NetFlix Review #17: Pierrot Le Fou

I am at war with Jean-Luc Godard. I want to like him and his films, as he's one of cinema's grand darlings and a huge inspiration for some of my favorite filmmakers, but I think he's abysmal. I understand what he's doing, but I still think it's stupid and obnoxious.

If you were to describe the "plot" of Pierrot Le Fou, it would seem like there could definitely be some entertainment held within. A man leaves his wife for an earlier girlfriend, who has killed a man, potentially for political reasons. They go on the run, lamming it across France in an attempt to find the woman's brother and make their getaway. Not too shabby. There are also musical numbers. Interesting! And they throw in a lot of references to wacky pop culture, like Abbot and Costello and comic books. Cool! The whole film is designed with a crazy pop fashion and wild, vibrant colors. Neato!

Well, then, why does the whole thing feel like such a damn bore? Because, first of all, it's not a movie. Godard once said that the best way to critique film is to make one, and, true to his beliefs, his films always feel more like essays on film than an actual film themselves. One of the bigger problems, though, is for a guy who is in essence professing to make films about films, he doesn't seem to have an exceptionally good grasp on what makes films work. Throughout Pierrot Le Fou he makes homages to various kinds of classic film genres, but doesn't get any of them right. He references film noir and thrillers without making anything exciting or darkly enticing, he references slapstick comedy without making anything funny, he references musicals without making anything magical or even hum-worthy. He skims across the surfaces of film without ever seeming to penetrate what's underneath, but he fills in the "deep" part with a lot of bullcrap "philosophizing" and lazy, bloated social commentary and he equates goofing on film construction with thoughtful analysis, which I'm not entirely sold on.

What are we supposed to learn from, say, the bit where Anna Karina helps Pierrot steal gas by beating up the gas attendants like an old silent film comedy? It's not funny - Karina has, as far as I can tell, absolutely no comic timing - and it's neither shot nor edited in a way that brings out any comedic zing. The only thing about it that might be considered entertaining is the fact that it's done at all, but isn't that awfully smarmy, ego-centric and self-congratulatory? Isn't it, in a sense, almost as lazy and pandering as all of those Epic Movie/Disaster Movie/Date Movie films, where the main sense of enjoyment comes from saying "Oh! I recognize that!"? Sure, it's on a much more artsy fartsy scale as far as the references go, but that doesn't necessarily add depth now, does it?

Or the musical numbers? There are two, "Jamais Je Ne T'Ai Dit Que Je T'Aimerai Toujours" and "Ma Ligne de Chance," and they're both dull as dirt. In the first Anna Karina ambles around her apartment, singing to Jean-Paul Belmondo while a dead body lays around, unexplained and unacknowledged. The song's a pretty forgettable ditty, it holds no relevance to much of anything, the performance is lackluster, it's just kind of there. But Godard has seen the old MGM musicals, you understand! He knows that sometimes in movie history people who would normally be talking start singing! He's a perceptive and daring master of film commentary, he is. Then there's Ma Ligne de Chance, which is where Emily officially made me stop watching the movie and finish later when she wasn't around. In the song Karina sings about her fate line and Belmondo sings about her thigh line. It's a bold dissection of the battle of the sexes, where Godard shows us that women like to think in big, emotional terms, and men like to think in pragmatic realities... with their penises. It's as though women and men were species from two entirely different planets, like, I don't know, Mars and Venus? It reminded me a lot of this other brilliant, artsy examination of gender relations that just came out in theaters. It's called The Ugly Truth, with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler. It's way artsy, intelligent, thought-provoking stuff like Pierrot Le Fou, but maybe you've heard of it?

There are moments where things almost come together. I enjoyed the party at the beginning of the movie where a bunch of people who work in advertising actually speak to each other in "advertising" speak. That's a funny concept, but not much more so than, say, a particularly clever SNL skit, and then Godard really gets heavy-handed when he shoots all the ad people in monochrome, but shoots the one "real" person, director Samuel Fuller, in full, clear color. Get this: Ad people... ARE PHONY! And artists are... AWESOME! I like the breaking of the fourth wall, but it's so slipshod and amounts to not much more than a clever wink, whereas when, say, Woody Allen does it in Annie Hall, it says something about the theme, the characters, and even a bit about the nature of cinema itself.

