Pierrot le fou (1965) is, unignorably, one of Jean-Luc Godard’s goofiest movies. Just as Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character’s name freely alternates between his real one, Ferdinand, and that of the film’s titular symbol of anarchy, Pierrot—the latter chosen by Anna Karina’s betraying lover Marianne, only to be repeatedly rejected by its intended recipient—so does the film freely bounce among subject matter serious and silly until the two are virtually indistinguishable. At its extremes Pierrot le fou offers some of the most gratuitous and wacky indulgences of Godard’s entire career: low-production musical numbers in half-finished apartments and shaded forests, mustachioed dwarfs squawking gibberish into walkie talkies, Belmondo eating an enormous cheese, a cameo by the exiled princess of Lebanon, a netted booby trap capturing a gangster-driven car, etc., etc. These are the logical results of the brand of free cinema Godard has always simultaneously preached and practiced (“One Should Put Everything Into a Film” declared his title to a short published statement, and, man, he sure put his money where he his mouth was), the movie equivalent of the notebook scribbles from Ferdinand/Pierrot’s journal that offer fragments, in-jokes, references, diversions, and off the cuff ideas alongside quintessential set-pieces.
But it’s Godard’s counterbalance of melancholic longing (Rimbaud, Céline, Renoir, the shimmering infinity of the natural world, “the sea gone with the sun”) with cartoonish whimsy (the Nickel-Footed Gang, pulp fiction comic inserts, the Mondrian primaries of JLG’s pop art-inspired color palette) that makes Pierrot so uniquely and indescribably haunting. This alchemy comes through in the fatalistic gloom pervading the couple’s carefree, liberating flight from the shackles of Ferdiand/Pierrot’s bourgeois respectability into crime thriller intrigue and then Mediterranean coastline refuge (and then back again in an almost completely incomprehensible plot), as in the magnificent scene—one of the most beautiful in the history of cinema, I’ll be so bold as to say—of the two lovers renewing their love in the darkness while a passing stream of multi-colored lights reflects off their car windshield, or when Ferdinand/Pierrot dolefully, unforgettably stares back at Marianne during a break in the wishy-washy ode she sings to him after they’ve completed their break with the outside world. Even in the film’s nihilistic conclusion hi-jinks (Marianne and Ferdinand/Pierrot are, after all, low-rent actors, hustling money by telling fanciful stories to café patrons and performing aggressive dumb shows of the Vietnam War for American tourists) mix with death—Ferdinand/Pierrot, ambivalent to the end, clumsily fails to stamp out the lit wick of the two rolls of dynamite strapped to his blue-painted head.
So many of Godard’s heroes and heroines die tragically, but with Ferdinand/Pierrot’s demise comes the poignant sense that something had come to an end at this stage of Godard’s career. Pierrot is a culmination in the sense that it references all his previous movies, but he was still a relative ways away—three years, five films—from entering his militant Maoist phase, while the “playful” strain of his sensibility would always be evident even when severely muted. Yet things would never be quite the same after Pierrot. Godard dubbed Marianne and Ferdinand/Pierrot “the last romantic couple”; Pierrot would be Godard’s last romantic movie. Its follow-up, Masculin féminin, includes these immortal words: “We’d often go to the movies. We’d shiver as the screen lit up. But more often, Madeline and I would be disappointed . . . . It wasn’t the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make . . . and secretly wanted to live.” This was Godard’s first admittance of disillusion with cinema, his holy shrine. No coincidence, then, that in Pierrot—where cinema was still, to quote Samuel Fuller’s drop-by monologue, “a battleground”—love goeth before the Fall.
“You speak to me in words, and I look at you with feelings,” Marianne explains to Ferdinand/Pierrot of their communication breakdown. Godard’s rift between the genders is patently personal and just the slightest bit sexist (men think abstractly, read literature, are content in nature; women want sensations, listen to pop music, dream of cities like Las Vegas and Monte Carlo), but the search for an existential purpose amidst the ruins of romance—Pierrot is often cited as an autobiographical rendering of Godard and Karina’s break-up—assumes greater significance. Fittingly, Godard goes all the way back to Jean Seberg for advice, Belmondo watching her across time through the transportation device that is the movie theater: “We were looking carefully for the moment when we had abandoned the fictional character to return to the real one, if it ever existed,” she says on the screen within the screen, camera in hand. If Pierrot is Godard’s most frayed dividing line between cinema and real life it’s because the film becomes real life in the daring exhortation to its audience—through the delirious enactment of Ferdinand/Pierrot’s frenzy to be—that there isn’t any difference. It’s making cinema to live to make cinema to live . . . the way out of the maze is only provided by a way deeper into it. If such a strategy didn’t salvage romance for Godard, and if cinema itself would be the next to prove disloyal to his demands on truth and beauty, then it surely rescues life, allowing it to be truly free, in gravitas and goof. And that’s where we should begin in answering Pierrot’s call, by way of Rimabud, that “Love” — and, therefore, cinema — “must be reinvented.”