In One Word Emotion
By Jesi Khadivi
Originally published in the April issue of Brooklyn Rail
Pierrot Le Fou opens with a lengthy voice-over explanation of Velasquez narrated over shots of a tennis game and a man leafing through paperbacks in an outdoor Parisian bookshop. Cut to the same man sitting in a bathtub with a cigarette dangling from his lips reading an art history text aloud to a pig-tailed child. Describing Velasquez’s paintings, he tells his daughter, “a spirit of nostalgia prevails, yet we see none of the ugliness or sadness, none of the gloom or cruelty of this crushed childhood.”
Our narrator Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a buttoned-up dreamer, a self described “huge question mark dangling over the Mediterranean horizon.” The acme of Godardian male protagonists, Ferdinand deplores and delights in his own alienation. Despite his shortcomings, his yearning for transcendence and depth is palpable, visible even through his veil of neuroticism and obvious need for control. In other words, Ferdinand’s ripe for self discovery. He wanders around a party—where guests communicate solely in advertising lingo—without saying a word to anybody until he strikes up a conversation (through a translator, no less) with a lone American. In a historic cameo, pulp director Samuel Fuller tells Ferdinand that “a film is like a battleground; It has love, hate, action, violence and death. In one word, emotion.” Pierrot Le Fou proves Fuller’s definition of cinema to be spot-on.
Pierrot follows Ferdinand and his ill-fated love for his former flame Marianne, a fun-loving con artist (the exact nature of her underworld connections remains shady, even after multiple viewings). Ferdinand and Marianne leave Paris on the run with a suitcase full of stolen money and proceed to rob, cheat and charm their way to the South of France. Marianne calls herself “a sentimental girl.” She likes flowers, animals, blue skies and music. A cunning woman-child, Marianne is as loveable as she is amoral. She can kill a man without blinking, but walks around for much of the movie swinging a well-worn stuffed dog. While she may not subscribe to traditional, or even sub-cultural ideas about right and wrong (ultimately she betrays everyone she meets, a big no-no in the underworld), she remains a woman in thrall to her emotions. This is due in equal parts to Ms. Karina’s evocative performance and the director’s complex adoration of his actress/wife Anna Karina. Velasquez’s spirit of nostalgia; its “open spaces and silences” pervade the film, which proves to be Godard’s paean to his fading youth (he was 35) and deteriorating relationship with his Karina, his long time collaborator and great love. Pierrot depicts lovers of the worst kind: a man who’s too hard-hearted to love effectively and who desperately needs to be loved, and a woman brimming with love and vitality who cannot be trusted.
The peaks and valleys of Marianne and Ferdinand’s love are punctuated with fine art and comic stills, flashing neon and excerpts from Ferdinand’s journal. This mélange of melodrama, road movie and crime film establishes the bold visual style that Godard continues to explore in Weekend, La Chinoise and Two or Three Things I Know About Her. It’s a poppy film, teetering on the brink of adulthood; a film about wanting to be seen, negotiating what it means to be alive, and the distance between feelings and ideas.