And then there's the "Vietnam" moment, where Anna Karina puts on yellowface and does a pretty offensive caricature of a Vietnamese woman, while Belmondo pretends to be American, which is, in its entirety, him saying words like "Oh yeah! Sure! No charge! Hollywood! Communist!" while drinking and pointing a gun at things. Pretty subtle, perceptive stuff. They perform their mocking show for a group of Americans, including a soldier, who think their act is great. I can't help but think this is, in some way, largely representative of all the Godard I've ever seen. The whole thing is uncomfortable and embarrassing, but not in the way Godard wants it to be. It's mawkishly bad.

As is most of the dialog. Perhaps I take this all a little too personally, as I cannot, cannot, cannot allow Jean-Luc Godard to be called a genius, because if he is, then so were the most insufferable kids in every playwriting course I've ever taken. I've tried to find some of Belmondo's monologues or some of the more inane ramblings online, but no one's coming forward. I couldn't even find something on YouTube. They're all conversations and monologues that any script teacher would instantly say "UNGH, cut that, it's indulgent, it goes nowhere, there's nothing to it, just get rid of it." But then the kid would whine and complain that no one understands him and those monologues really ARE what the script is about, and if we were all smarter we'd get it and realize he's a genius. And if Godard is a genius, that kid might be too, and that thought makes my soul hurt.

After watching the movie I went online to try and find someone or something that might show me what I missed, might illuminate the brilliance for me. Nearly everything made the same claim: in order to truly appreciate Godard you have to... watch more Godard. Watch more, these people say, and eventually you start to see his little quirks and obsessions and you get his lingo, his film language, and it all becomes so much clearer. It's become apparent to me, the more I think about Godard and the more I read up on him and what I've seen of him, that this is all probably true. The one thing the guy does well, outside of some nice design, is show you what it's like to think like Godard. The films I've seen all seem like one long essay about what JLG thinks about movies. I don't think those thoughts always run as terribly deep as Godard wants us to think, but that is, indeed, what you see.  It's also not what he claims his movies are about. He says they're about cinema, but as I said before, if so, then poorly. He claims his movies, especially Pierrot Le Fou, are about pure emotions, and yet the whole thing feels dead, the lead characters in no way resemble real people with real emotions, and I felt nothing for them at all. But I did very much feel like I was having a conversation with Godard. I just find him a crappy conversationalist.

I can see why some people like it. There are some charming moments, the ad party is fun, the guy singing near the end is a good bit, and the explosive finale is effin great, although again I'm not sure if I enjoyed it in the exact way Godard intended for it to be read. It's funny, all of Godard's "wacky" deconstruction makes me realize why the French love Jerry Lewis. He does the exact same thing Godard does, but makes it funny and enjoyable. I've actually always had a soft spot in my heart for Jerry Lewis, and watching this movie I couldn't help but think of great scenes like in Cinderfella, where he sticks a large bowl and a knife out the kitchen window into an orange tree, then wiggles his arms around and pulls the bowl back in to find it full of perfectly halved oranges. It makes me laugh every time, but is also very much making a joke on the idea of cinema editing, of the "magic" of the movies. Or what about The Patsy, which came out a year before Pierrot Le Fou and features the awesome 4th wall break at the end where Lewis' character falls off a building and as his laaaaaaady is weeping for him, he walks back out on the ledge and tells her it's just a movie. And that was a year before Pierrot! Laugh all you want, I think Jerry was darn funny back in the day, and possibly a better film connoisseur than Godard. I'm just saying.

Also, you know what else I found interesting? There are some words that can only come from certain cultures. For instance, only the Germans could come up with schadenfreude. There's a reason we say "schadenfreude" and not some other word, because (a) no one had another word for that in another language, and (b) the concept itself seems so essentially German, why use anything else? Watching this made me realize that it really only the French could come up with the word "ennui." It also happens to be the closest thing to an emotion I felt watching Pierrot Le Fou.

Jake Thomas

Story Writer. Marvel Comics Editor. Wrangler of Squids.