A meeting to discuss Pierrot le fou, a film by Jean-Luc Godard

Convenor: John Morrish

  1. Opening remarks
    We are here to discuss Pierrot le fou (1965), an important and influential film by an acclaimed film maker and comrade. Jean Luc-Godard spent half his life in meetings: some about making films; and some about destroying capitalism. In honour of J-L, we will follow the ‘informative meeting’ format laid down by Walter Citrine (trades unionist, socialist, anti-Stalinist and author of I Search for Truth in Russia) in his essential ABC of Chairmanship.
  2. Agenda
    Citrine: ’Five minutes spent at the beginning of the meeting to map out a draft agenda will always pay dividends.’ Given that this is an informal presentation, and is intended to last no more than five minutes, the convenor proposes that we manage without one.
  3. Minutes, approval of and matters arising
    That’s easy, there are none.
  4. Correspondence
    Let’s not go there.
  5. Substantive matters
    Here are some observations on Comrade Godard and his film.

Godard’s place in film history

Godard was a combative figure who spent most of his life picking fights: with his family; his fellow critics and directors; his film collaborators; his paymasters; his political opponents and comrades; the women he worked with; the women with whom he had relationships or marriages. But, history is written by the victors, and cultural history is no exception. Unlike most of his opponents, Godard survived those struggles and lived until September 2022, when he chose assisted suicide. His version of film history has triumphed. He reached the head of the Pantheon. He created excellent careers for commentators, critics, theorists, French cultural chauvinists and soi-disant socialists. What he did not do was further film as a living, viable art and industry, or further the revolution, by which I mean the liberation of the underprivileged and powerless. Rather the opposite.

Godard’s background

He was born in 1930 in Paris into a wealthy and privileged family of Swiss-French protestants. His maternal grandfather, for instance, founded Banque Paribas. His father was a doctor. Other relatives on his mother’s side include composers, scientists, and a prime minister/president of Peru. He spent the Second World War in neutral and safe Switzerland. He became interested in film through reading the philosophy of André Malraux, author of a work modestly entitled La Condition Humaine and subsequently ‘information minister’ in Charles De Gaulle’s first post-war government.

After the war Godard returned to attend a lycée in Paris, where he joined the social and intellectual élite, but failed his exams. Next, he started a university course in ethnography, then explicitly concerned with ‘racial science’, but did no real study. Instead, he hung around with a lot of film writers and would-be filmmakers: Éric Rohmer (pseudonym), Jacques Rivett, André Bazin, François Truffaut, and later Jacques Demy, Jacques Rozier, Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais.

He returned to Switzerland, having got nowhere, but his mother’s lover helped him get a labouring job building a dam. A friend lent him a 35mm camera (as they do). He made a documentary and sold it to the construction company. Back in Paris, he made numerous scruffy experimental films in collaboration with Truffaut and others.

In 1960, he made his first feature, À bout de souffle or Breathless, based on a treatment written by Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, who had already had some success. He wrote it as he went along, and shot it in the streets on Ilford HP5, a fast British film designed for still photography, which he spliced into longer lengths and somehow persuaded to work in a crude and noisy movie camera. Consequently he had to post-dub all the sound.

Along the way he hired and fired and infuriated everyone. But he was shrewd enough to employ Jean Seberg, an American star, for a huge proportion of the budget. The lab that processed the film thought it would be a disaster: but in cobbling it together he invented (or reinvented) jump-cutting. Somehow, he was awarded the Jean Vigo Prize for new film-makers, even before À bout de souffle was publically shown. The film, unlike the other nouvelle vague offerings, opened in four commercial cinemas and apparently made 50 times its cost. Godard was up and running.

Godard’s early outlook

The Cahiers du Cinéma group of writers, with whom he was associated, invented ‘auteur theory’. This, one of cultural history’s more reductive ideas, attributes the value of a film to its director: previously, film had been recognised as a collaborative process and films were attributed to their studios or head producers. In their magazine, the Cahiers clique unearthed largely unrecognised studio professionals such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock and hailed them as auteurs (authors), akin to the writers of books. These directors were usually makers of cheap thrillers and crime flicks. In passing, the auteurists denigrated the works of establishment, ‘quality’ studios in Europe and America. They did this, in part, because they did not have access to that type of funding or expertise. How else could they break in, except by presenting their shortcuts and technical inadequacies as art?

Many established industry people, in America especially, loathed the theory and its consequences. Barry Norman, who only included one Godard film in his lifelong Top 100, apologised in his book Talking Pictures for using this type of directorial attribution: his father had been one, of course. Leslie Norman was an excellent craftsman and maker of many interesting films for the British studios.

The Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, author of the splendid Adventures in the Screen Trade, said the theory was ‘loony tunes’: ‘anyone who’s ever been on a movie set knows that the director is at the mercy of the star, at the mercy of the studio, at the mercy of the cameraman – everybody’s at everybody’s mercy in a movie.’ He claimed the creators of the theory subsequently admitted it was ‘crap’. Certainly Truffaut stepped back from it: Day for Night, his masterpiece about film-making, is amongst other things, a disavowal of the ‘theory’, which was really more of an ideological statement. Godard, though, lived by it. He used his collaborators’ contributions as raw material to enhance his ‘genius’ mystique. His admirers lapped it up.

Godard’s politics

What we know about Godard’s political life has been somewhat rewritten since it actually happened. He was seen as, if anything, a right-wing director at the start. He was always a cultural elitist and chauvinist for French high culture, with no great interest in working people. They barely feature in his Maoist films, which are about activitsts and intellectuals.

His second feature, Le petit soldat, about the Algerian war, was completed in 1960, but banned from French cinemas until 1963, by which time the cities of France were filling up with the pied-noirs, the expelled white population of the colony, many of them born there. Their disappointed rage led to an assassionation attempt on De Gaulle in 1962 and brought metropolitan France to the brink of civil war. But Godard’s offence was not being left-wing: doctrinaire left-wingers of the Communist Party variety hated the film. The post-war politics in France were febrile, and Godard’s position was never straightforward.

The subsequent Truffaut-Godard split mirrored the earlier Camus-Sartre row in literature. Tribal conflicts had broken out during the Second World War: communists v patriots. Both Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were resistance figures: but Camus was a French Algerian, whereas Sartre was a metropolitan. Sartre, author of Roads to Freedom, decided that liberty would be best served by slavish adherence to the pro-Moscow French Communist Party. Camus who favoured the notion of an ‘absurd’ universe, did not want to shackle himself to anyone. Godard, unlike his friend Truffaut, responded to the Vietnam war by rapidly adopting a hard-line, but typically idiosyncratic, Maoism. Pierrot le fou was the first film in which he allowed his politics to dominate his methods and his aesthetics.

Godard’s relationships

The notion of the French as egalitarians is simple-minded. France has been a monarchy rather more than a Republic for most of its existence, and its aristocracy are still very much in business. Meanwhile, the Republican/atheist/rationalist/liberal/communist fraternity somewhat developed their own hierarchy, with its own aristocracy, priesthood, holy books and inquisition. Godard, from a white Calvinist background, was safely embedded in that. Truffaut, his friend, sponsor, collaborator and – later – enemy, was not. He was illegitimate, probably with a Jewish father, self-educated, brought up in rackety circumstances, and had no money except what he could earn. He was also a lover of women (hence his film, The Man Who Loved Women) and tremendously ‘successful’ with them. It is sometimes alleged that he slept with every one of his leading ladies. None of them complained, and when he later died a horrible death, from brain cancer, they rallied round.

Godard, meanwhile, alighted on 19-year-old Anna Karina, an abused but very pretty young Danish woman (born Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer), who had survived hard times and become a model. He saw her covered in suds in a bathtub, in a Palmolive commercial, and cast her in Le petit soldat, although she had never acted. She played a pro-Algerian activist. At dinner, he sent her a note saying ‘I love you, come and meet me at midnight in a café called Café de la Prez.’ She had a boyfriend. He was 30. But she did as he asked. They became lovers before the shoot was over and married in 1961. Immediately, their tumultuous romantic and political lives began to dominate Godard’s films. They fought on set. Karina was often suicidal and was despatched to psychiatric hospital. Godard was pathologically jealous, but he also gave himself permission to go where he liked, when he liked. He was an ‘auteur’, and he was a man.

After Le petit soldat, whose male hero doesn’t approve of women over the age of 25, Godard cast Karina in Une femme est une femme (1961), which Rotten Tomatoes’ page URL oddly retitles as ‘sa femme est une salope’: ‘his woman is a slut’. She plays a stripper who wears a schoolgirl outfit for her act really wants a child. She pursues another man (Belmondo) to make her boyfriend jealous. Then came Vivre sa vie (1962), in which she plays a woman who lets men photograph her for money before turning to prostitution. Spoiler: someone shoots her. In Bande à part (1964), she plays a woman who dances with a couple of men in a cafe (a very influential piece of choreography), goes home to sleep with one of them, runs through the Louvre in record-breaking time, then kidnaps and brutalises another women as the driving force in a heist. Then she flees to South America. In Alphaville, a dystopian sci-fi effort, set in a world where liberty and desire are outlawed, she plays a computer programmer who cannot say ‘I love you’ because she doesn’t know what it means. Nor does she understand the concept of conscience.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to detect the subtext in these examples of writing and casting. Female critics (as rare as rocking-horse merde in the years when Godard built his reputation) did not always buy into the great man’s mystique. Anne Billson was the most (possibly only) notable female Time Out critic before my time as editor (I employed one: she had a rough time in an overwhelmingly male world). Billson wrote that in the Karina-led films Godard ‘seems to have trouble conceiving that the female experience revolves around anything other than prostitution, duplicity, or wanting babies’.

