Friday, March 12, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 5: Pierrot le fou (1965); Masculin, féminin (1966)

Day 5 would prove to be the highpoint of the marathon so far, as I viewed one stunning masterpiece, and the wonderful film that followed it. (Note: there will be no updates over the weekend, the marathon will continue early next week)

Pierrot le fou (1965); viewing: first

Since throwing together this marathon, Pierrot le fou is probably the single film I've been most curious to see. I came very close to watching it a few times during my initial and short-lived Godard run awhile back, but for some reason was never able to quite pull the trigger on it; perhaps I was a bit intimidated by its reputation. So it was with much curiosity and surprisingly tempered expectations that I threw the DVD in, sat back, and settled in for this purportedly politically-infused, nihilistic adventure. I would emerge approximately 110 minutes later having experienced the most singularly fascinating Godard film I've seen yet, and having encountered both a crucial turning point in this brilliant directors career and in my own experience conducting this marathon as well.

Pierrot le fou is an ambitious, enraged masterpiece, a road movie involving "the last romantic couple" and their adventures, that also functions as a patchwork of the many genre films Godard had done previous to this. Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a jobless aspiring artist, living a typically hollow bourgeoisie existence with his wife and children. One evening after a party, Ferdinand is driving home the family's last minute babysitter Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina) whom Ferdinand has had a past relationship with, and on the spur of the moment the couple decide to completely abandon their current situations, and together hit the road for a life of crime and all sorts of other mischief. The theme of the criminal couple on the run of course recalls Breathless, and random but welcome musical numbers interspersed throughout the film strongly evoke A Woman Is A Woman (starring both Belmondo and Karina). Familiar character names from the past pop up frequently, such as Odile and Lazlo Kovacks. There are probably numerous other mentions to previous films that I've missed, and with all of this Godard seems to be simultaneously tipping his hat to those genres he once held so dear, and putting them in his rear view, ushering in a new direction in his cinema that would mirror his current political awareness, which is strongly hinted at in the recurring mentions of Algeria and Vietnam that frequently appear during the picture.

There is certainly a nihilistic vibe that persists throughout, and the ending especially in some ways feels like a wounded, primal howl from Godard, quite possibly mirroring his own feelings of artisctic isolation, and his desire to move into new territory creatively. In some weird way it almost feels suitable that Pierrot le fou is also Godard's most beautifully visual, aesthetically refined film. The gorgeous, vivid colors pop off the screen in stunning compositions, and Coutard's camera feels more sophisticated than ever. It's hard for me to describe the impact this movie had on me: I was literally stunned. Having watched these films in chronological order, and also reading along with each corresponding chapter in Brody's book, this feels like some sort of either monumental culmination or complete rebirth. Very possibly it is both, and I am almost inclined to say it's Godard's purist film for some reason. There is a scene in the first half of the movie where Belmondo and Karina, in a spontaneous act of their rebellious natures and the freedom they are enjoying, weave their car off the road and into a lake. It's quite easy to picture the car as Godard's career, and the lake as a vast jungle of cinematic possibilities that lay ahead. This is the film I've been waiting to see in this marathon, because I think it marks a new level in my appreciation for Godard as an artist, one that I won't be able to back down from, and that is incredibly exciting to me.

Masculin, féminin (1966); viewing: first

Still reeling from Pierrot le fou, I was unsure whether or not I was even up for another movie. But my buzz pervaded and I said what the hell, and popped in Godard's followup Masculin, féminin. I was soon glad I did, as this is truly yet another wonderful film. The plot centers around charting the activities of a group of five friends, the focus of which is centered on the relationship between Paul (Jean Pierre-Leaud) a young would be intellectual, and Stephanie (the impossibly cute Chantal Goya), an aspiring pop star. The film opens as the two meet in a cafe, and later after Stephanie helps Paul get a job, the two begin seeing each other seriously. The other characters are Paul's friend Robert, a smug and quite ugly chap who helps Paul balance out his growing political fervor with juvenile games aimed at getting primo glances at pairs of breasts, and Stephanie's two friends Elisabeth and Cathrine, whose activities involve...well nothing more than basically coming across as vapid, materialistic shells. This is highlighted in one stunning long take as Leaud (switching jobs to a pollster midway through the movie) interviews a girl chosen by a magazine as "Ms. 19" on a variety of topics, exposing her for the shallow, uneducated being she is. It's the first time I can see where the accusations of Godard being misogynistic may hold some water, but I still think even amidst this he's clearly going for something a little more substantial. Again, female liberation is a theme that strongly seems to be hinted at with the end, a crossroads for the Stephanie character and her conservative ideals. The film really works wonderfully for me as something that could be put into a time capsule; a perfect snapshot of what it was like to be a youth in this specific time and place, as well as being a fascinating portrait of the mentalities of these characters.

