TIFF Cinematheque presents a Summer in France: There’s much ado about ‘Pierrot le Fou’

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Pierrot le Fou

Directed by Jean-Luc-Godard

France, 1965

A man who dares waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life. A man who wastes an hour and fifty minutes is Jean-Luc Godard.

Godard himself once said that his Pierrot le Fou “is not really a film, it’s an attempt at cinema. Life is the subject, with [Cinema]Scope and colours as its attributes… In short, life filling the screen as a tap fills bathtub [sic] that is simultaneously emptying at the same rate”.

To Godard’s credit, his analogy can’t be more appropriate. As a tub empties and fills at the same rate, science will dictate that the water ultimately goes nowhere. The tide remains unchanged. It stagnates.

Godard’s attempt at cinema, Pierrot le Fou, is very much the same.

Allegedly shot without a script, the film’s lackadaisical momentum may just be intentional, Godard’s way of visualizing the idle nature of life, like his famous traffic jam sequence in Weekend.

But as it is, at an hour and fifty minutes, Pierrot le Fou is frustrating, an endlessly provocative piece of work that puts the spotlight on the storyteller, not the story.

In Pierrot le Fou, the Pierrot in question is actually Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo), an all-around unhappy man stuck in his shallow Parisian life.

Following a typical bourgeois party with typically bourgeois people, Ferdinand decides to run away with Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina), his baby-sitter and ex-girlfriend, whom gave him the moniker ‘Pierrot’ when they were together.

As they escape their orthodox lives, their subsequent journey, of course, becomes unorthodox.

As characters, Pierrot and Marianne are jarringly superficial, one-dimensional, and purposely so. They don’t function as real people, or as surrogates for the audience to understand the world they in habit.

No, they are proxies, on screen substitutes for Godard and his musings. Their dialogue is too turgid to be believed as those of real people, especially of those that reject ‘bourgeois’ culture.

Like in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, this means one thing; it’s the director trying to get his or her views to the audience via bombastic discussions between the leads. As such we see their views on life. Consider the following excerpt taken from a conversation in the film,

“Where are we going?”

“To Mystery Island, like Captain Grant’s Children.”

“To do what?”

“Nothing. Just Exist.”

“Doesn’t sound like much fun.”

“C’est la vie.”

In another sequence, Marianne is discussing the anonymity of news reports, to which Pierrot says, “C’est la vie.”

Marianne replies by saying, “that’s what makes me sad: life is so different from books. I wish it were the same: clear, logical, organized”.

So from these two instances, we can ascertain what Godard feels about life. To him, life is unclear, illogical, unorganized. It seems to have no purpose, isn’t very fun, and simply exists.

These attributes are inherent in Pierrot le Fou, his attempt at portraying life through cinema, and one has to admire how well he is able to translate his ideas.

But just as a bad-film-on-purpose can still be bad, a boring-film-on-purpose can still be boring. A film should be judged by its results instead of its intentions, even if it the intentions are well accomplished.

The film itself is perfectly content to be in languor, existing in a state of inertia that doesn’t strive to go anywhere.

Without a conventional plot, which is, again, probably intentional, all that’s left is Pierrot and Marianne. The film is really about them ruminating about life and existential conundrums, but because they are clearly a fabrication to represent Godard’s true feelings, and not cleverly written excuses to do so, it feels like an overlong lecture by an erudite, but less than urbane professor.

As a conceit, Godard’s Pierrot le Fou is sound, but in execution, Godard makes the film less about what he has to say, and more about the fact that it is he who is saying it (a great counter-example would be Badlands, where Terrence Malick uses visual poetry to enhance the story and anima of his characters).

Godard breaks the fourth wall on more than a few occasions, reminding the audience that they are, indeed, an audience, and with a bevy of Godard trademarks interspersed throughout the picture (satirizing America, the bourgeoisie, cutaway title cards, vibrant colours), he wants to make it clear that they are an audience to a Godard movie.

Or, at least, his attempt at one.

– Justin Li

Pierrot le Fou is a part of TIFF Cinematheque’s ‘Summer in France’. For more information and tickets, please visit the official website

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