to her apartment, where rifles are stacked against the wall under the Picasso and, the next morning, a corpse with a pair of scissors in its neck turns up on the bed. Ferdinand and Marianne shoot their way out of town and head for the south of France, stealing gas, stealing a car, stealing money, trashing their car (twice), throwing away their money (twice), hooking up with her “brother” Fred (Dirk Sanders) in Toulon, leaving in their wake a trail of bodies. (Marianne alone shoots two, using the same model rifle that killed Kennedy, and scissors one.) They’re Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney in You Only Live Once, a pre–Bonnie and Clyde, lovers doomed not so much by a cruel world (Ferdinand is tortured and threatened with napalm) as by their own differences (he’s words, she’s feelings).

That’s one part of the film’s dialectic. Pierrot — Marianne invariably calls Ferdinand “Pierrot,” and he invariably answers, “My name is Ferdinand” — is the French commedia dell’arte’s eternal loser in love, the character in the popular song “Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot” and Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire and Picasso’s pastel Paul en Pierrot (which we see in the film), Jean-Louis Barrault in Les enfants du Paradis. Marianne is the French symbol of Liberty — and Money (seen on the franc and now the Euro). Every Godard film is red-white-and-blue, representing his love-hate relationship with both France and America, but this one is also red-yellow-blue, the primary colors (at the end, Ferdinand paints his face blue and ties sticks of red and yellow dynamite around it), cinema as a way of painting, blood as not blood but red in a movie where everything bleeds into everything else.

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