film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

When Pierrot le Fou was first released, Roger Ebert had an interesting observation in his original review. He noticed that a lot of people would write in and complain when he gave a thumbs-up to other Jean-Luc Goddard films, complaining that they were terrible or they’d made no sense or were boring. But he guessed that many of these people were likely only seeing and reacting to that single film; and for Goddard, he argued, you kind of have to take him as a complete package. The more of his films you see, the more you get how his brain works and the more you kind of get his vibe – which, in turn, is the key to understanding his films overall. ….I’m not quite as convinced, but I notice I’ve gone through a very similar journey – I disliked Breathless when I first saw it and I was confused by the surreality of Alphaville, but I warmed up to Contempt, and now with this film, it feels like even though Goddard was using some of the same tricks I disliked in other films, in this case things just sort of….fit.

The “Pierrot” of the title is actually Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a former TV executive with a humdrum marriage living in Paris. His social-climber wife is dragging him to a party along with another couple; she says that the other couple has a niece visiting who can babysit their kids. Ferdinand is momentary puzzled by this – he knows them, and didn’t know about their niece – but then leaves for the party anyway, once the “niece” arrives. ….And then he sneaks home early – because Ferdinand has recognized the “niece” as Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina), an old girlfriend from five years prior. The party was dull anyway, but Ferdinand has seen his chance to spark things up with Marianne again, and as he is “driving her home” after watching the kids, he proposes they just run off and keep going. Some early ill fortune turns the pair into fugitives – conning tourists for cash and stealing cars and clothes. But it’s much more of a vibrantly “real” life than Ferdinand was living in Paris, so he’s loving it, even when they end up squatting in an abandoned shack in the French Riviera where he devotes most of his time to filling diaries with Grand Philosophical Statements. But Marianne is after a bit more fun and flash, and keeps nagging Ferdinand that they need to track down her brother Fred (Dirk Sanders), who can give them much-needed money. ….Except Fred has money because he’s a gun-runner – and he may not actually be Marianne’s brother.

The reason I think Ebert was on to something is that Goddard uses a lot of the same surrealistic tricks he used in Alphaville – repeated catchphrases, rambling philosophical non sequiturs, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience – but where that confused me with Alphaville, here it just….worked. In the sequence at the party Ferdinand leaves early, nearly everyone else’s dialogue is nothing more than lengthy quotes from TV ads; two men recite quotes from car commercials at each other, with a woman interjecting to add comment from an ad for girdles. Another woman tries to seduce a man by giving him a sales pitch for her hair spray. Also, sometimes the women are topless; why? Dunno. Ferdinand is stuck just wandering past all these inane conversations, listening in with disbelief; it’s no wonder he decided to leave early. In the Riviera, one of Ferdinand’s rambling writing sessions is punctured by Marianne wandering around and loudly (and repetitiously) complaining, “I don’t know what to do! What should I do?” They use blatantly silly tactics for their cons; Marianne fights off one would-be captor with some schtick from a Laurel and Hardy film, and they wheedle money from some American tourists by staging a “re-enactment” of some early battles in Vietnam, which consist of Marianne in bright yellow makeup speaking in gibberish while Ferdinand brandishes a gun and says nothing but “yeah, see?” in an Edgar G. Robinson accent. And both tactics work.

There’s plenty of stuff I still didn’t get – I sincerely didn’t know what was happening with Fred until after the film, and I actually thought Fred was a different character entirely. I also drifted a bit during some of Ferdinand’s more ponderous philosophizing. But that’s kind of the point for those bits anyway, and there was plenty else going on that I somehow did get, even though I couldn’t tell you why.

…Actually, “getting it” might not even be the right word. It’s more like, I’ve been exposed to enough Goddard now that I’ve built up a tolerance, and I’m better able to just roll with what he’s giving me – be that people speaking entirely in ad slogans, or lovers serenading each other while a corpse lies in the next room, or long introspective voiceovers or guys spontaneously painting their faces blue. What’s that about? Who cares, it’s Goddard, just go with it.

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