Pushing the Boundaries of Storytelling in Pierrot le fou

"Chapter Eight"

The fragmentary incoherence of the stories we tell about ourselves; the inherent contingency and inconsistency of both narrative and identity.

I’ve been trying to include more plot synopsis in my reviews, because I easily get carried away with a lot of nonsensical posturing, but Pierrot le fou makes that a rather difficult task. At its most basic, it’s a story about a man who runs away with a woman (the French New Wave’s two most beautiful people, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina), but it’s filled with so much structural experimentation and narrative ambiguity that such a summary sells the movie short by ignoring its most interesting elements. Godard confines himself to some extent to the formal constraints of a romance, but he uses that framework to talk about much more than the nature love.

"Why do you look so sad?"
"Because you speak to me in words and I look at you with feelings."

Like many of Godard’s other films, Pierrot le fou begins with voiceover narration. Here, however, the narrator is not only unreliable, he’s eventually upstaged. When Belmondo runs away with Karina, she begins interrupting his narration, and they each tell their separate accounts of the story together, occasionally even overlapping a word at a time. On top of this, what they end up saying is often inscrutable: they start with "chapter one" but then jump to "chapter eight" before going backward to "chapter seven," and what they say oscillates between collections of cliches taken out of context and a sort of enigmatic poetry about the differences between men and women.

This narrative playfulness is complemented by all sorts of visual and structural creativity:
- talking directly to the audience;
- talking to another character about talking directly to the audience;
- interviews with characters before they join the story;
- colored lighting that switches halfway through a shot;
- mismatched or arbitrary insert shots;
- music which cuts out unexpectedly;
- characters commenting on extra-diegetic sound; etc.

"It's a good thing I don't like spinach, because if I did I'd have to eat it, and I can't stand the stuff."

But what could have just been a formal exercise then becomes incorporated into the characters themselves as well as the film’s commentary on what constitutes a character, whether in fiction (metanarrative) or in reality (psychology). This begins when Belmondo and Karina, driving their car away from their previous life, chat briefly about the nature of photography. Belmondo remarks that, with photography, we see the image of a person but can never know what they were thinking (i.e., a smile can mean many different things depending on context). Fiction is the opposite: we read what someone is thinking but can never quite see them. Then Karina says, "I’m kissing you all over," to which Belmondo replies, "Me too," but neither of them make a move toward the other.

"I can never have a real conversation with you. You never have ideas, only feelings."
"That's not true. There are ideas in feelings."

This reaches toward the essence of cinema. It seamlessly combines literary storytelling and visual artistry, both of which Godard clearly understands well. The characters say that they’re kissing each other (with subtitles this situation is even more literal, as we read their dialogue) but we see that they aren’t, that they’re actually expressionless. We can guess at what they’re feeling based on what we’ve seen of them so far (as we would with characters in a book but couldn’t with a mere photograph)> But beyond that, we get something uniquely cinematic from the dissonance between their words and their actions and the way those words and actions are shot (there’s even a cut that would have indicated a sex scene during the Hays Code less than a decade earlier). There’s something here (and throughout the film) that’s more than simply visual or the literary, something properly cinematic.

"Film is like a battleground. There's love, hate, action, violence, death... in one word: emotion."

This moment together in the car also points the themes of the film inward, into the psyches of its characters. We are made to wonder what they’re thinking as their words and actions jar, and here the fragmentary presentation resulting from the film’s experimental editing takes on a deeper meaning. It’s not just our experience of the film which is fragmented, disorganized, chaotic; it’s also the characters’ experience of it, the way they see reality. Their world and their identities are just as without rule as the montage in which their clothes and the scenery change in between shots without any narrative reason. They are people without psychological grounding, floating around the world without stable identities on which to rely (Karina constantly calls Belmondo by the wrong name). Just as the visual world struggles to find a steady balance, so do the internal worlds of our protagonists.

"A person should feel like he’s unique. I feel like I’m many different people."

And speaking of visuals, Pierrot le fou is absolutely gorgeous. It has been described elsewhere as a war between the red of emotion and the blue of contemplation, and it is rich with pastels of every hue and shade. The experimentation happening at the formal level is not only interesting to me as someone who studies film to try and understand how it works, but also as someone who just likes to look at pretty things. The film is also littered with detail that helps it construct its complex compositions (my favorite is the fact that Belmondo keeps comparing things to the Algerian war and owns a bunch of old guns). There have been a few comparisons made between Pierrot le fou and the work of Wes Anderson, and while I don’t think the connection works entirely (outside of maybe Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel), there’s no denying that Godard is a fabulously stylistic director who’s had a massive influence on the history of the medium, and this is one of the most stylish films of his that I’ve seen.

Ever since I first saw Breathless years ago, I’ve been chasing that dragon of the pure creative energy of a great Godard film. After Contempt, I thought I’d never be able to find anything I liked as much as his best works, but Pierrot le fou definitely comes extremely close. I’ll have to rewatch it to be sure.

And even then, who knows? Reality is unstable, after all.

"Chapter Seven"

Jean-Luc Godard | French Cinema
Best of Its Year | Brain Benders
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