I have no doubt that this day was a turning point in my view of Godard as an artist. These two wonderful films I've watched seem to portend the exciting path Godard's career would take, a path I am fascinated to follow and appreciate as I continue with this marathon.


Jeffrey Goodman said...

Drew, I absolutely share your fascination with PIERROT LE FOU. In fact, it's quite simply the movie that changed my life, the one I saw that made me obsessed with movies.

I love so many things you say here, but here are my favorite snippets:

"Pierrot le fou is an ambitious, enraged masterpiece, a road movie involving 'the last romantic couple'..."

"There is certainly a nihilistic vibe that persists throughout, and the ending especially in some ways feels like a wounded, primal howl from Godard..."

"Pierrot le fou is also Godard's most beautifully visual, aesthetically refined film..."

So glad to hear you had such a great experience with this one. I love it, very much.

Drew said...

Thanks so much for the comment Jeffrey!

I have obviously been having a blast going through these early Godard films, but as I noted before, this was really the experience I've been waiting for, a film that's forced me into a higher appreciation of not only Godard as an artist, but the power of cinema as well. It's so cool to hear it had a huge impact on you as well. This film is clearly a staggering achievement of monumental power.

Jeffrey Goodman said...

I couldn't have said it better myself, "...a staggering achievement of monumental power"! Yes.

Doniphon said...

I'm totally with you guys. I don't know if I'd call it Godard's best film (there's just too many...) but it's definitely my favorite of his from this period. It hits me every time (those final god). I also love Fuller's little speech.

Masculin feminin is amazing too, and I never really understood the claims of misogyny or even evaluating cinema/art/people/whatever in that way. I don't want to burden your comments section with my bullshit, but I always felt that referring to artists as misogynistic (or racist) was a particularly cheap and easy way to simplify the characteristics of complex human beings. It just encourages dishonesty in art, really.

Great write-ups.

Drew said...

Thanks a lot Doniphon, I too loved the Fuller cameo. Such a neat little moment in that masterful party sequence.

Also, in no way are you at all burdening my comments section, in fact quite the opposite. I'm always fascinated with everyone's individual opinions on these works and film in general, as well as any point I may bring up in the writing. I'm well aware that the misogynistic accusations occasionally thrown at Godard can be a dicey subject, and I too agree that it's mostly a flimsy way of pigeonholing art that's invariably more complex. While I don't think it applies to Masculin, féminin, I do for the first time see how someone could possibly come away from the film with that notion. As I said in the write-up, I personally think he's going for something more complex.

I also appreciate the compliment. I've been pressing my time as it is trying to squeeze in two movies and two chapters from the Brody book a day, which doesn't leave me much time at all to do the writing here, often resulting in write-ups far sloppier and not as thoughtful as I'd like, and sometimes I second guess even doing them. But at the end of the day, I'm simply doing them to document this process for myself, so any comments and/or discourse from you guys is like icing on the cake.

Jake said...

Pierrot is by a hefty margin my favorite of the Godards I've seen, an experimental yet coherent and capital-R Romantic film that cast aside whatever Godard felt was holding him back. Masculin is either third or tied for second with Vivre sa vie; it's an incredible mesh of politics and humanism despite its deep vein of cynicism. I agree that watching these two movies can turn a JLG denier into a fan and a curious, wary viewer like me into a standard-bearing fanboy. I'd been gradually building up enthusiasm for Godard's work, but Pierrot made me salivate thinking about more of his work, as did MF.

Drew said...

Well said Jake, I too am now as actively excited as ever for the films to come. I would probably have to pair up Contempt and Pierrot le fou as the two that stand out for me as favorites of what I've viewed so far, with A Married Woman a slight notch below. There are still a couple of movies coming up that I've seen before, and have significant admiration for, but I'll reserve any further judgment until I've given them another viewing in the context of this marathon.

Drew said...

Sam Juliano has contacted me with the following comment, he was having trouble posting it here:

Sam Juliano: "My favorite Godards are CONTEMPT, 2 OR THREE THINGS, and WEEKEND, but no question this masterwork does push close for a host of reasons, many of which have been authoritatively posed in this magisterial analytical essay and the superlative follow-up comments on this thread. The film's references to artists and films, and attacks on commercialism and society are unforgettable and it's improvising style and electrifying conclusion leave one breathless (no pun intended.)"

Thanks for the kind words Sam, always nice to hear from you of course. In particular, I love how you point out the improvisatory nature of the film, which certainly does give it a remarkable spontaneity that seems to crackle through the screen. I of course have great admiration for your three favorites as well, two of which I am very much looking forward to watching again very shortly.