Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) is a film about miscommunication and subjectivity that illustrates the impossible task of existing simultaneously in ‘the real’ and make-believe. Following several conventions of art film and La Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) (Bordwell, 505, 585), Pierrot rejects a traditional linear narrative and allows the protagonists to move freely through filmic space, avoiding traditional plot points and general continuity. We see these conventions also reinforced by discontinuity editing, an aversion to traditional camera framings, rich color schemes, and shots that function to reinforce emotional and subjective content. Moreover, the film is filled with intertextual references to high and low art culture: film genre conventions, art, literature, and the over-saturated colors of 1960’s advertising. Pierrot essentially“equates cinema with collage” through intersecting artistic mediums (Dalle-Vacche 108). These intertexual elements function to elicit emotional response and reflexivity in the viewer: a subjective self-awareness. Furthermore, these tropes illuminate the emblematic themes of subjectivity or inner life in the film.
Pierrot follows Marianne (Anna Karina) and Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) on their fruitless search for romance and freedom. The film uses several concepts dualistically during the characters’ journeys: reality and imagination, past and present, and contemplation and action. Director Jean-Luc Godard states, “I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple” (Wills 5). It is a narrative that follows characters that “are abandoned by their own devices. They are inside both their adventure and themselves” (Wills 8). Godard’s comments illustrate the idea of reality (their physical journey) versus imagination (the internal) and therefore a duality of subjective experience. Godard goes on to explain that “Anna [Marianne] represents the active life and Belmondo represents the contemplative” (Wills 8). We see this in how Ferdinand is constantly reading books and comics or writing in his journal; these are his preferred forms of interaction with Marianne. She instead communicates through singing, dance, and acting out different film genres. Moreover, the film explores “many different genres, ranging from love story to adventure tale to gangster film to comedy” (Dalle-Vacche 108). These genre conventions not only underpin the “the polarities of sexual difference, the well-known battle of the sexes” (Dalle-Vacche 108), but illustrate the reflexive quality of art in general.
Pierrot is essentially a “collage shuttling between high art and popular culture” and “includes direct references to Diego Velazquez, a seventeenth-century Spanish painter, and to Samuel Fuller, a Hollywood director” (Dalle-Vacche 109). Moreover, Marianne and Ferdinand choose to not only communicate through art, as aforementioned, but are essentially art personified because their attachment to art dictates their actions. We see this when Marianne acts out the gangster film through crime and deception and in how Ferdinand plays the cultured reader/writer who prefers a secluded island life. Furthermore, the characters’ dependence on art conventions provides the viewer with another window into their subjective realities. This is often due to the emotional content created from the characters’ interactions with the art form itself. We are then left to gather what survives of a character’s persona from scene to scene. However, the character’s identity is often complicated by discontinuity and abrupt changes in authorial voice and time.
The continuity in Pierrot is “blatantly and cheerfully inaccurate,” approximating “the comic strips to which it so often alludes; it takes advantage of the ellipses between two images” (Stam 259). Godard explains that Pierrot was inspired by the rapid edits in television and film in America and that “There, one doesn’t just watch a film from beginning to end; one sees fifteen shows at the same while doing something else, not to mention the commercials” (Wills 5). This quote not only elucidates the continuity ambiguities in Pierrot, such as rapid cutting and random costume changes (Marianne and Ferdinand wearing different clothing one shot to the next), but the constant barrage of aural and visual information. Godard uses discontinuity to not only embed many references of art culture like quick close ups of paintings, but to force a pause in the narrative that allows the viewer to ponder filmic reality.
Although Godard is pointing at popular culture, he is also highlighting how films are constructed and deconstructed through discontinuity and atypical storytelling. Moreover, that “each of the filmic tracks – image, dialogue, noise, music, writing – goes in a different direction… Godard uses all the elements in a concerted attack on the sensibility of the spectator and the conventions of illusionism” (Stam 262). Godard’s mismatched or out of sync sound edits frequently cut off dialogue or music and draw attention to the fact that Pierrot is merely collated pieces of film, and therefore constructed reality. Godard’s reflexive allegory invites us to not only question the structure of film, but how art intersects with self-construction. Furthermore, the film deconstructs imagined conceptions of romance (pop culture) and contrasts them against reality (mortality). These contrasts are accessible in several scenes and further illuminate the emblematic theme of subjectivity or inner life.
In several sequences we are invited into the minds of Marianne and Ferdinand. We typically see this when they break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. However, we also observe their inner worlds when they talk about, read, or sing about how they feel. For example, we see an extreme long shot that tracks Marianne walking down the beach while intoning a tune. She repeatedly declares, “I don’t know what to do!” As she continues her song, we cut to her joining Ferdinand on a rock, where Ferdinand responds, “Silence, I’m writing!” He then continues by reading his poem: “That’s the basic problem, you’re waiting for me. I’m not here. I arrive – I enter the room. That’s when I start to exist for you.” These quotes elucidate the characters’ inability to communicate on a normal level or without the use of art conventions. Additionally, Marianne then explains to Ferdinand why she is so sad: “Because you talk to me with words and I look at you with feelings.” Aside from a shrewd metaphor for a battle of the sexes, this elucidates Marianne’s need “to live” and for ‘the physical’ she speaks of. What is more, Ferdinand “can’t even communicate sufficiently with the woman he loves to get her to call him his right name,” instead of Pierrot (Monaco 169). Later in the scene she tells Ferdinand during a long, two shot that she likes things like flowers and animals (the physical) whereas he claims to like amotion and hope (the abstract). This scene elucidates subjectivity and their general philosophical separation.
