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'Pierrot le fou' is still Jean-Luc Godard's best film

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina work through an anguished, comedic anti-romance in the legendary filmmaker's 1965 classic.
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    There's a lot of very pretty colors in "Pierrot le fou," which reunited director J|Film Forum, Photofest

‘Pierrot le fou’
Director:
Jean-Luc Godard
Stars: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina
Rating: NR
5 (out of 5) Globes

Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t get "emotional." His films have always been angry — usually at politics, sometimes at Steven Spielberg, sometimes, these days, at Israel. But he doesn’t tend to air his own dirty laundry. The closest he’s ever come to grouching about his love life was 1965’s “Pierrot le fou,” his best work, which is now, happily, in theaters once again. It tells the story of a doomed romance, between Jean-Paul Belmondo’s sadsack Ferdinand and Anna Karina’s spunky Marianne. At the time, Godard was going through his own collapsing relationship — with Karina. In the film Ferdinand kills Marianne, then himself; in real life Godard and Karina simply finalized their divorce.

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Red hot anguish burns through “Pierrot le fou,” though in typical Godard fashion, he keeps the viewer at arm’s length. Part romance, part road trip movie, it kicks off when Ferdinand, an unemployed and unhappy family man, runs off with Marianne, the babysitter. Cruising through the sunny south of France, they create mischief and form their own little bubble, protecting themselves from the outside world. For a stretch they drop anchor on an island. That’s when they realize they’re doomed. At one point Ferdinand busies himself with writing while Marianne bops about, loudly repeating “I’m so bored,” to his annoyance and indifference. The gossip hound can easily read scenes like this as transcripts of real-life fights between the film's director and leading lady, with Belmondo, the poor guy stuck sandwiched between a collapsing couple, forced to play Godard to Karina-as-Karina.

Yet it’s also a brightly colored cartoon, filled with japes and jags and a busy, intoxicating style. Every character Ferdinand and Marianne meet is a broad caricature,from the bumbling gas station attendants in the slapstick theft scene,to the brokenhearted guy who stops the movie dead as it’s heading into its action-packed climax to sing a ridiculous story of heartbreak.

The only one not acting up is Ferdinand, the sad center of the absurdity — the one guy not having a blast. Before he hits the road with Marianne, he’s dragged to a society party, where the guests speak entirely in advertisement slogans. Even when he happens upon French New Wave-approved American filmmaker Samuel Fuller, who treats him to his pithy definition of cinema (“In a word: emotion!”), he can’t help but be let down by his answer.

Running off with the babysitter provides a few jolts, and Ferdinand tries to play along with the impulsive Marianne: helping her engage in petty theft, burning their riches for no reason, driving their stolen convertible into the sea. But he can’t escape his downer self, and after a while he’ll return to his normal state, even more deflated than he was before. Getting a taste of real passion only leaves you feeling worse when it ends.

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“Pierrot le fou” may be tantalizingly, often uncomfortably, personal, but it's also universal. Ferdinand and Marianne have, as Karina Longworth once described it (in a Spout post that tragically no longer exists on the Internet), an “impossible love.” He’s a depresso; she’s a bundle of energy. Though he tries to fight it, he’s bourgeois; she has ties to arms dealers and revolutionaries. They so don't fit that she refuses to call him by his real name, referring to him instead as "Pierrot," to which he constantly, and unsuccessfully, corrects her. When he crashes at her place before they light off, he doesn’t even glance at all at the guns propped up against her wall. He doesn’t want to know her; he’s just playing along out of boredom, out of a need for sensation and connection. Twice Marianne launches into a song-and-dance number while Ferdinand either just lays there or walks around, grumpily participating when he does at all.

It makes perfect sense that Godard’s funniest (and often most fun) film is a brutal anti-romance. It nails the passion of a whirlwind affair and the despair of its fall-out, and it does so in the director's stubborn and thrilling way. It is, as Samuel Fuller would say, about emotion, even if Godard wouldn’t use that word.

"Pierrot le fou" begins its week-long run at Film Forum starting Friday, Dec. 18.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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