Last week, I was pleasantly surprised to have come across the Criterion Collection edition of Jean-Luc Godard‘s Pierrot Le Fou (1965) selling at one of the neighborhood DVD shops – of all places in the whole wide world, I thought, and hats off to geographical convenience – and I just can’t resist shelling out for it, having not seen the film in many years.
I guess revisiting this film, one of the first few of French New Wave films I saw, brought me back to when I first became an avowed admirer of the staggering inventiveness of Godard’s most vintage works, and Pierrot Le Fou has aged ever so ravishingly. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays the lovably confused intellectual wannabe Ferdinand, who abandons his TV executive job and married life to go on the run with quirky gangster moll Marianne (Anna Karina).
These two most implausible fugitives scurry across France with typical insouciance and a zeal for disorderliness. While Pierrot Le Fou zooms in the pair’s lowlife charisma and their misadventures with an intoxicating sense of narrative spontaneity, I can’t help but be strangely enchanted by Ferdinand’s seeming rediscovery of his artistic passion as a writer, Godard peppering the film with a great welter of literary quotations and references that would make their way into the film as part of Ferdinand’s ravenous journal entries – quite an interesting reversal of the incorrigible petty thief Belmondo played to perfection in Godard’s monumental debut Breathless (1960), in which his loutish character Michel wanted to know whether his girl fucked William Faulkner.
As Ferdinand and Marianne’s road trip hurtles toward catastrophic consequences, Pierrot Le Fou, in all its ineffable beauty as filtered through the drippy galvanic colors Godard utilizes throughout the film, begins to echo the muzzled frustrations of an intrepid filmmaker turning his lens on his own hang-ups. More than one critic has made the breakdown of Godard’s romantic relationship with Karina as an essential point of reference for discussing this film (their marriage would be over around the time the film was released), which makes it all the more poignant that it is on Pierrot Le Fou that she gave probably one of her most creatively provocative performances – perhaps a performance that reinforces the fact that Anna Karina, who appeared in so many of Godard’s early films that I’ve enjoyed, will always remain my ideal of a dystopian dream girl ever prone to fits of pique and tantrums.
“Distopian Dream Girl” captures quite possibly one of the most luminescent pop moments in the repository of memorable Built to Spill songs, and you got to love how Doug Martsch chew out the throwaway lines in the song’s chorus (“If it came down to your life or mine, I would do the stupid thing/ And let you keep on living”) like he’s trying to convince himself that he actually believes in what he’s singing; it’s the sort of counterintuitive sentiment that would not be unfamiliar to Ferdinand in Pierrot Le Fou, I suppose. The band’s brand of ponderous indie rock would bulk up considerably on their first two major label records on Warner – Perfect from Now On (1997) and Keep It Like a Secret (1999), both awesome albums – and Martsch has deservedly developed somewhat of a reputation for being an unassuming guitar hero, but I think I am no alone among Built to Spill fans who have a soft spot for There’s Nothing Wrong with Love (1994). – keith.