Another great example of a subjective moment takes place while Ferdinand is driving Marianne home from babysitting. Here we see a medium close up of Marianne sitting in the passenger seat of the car; whirling and dreamlike colored lights refract off the front of the car, accompanied by abnormally quiet diegetic sound. Godard explains that he wanted to show the colored lights, “but without necessarily placing them as they are in reality. Rather as they remain in the memory – splashes of red and green, flashes of yellow passing by” (Wills 18). Therefore, this scene intersects with memory and thus individual experience. The long duration shot of Marianne works to ally us with her subjectively. The car sequence is also complemented by Marianne’s further acknowledgment of her want to escape into art. Here she says: “That’s what makes me sad – life is so different than books.” After another long duration medium close up, this time of Ferdinand, we are again coerced into subjective space. We then cut to a medium two shot that further expresses their internal fantasies. Here, Marianne and Ferdinand share in the imagined by ‘talking dirty’ to one another, but the scene never matures into physical contact. Not only is the film demonstrating their inability for substantial interaction outside of the make-believe, but points at Hollywood romance conventions and then renounces them.
Changing our focus from the characters’ performances, we still see a tendency for subjective reinforcement, but through other aesthetic choices in the film. For example, many cuts end in long duration close ups of Marianne or Ferdinand as they talk to the audience or stare into space. For example, we jump cut, interrupting Marianne singing “Ma Ligne de Chance,” and end in a medium close up of Ferdinand in a different location altogether. In this shot he addresses the camera and tells us about dream and image, ending on a reflexive note: “We are made of dreams and dreams are made of us.” The theme of dreams is important to the film, as it is mentioned repeatedly and intersects with the theme of memory and therefore subjectivity. Additionally, when we cut to a close up of Marianne before she sings “Ma Ligne de Chance,” she again explains that “I just want to live” and that Ferdinand “will never understand.” Shot scale, duration, and discontinuity repeatedly bring us into the subjective space of the characters, and perhaps even into their imagination or dreams.
Pierrot’s focus on a “mixed up story” or “bad dream” is repeated to us via voiceover from Ferdinand and Marianne throughout the film. The voiceover falls within the realm of either internal diegetic sound (their present minds) or we are hearing their reflections on the past. However, in French they typically use present tenses and therefore it is likely their internal narrative of the strange, fractured reality or dream they are experiencing. Their voiceovers also have a narrative quality that is reminiscent of the “fragmented quality of dreams” (Payne 102). We also hear Marianne and Ferdinand finish each other’s sentences in a few places in the film, such as during their flight from her supposed brother’s house in Paris. The broken qualities of the voiceover and film in general call into question authorship and spectatorship. These ideas point at post-structuralism theory, “which is a way of understanding subjectivity… because it dismantles the boundaries between the ‘object’ of study and the ‘subject’ who studies it” (Fulton 302). This is important not only because Godard’s focus on post-structuralism grew throughout his career (Inkinen 159-160), but because it asks us to question who is experiencing these subjective moments in the film.
In the end, Pierrot revolves around themes of imagination and subjectivity. Although we do not know whose voice or story we are watching or listening to, we are repeatedly allied with the desires of the protagonists. This is aesthetically accomplished through long-duration, medium close ups that coerce us into the protagonists’ space and therefore constructed realities. Moreover, subjectivity is reinforced through dialogue, voiceover, and even song. Together these elements allow us into subjective spaces that would not otherwise be accessible due to the nonlinear and unpredictable story. Furthermore, the many moments of discontinuity remove our ability to invest in a single diegesis or follow a traditional narrative direction. These moments of narrative stasis force the viewer further into the pop-culture dominated minds of Marianne and Ferdinand.
We know that even if the narrative takes place inside one of their subjective fantasies, a piece of art collage, television, or film itself, the story still remains wholly reflexive. The film calls on the partiality of the viewer to interpret the intersecting themes of imagination and reality versus popular culture. Moreover, it elucidates the impossibility of this task by showing the protagonists struggling with the same goal. We see this in how their romance was destined to fail because they could not exist in a fantasy world of popular culture and still communicate with one another. This is not a unique trope for Godard’s films; his “films are to be theorems or tests of how a society can and cannot work” (Thomson 925). Additionally, Pierrot asks the viewer to question how much of the narrative is lost to us via the characters’ and our own secondary socialization through art and media. After all, “the mass media are a known agent of secondary socialization” (Houston 3). The question is thus: how much of the film, like contemporary life, is warped or tainted by popular culture? Furthermore, we must question self-constructed image within the film and how it relates not only to how we perceive the film, but how it relates to life and the reflexive art world as a whole.
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Stam, Robert. Reflexivity in film and literature: from Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard. Ann Arbor, Mich: UMI. Research Press, 1985. Print
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Dalle-Vacche, Angela. Cinema and painting: how art is used in film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Print.
Wills, David. Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
Pierrot le Fou. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina. 1965. StudioCanal Vidéo, 2001. DVD.