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  • Ravi Swami

Oh Godard..."Pierrot Le Fou", Dir: Jean Luc Godard, 1965

I'd been warned off dipping into Godard by various friends and colleagues, in particular a director I once worked for who had such a violent hatred of Godard's work that it left me feeling that even venturing into French New Wave cinema might be a bad career move.

I've been watching a lot of "Nouvelle Vague" films over lockdown and studiously avoided Godard's work at the outset for the above reasons, initially selecting the works of more "acceptable" directors - maybe for animators ? - like Louis Malle, or Truffaut.

So far I've watched 4 of Godard's early films, and as the leading light of the French New Wave of the 1960's these really consolidated the directions of what evolved into a movement in terms of themes and style - although they could be commercial by referencing the films of Hollywood, they also aimed to appeal on an intellectual level and were often subversive.

I started (as usual, randomly) with "A Bout De Souffle" ("Breathless"), followed by "Le Mepris", then "A Woman is a Woman", with the latest (yesterday evening) being "Pierrot Le Fou" - of these "Breathless" was shot in monochrome and by "Pierrot Le Fou", Godard had moved into colour and Cinemascope, which slightly undermines perceptions about the New Wave movement being all about moody B/W and a guerilla style of film-making with 16mm due to small budgets etc.

Of the four "Le Mepris" is the least "Godard" like and the most self-consciously focussed on trying to visually reference Hollywood, which is perhaps appropriate considering the fact that the plot is about an aspiring film scriptwriter and features a film studio and a Hollywood producer - however a common thread is Godard's insistence on inserting literary references and a level of intellectual navel-gazing that is quite low-level in "Breathless" and very obvious by the time he made "Pierrot Le Fou".

"Pierrot Le Fou" stars Jean Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina - Belmondo by this film has perfected the louche, fag perpetually hanging out of the side of his mouth persona that he inhabited in many of the French New Wave films, referencing American gangster movies, something that is carried over into Jean Pierre-Melville's "Le Doulos", Karina by now is Godard's muse (and later wife), in a plot that is, once you strip out all the philosophising, essentially a "Bonny & Clyde" story - in fact at one point in the version I watched on Apple TV with English over-dub, subtitles AND occasional drifting into French, Belmondo's character mentions the 1937 French film "Pepe Le Moko", which appears to be a touchstone for the plot - because this film would have been largely unknown to audiences outside of France, the subtitles substitute it for "Bonnie & Clyde" instead, which adds further to confusing and slightly surreal experience of watching the film.

Godard plays hard and fast with form in this film, something that might easily have annoyed audiences at the time and might have contributed to shaping peoples' opinions of his work - it's often maddeningly disjointed, with characters repeating lines or delivering parallel narratives alternately - Belmondo starts a line and Karina finishes it and by the end you're left feeling that Godard wasn't in the least bit interested in pandering to commercial concerns, something that has some credence in being the reason for his split from Truffaut, once a staunch ally and co-architect of the "Nouvelle Vague", who he accused of selling out to Hollywood.

In many ways, in terms of form, it reminded me of "Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands" which I reviewed in a previous blog post - very experimental in the sense that it plays with conventional visual narrative and what characters say represents another level of information besides just the visual - add this to the occasional breaking of the third wall by characters as they talk to or look knowingly at the camera.

"A Woman is A Woman" also features a detail that became a recurring in-joke motif in many of Godard's films, again you're never sure if this is just being clever or if Godard was himself getting tired of being typecast as a director, by poking fun at his earlier films or those of other New Wave directors, eg in "A Woman is a Woman" he features a cameo of Jeanne Moreau in a bar and Belmondo's character asks her how she is getting on in her search for her lover from Louis Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows", and earlier he reconstructs a scene, shot for shot, with the same actress, from Truffaut's "Jules et Jim".

This self-referencing of his other films also features in "Pierrot Le Fou" along with other little New Wave nods like a cameo featuring the American film director Sam Fuller as himself, echoing scenes from "Breathless" where Jean Seberg's character interviews the director Jean Pierre-Melville, also as himself.

As I've mentioned before, watching a lot of French New Wave films in succession can lead to a blurring of one film with another, confusing directors and actors and plots and this is not helped by Godards' recycling of scenes from other films and referencing other New Wave directors.

If you can get over any aversion you might have to his work I'd suggest at least watching some of his earlier films and if nothing else, as with "Le Mepris", "Pierrot Le Fou" is great to watch in its Cinemascope format and for the period details of France in the 1960's - there's a great scene in "le Mepris", which is set in Italy, in a brand new apartment kitted out with mid-century furniture that feels very contemporary, both in terms of the decor and in how it's shot, with a free-moving camera and an almost hand-held feel and without obvious cuts.

It's quite ironic that audiences today are happy to pile into the latest Christopher Nolan in an IMAX theatre or endlessly discuss the meaning of "Inception", when his films can be just as confusing, intellectual and play just as fast and loose with conventional narrative as any of Godard's, the only difference being huge budgets, visual effects and Hollywood "A" Listers in the cast.

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