The culmination of Karina’s career with Godard was Pierrot. The director had by this time embraced violence in both politics and aesthetics (or the thought of violence: as Michael Hazanavicius later demonstrated for humorous effect, he couldn’t knock the skin off un riz au lait). Jean Paul Belmondo meets Marianne (Karina), leaves his bourgeois wife for her, and they head off to the Riviera (of course) on a killing spree. In the Bloomsbury Foreign Film Guide of 1989, Ronald Bergan and Robyn Karney were judicious. They say ‘Godard’s stunning study of personal and global violence (there are references to Angola, Vietnam, etc) uses colour in a dramatic and symbolic manner … But most of all, it is a tragedy of love. It is not difficult to see the Belmondo-Karina love-hate relationship as a reflection of the Godard-Karina marriage, then reaching its end. As American director Sam Fuller reflects in the picture [he has a cameo], ‘The film is like a battleground, love, hate, action, violence, death… in one word: emotion.’”

Not everyone was that keen. A handsome book by David Shipman, called The Great Movie Stars: The International Years (1972), has no entry for Karina, but says this about Belmondo: ‘He returned to Godard, then on the verge of his precipitous decline. Pierrot le Fou had colour, the usual jumble of ideas, and Belmondo this time as a fully fledged anarchist who paints his face blue and blows himself up.’ I’m not certain, but I don’t believe Pauline Kael even bothered to review it.

After Pierrot le fou, Godard put Karina in Made in USA (1966), a dodgy attempt to remake Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946), which he did as a favour to the financier who had bankrolled his career. The Karina character goes to meet her lover, finds him dead, and investigates, meeting a lot of gangsters, but even the director’s admirers agree the plot is incomprehensible. It was shown once, at the New York Film Festival, then withdrawn for more than 40 years because no-one paid for the rights to some of the source material. A very Godard thing to happen.

Soon it was 1967, and Godard was making La Chinoise, an overtly political film both illustrating and embodying the chaos of Maoism and/or terrorism, made a year before the évenements of 1968 and now praised for its prescience, although nobody really saw it for 40 years. The lead actress, a German girl called Anne Wiazemsky, was 19. She had already been proposed to twice by Robert Bresson, another director. Godard cast her, slept with her, and almost immediately married her, having divorced Karina two years earlier.

Those who are interested in this period should see Michael Hazanavicius’s Redoubtable aka Godard Mon Amour (2017). Hazanavicius directed The Artist (2011), the vastly entertaining and successful silent monochrome musical that is the obverse of Godard’s wordy, brow-furrowing films. Redoubtable tells the story of the Godard/Wiazemsky relationship. It is revealing, insightful and probably quite near the truth. Godard and his fans loathed it and dumped on it. Possibly its greatest offence was that, as well as being intermittently agonising, it is very funny. Bittersweet is the mode of the greatest Western art, as Homer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Joyce, Orwell, Chaplin, Keaton, Truffaut, Rohmer, Allen and many others understood. Godard, not so much. Good jokes in Godard? Let me know if you stumble across one.

Godard’s aesthetics

Someone called A.O. Scott reviewed Made in U.S.A. when it eventually emerged in the States, in 2009. He said ‘There is a maddening, liberating indifference to conventions of narrative coherence, psychological verisimilitude or emotional accessibility’. And that was praise.

For your convenor, Godard represents the start of metafilm: in the same way Mr Zuckerberg’s Metaverse is a sort of alternative world, indifferent to human reality, Godard’s films replace identifiable character and story with language and various teachable aesthetic ’ideas’. They are films for people who like to talk about jump-cutting, shot rhythm and montage, without asking themselves what those things are for.

What, after all, is the purpose of Art? Here’s a suggestion: it’s not to keep art experts, curators and lecturers in business. It’s a gift created by God (if He exists) or Evolution (if He does not) to help human beings through the vicissitudes of life. I’m with Aristotle; art is the imitation of life. Or with Oscar Wilde: life is the imitation of art. Either way, life and art are supposed to be intimately related. They are not supposed to be separate worlds.

Pierrot le fou marks a big change in Godard’s aesthetic and that of most of Europe’s ‘new waves’: the Italian, the Polish, the Czech and even ours, which is always disparaged as ‘kitchen sink’ or ‘social realism’, possibly because of relationship with television. Apart from anything else, Godard’s film is in colour. Supersaturated, retina-gouging, primary colour. The ‘fourth wall’ is smashed. Text is plastered over the images. The central couple (Karina and Belmondo) are unlikely. They were, originally, supposed to be Karina and Richard Burton, speaking English.

