En Route

by John Russell

We are familiar with the importance of the car in French culture. The Parisian jam in Trafic; the 2CV as an emblem of rural peasant life or bourgeois pretension; Albert Camus’ sad death in a car accident, in a Facel Vega driven by his publisher. 

Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend features a traffic jam and pile-up, a descent into barbarism which undermines the notion of the car as the passport to freedom. Among the motors featured are a Citroen D19, a Fiat 850 Coupe, an Alfa Romeo and, fatefully, a Facel Vega. By the end of À Bout de Souffle/Breathless, Michel loses both Patricia and the Cadillac, symbol of the American Dream.  

Americans are also supposed to have a love affair with the car, or at least with the idea of the car: their actual cars are not very good. Among film directors, Alfred Hitchcock made the most interesting use of the automobile, particularly in Psycho, where the processes of buying one, or sleeping in one, or disposing of one are fraught with tension.

In Pierrot Le Fou, Ferdinand (Jean Paul Belmondo) borrows a friend’s Lincoln, which he later uses on his escape from Paris in the company of Marianne (Anna Karina), his former lover. It is not a conventional trip. In the absence of what might normally be called a narrative, the cars and the road provide a structure.  

When Marianne says to Ferdinand ‘I am putting my hand on your knee’, we know that this is her fantasy (and possibly his as well), because the front bench seat is so wide she wouldn’t be able to reach. At her apartment, she makes breakfast for Ferdinand, a feast of consumption including a tin of Campbell’s soup, though why anyone would want that for breakfast is a bit of a mystery.

Later, they swap the Lincoln for a Peugeot, and stop for petrol. Ferdinand says to the attendant, ‘Put a tiger in my tank’. He replies, ‘We don’t sell tigers’.  That piece of advertising – for Esso, rebranded as Exxon in some countries – clearly had not landed. The pair have no money to pay for the petrol so they indulge in some comedy violence and get away with it. They also demonstrate the traditional French parking method of bumping the cars in front and behind as they leave their space.

Warning: trees

Later still, as they pull up on a country road lined with poplars, like the road where Camus died, Marianne suggests they stage an accident.

As the camera pans to the left, we see what they have already seen: another car which has very much been wrecked, and a driver and passenger who are very much dead. Marianne says ‘It’s got to look real. This isn’t a movie.’  Of course not. As they walk away, having set fire to their car, we see that the incident happened in the shadow of part of a bridge incongruously built in the middle of a field.  

Later still, once they have reached their destination, the Riviera, they acquire a Ford Galaxie (see main picture), another symbol of the American Dream, of liberation through capitalism. And it is kind of liberating: a convertible with a red leather interior, in the sun, on a road on the Cote d’Azur.  The car belonged to Godard himself, which is probably just as well given what they do with it.  

If your tastes are more conventional, you might like C’était Un Rendezvous (1976) by Claude Lelouch, who was not viewed as a serious filmmaker by the auteurs. It shows his unsanctioned, illegal and irresponsible trip through Paris, early one morning, to meet his girlfriend at Montmartre. She knew nothing about it other than she had to be there. The average speed was 80 kph, or 50 mph.

It is an extraordinary eight minutes of cinema. Here it is:

The drive of a lifetime. But who was at the wheel? Not the man who steps out from behind it. Cinéma!