Jean-Luc Godard: A Life with a Beginning, Middle and an End, but not Necessarily in That Order

It would be hard to believe that cinema’s most revolutionary voice would go gentle into that good night. On the 13th of September 2022, and entirely in keeping with the fearlessness that marked out his creations, the 91-year-old iconoclast chose a time and place of his own making. 

As a critic, Godard railed against bourgeois sensibilities. When he moved on to direct, little changed. Whereas many a creative force softened their politics once fame and fortune called, Godard hardened his resolve; he became more uncompromising, resolutely intellectual, and to some, wilfully obtuse. He rejected the early films that made his name and left behind traditional cinema. Many fans found this move difficult to process and instead sanctified the films he made from 1960 to 1967.

But where to start with the Godard canon? Pierrot le fou contains many of the tropes from his first film, A Bout de Souffle— dysfunctional relationships, nihilism, gangsterism. Five years on, vivid colour and pop art references have been added to the mix. ‘Swinging Sixties’ culture had finally caught up with his free thinking and risk-taking. The director himself has stated, “Pierrot le fou is not a film, but an attempt at cinema… that reminds us one must attempt to live.” Initially introduced to it by my dad when I was a child, the film came up again in an eccentrically-led European cinema class in my first year at university. My French teacher projected the DVD onto a wall, an original without English subtitles, though she declared we need only focus on the images anyway. While students gave each other blank glances from across the room, the cocktail party scene played in hues of Eastmancolor, characters reflect consumer society as they cartoonishly recite advertisements: “I use Odorono after my bath for all-day protection.”

Counterculture hero Ferdinand Griffin sets Jean-Paul Belmondo again in the driving seat, his ebullience offsetting some of Godard’s natural melancholia. A middle-aged advertising man and father who reads art critic Elie Faure to his young daughter during bathtime, our protagonist, has ambitious plans for himself. Seeking to write a new form of novel inspired by an intangible natural world at odds with his own, Ferdinand rekindles a relationship with an ex-girlfriend. Leaving behind his bourgeois life, wife and children, he soon discovers his new partner now dabbles in gun running. 

Image courtesy of Studio Canal

As in all of Godard’s films, this is not a story simply told, though the synopsis might appear straightforward. A road trip escape from Paris to the Mediterranean does little to stabilise their relationship, as each new encounter seems more surreal than the last. Tranquil shots of the French Riviera capture Ferdinand and Marianne (Anna Karina) fishing off the isolated land, juxtaposed by images of the Vietnam war and a ‘62 Ford Galaxie convertible that Ferdinand drives into the sea. Godard’s much-imitated visual language is on full display, as he deconstructs the very fabric of the medium. Ferocious jump cuts, fourth wall breaks, randomised sound edits, still image and text inserts, comic book-style violence and voiceovers that run counter to what there is of a narrative— these and much more combine to dazzle the senses. The director once boasted he could fit his entire film crew into two Citroens; although this may be embroidery, his low budget gave him complete control. In consequence he did not, or wish to, build sets. The real locations in Pierrot le fou, once passed through his transformative eye, become at once both hyper-realistic and dreamlike. 

Why should you see the film? Because it and its antecedents sign a pivot point in film history. Because you can tick off its direct influence on Tarantino, Scorsese, Kitano and countless others.  Because it is just so, so cool. Because it evidences one of the most radical and original thinkers in cinema. 

“He who jumps into the void owes no explanation to those who stand and watch.” Jean-Luc Godard 

Image courtesy of Studio Canal