Godard, of course, went to great lengths to tell us what he was up to: not only creating his work but intellectually circumscribing it to manage its reception. There were practical reasons for its incoherence (he had everything set up, locations, cast and script, then threw it all out a week or so beforehand) but he also provided elaborate aesthetic explanations. The look is supposed to mirror the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein and the vulgarity of popular culture. For a man dedicated to popular revolution, Godard was never that keen on what the populace choose to do with their own money. That tends to be a problem for socialists: I plead guilty.

In the same way the exponents of contemporary art expect us to read a pamphlet or a notice before we look at it, Godard always had his explanations ready. If you want them – and they are fascinating, if enjoy a deep dive into French bourgeois culture –  I suggest you go to the source. Tom Milne was a freelance writer in the Time Out circle in my era. Bizarrely, I remember him as young beginner: he wasn’t. He was older and more experienced than me. In 1972 – just I was watching my first Godard film, masculin-féminin, as a boy at Bristol Grammar School – he translated and compiled an invaluable book called Godard on Godard, recently reprinted by Da Capo Press. It includes transcripts of the director’s interviews with his chums from Cahiers du Cinéma. No fewer than four of them sat opposite him and attempted to pin him down. They are rather wonderful discussions, and Tom has annotated them, very lucidly.

This is the key exchange, for me.

Cahiers: ‘There’s a great deal of blood in Pierrot.’
Godard: ‘Not blood, red.’

That’s not how movies work. Screen aesthetics are not separable from a movie’s meaning, or they shouldn’t be. Blood, on screen, is blood: the stuff of life and death.

Godard is a wonderful talker, a masterful educator and world-class dropper of all the right names. I just don’t think he was much of a story-teller. Like the creators of cinema in the so-called Golden Age, when it made money and helped ordinary people through depression, poverty and war, I like story.

Godard’s influence

Generally speaking, it was baleful. However, here’s something amusing. Pierrot is based on an pulp novel by an American called Lionel White. He lived to 80 and, as well as being a crime reporter, wrote 35 novels, several of which were picked up and made into films. He was admired by the New York Times as ‘the master of the big caper’. Good for him. It’s long been a useful adage that bad books make better movies than good ones.

White’s 1962 novel Obsession, which became Pierrot (uncredited, surprise surprise), got a second bite of the cherry. In 1974, a Finnish director called Seppo Huunonen turned it into an ‘erotic dark comedy thriller film’ called Karvat, better known as ‘The Hair’. Its Wikipedia page is comedy gold. We are told it has ‘generally been called “the worst Finnish film ever made”.’ It was one of the least-watched of the country’s movies, and only the second to get an 18 certificate. Timo Malmo, a critic on Ilta-Sanomat, Finland’s second biggest newspaper, called the film’s ‘plot so confusing and tense that its progression is not even interesting, and the “alternative” fantasy ending does not make the viewing experience any easier.’ A reviewer of the 2011 DVD release, Janne Rosenqvist of the Film-o-Holic website, said ‘At its best, The Hair offers smooth physical black comedy spiced with jazz, but the outright obsession with experimentation is too much of a burden.’

But couldn’t the same things be said of Pierrot le fou? Were The Hair to have appeared before anyone had heard of the great Jean-Luc Godard, might it even have been hailed as a masterpiece?

Is there not another possible perspective on Godard, in which he could be seen as the pioneer of what are now called ‘rapey’ films: women treated as objects, violence without consequence, simmering jeopardy and sexual threat, the use of beauty to generate fear and suspicion? Intellectually flattering entertainment for men, especially, who get off on other people’s humiliation and anxiety.

Meanwhile, across the pond, a man called Harvey Weinstein is in jail and expected to die there. I have never met him although I suspect I know a lot of people who did. He, and his money, kept British and European cinema alive when our home-generated booms had burnt themselves out. His films moved people, rather than leaving bewildered and intimidated. He employed legions of top actors and directors, translated numerous excellent writers on to the screen, and kept an army of technicians, publicists, cinema staff and their families fed and watered. He also took advantage of his power to carry out his sexual fantasies. But many, many successful people in all walks of life are guilty of that.

Sticking with film, he may have done more good than the Parisian intellectual gadfly whom the British Film Institute’s obituary called ‘an enfant terrible and a superauteur, worshipped and detested, probably in equal measure’.

Put me in the latter camp. But then, like the man who called himself ‘Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard’, I like an argument. Bring it on.

  1. Any other business.
    John Russell has written a delightful piece elsewhere on the site about cars in Godard and French cinema generally.
  2. Time, date and place of next meeting.
    Sign up for the Eclectic Cinema mailing list. It’s all there: https://www.eclecticcinema.com

Thank you all for attending. Enjoy the film, enjoy discussing it. It’s what Jean-Luc would have wanted. It’s what we all want.

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