PIERROT LE FOU written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina. 110 minutes. Subtitled. Thursday (July 26), Saturday (July 28) and August 2 at Cinematheque. For details, see Indie and Rep Film, page 100. Rating: NNNNN
A meditation on the "criminal couple on the run" genre, Pierrot Le Fou reminds us that Robert Benton and David Newman offered their Bonnie And Clyde script to Jean-Luc Godard. The film is also a barely scripted study of the collapse of the director's marriage.
Early on, when Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is about to run away with Marianne (Anna Karina, at the time still Godard's wife), they're stuck in a sparely decorated room waiting for something to happen. In this perfect "end of the relationship" metaphor room, automatic weapons lean against the wall and some guy Ferdinand's never seen before lies on the bed with a pair of scissors jammed into his neck.
It's a movie that manages a climax out of film noir by way of Wile E. Coyote, offering along the way Karina's annoying yet somehow charming little songs, agitprop theatrical numbers, people talking as if they were magazine adverts and legendary Hollywood B director Samuel Fuller's cameo appearance at a party where he gives Ferdinand a definition of cinema.
Pierrot Le Fou, like Vertigo, is a film critic favourite. It's certainly one of mine, and has been for three decades because at its most elemental level it's about looking at a woman who drives you mad.
Does it matter if we walk into Pierrot Le Fou knowing about the half-decade-long Godard/Karina relationship and the 10 films they made together?
The best of them - A Woman Is A Woman, Vivre Sa Vie, Bande A Part, Alphaville and Pierrot - form as intriguing and evocative a body of work as any actor/director relationship in film history, in a category with Sternberg/Dietrich, Bergman/Ullman and Mizoguchi/Tanaka. Does it matter if we know, when we hear whispered narration or read Ferdinand's diary, that it is literally Godard's voice and handwriting?
Godard described Bande A Part as a movie about "a girl and a gun," which also describes Pierrot Le Fou, and about as accurately, because neither is about a girl so much as it is about Anna Karina in a role so closely welded to her personality that both films are unimaginable with another actress.
Without Karina, these films would not have been made. Of course, Godard would have made films, but not those he made with her, even if he'd had the same scripts. She can't be replaced, the way, say, Stéphane Audran was in Claude Chabrol's films. The critic David Thomson observed that the most interesting thing about the myriad Chabrol/Audran collaborations is that you never realize that the two were married.
Also worthy of mention is Godard's other key collaborator in this period, and I don't mean Belmondo. Belmondo is tremendous in Godard's films, because Godard relentlessly works him against type. Other directors saw a conventional movie tough guy, while Godard saw him as a man far too easily betrayed by life and cast him as an insecure patsy. He can't even get the woman he loves to call him by his own name. The film's title is Marianne's nickname for Ferdinand.
I'm talking about cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who shot most of Godard's films for more than 25 years, and all his great ones.
For a director who liked to improvise - Pierrot Le Fou often feels as if it's made up on the spot - Coutard became a great master of shooting with natural light, capturing the infinite grey shadings of Paris in Bande A Part and Alphaville and the sun-blind blue Mediterranean landscapes in Pierrot Le Fou.
This may be the most beautiful film ever shot in Eastmancolor. It may be the most beautiful film ever shot in the south of France, and we can thank Coutard for that.