Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Pierrot, le Fou (1965)** and Breathless (A Bout de Souffle, 1960)***

This week we watched this pair of films by French New Wave mastermind Jean-Luc Godard, and I‘m not yet sure what I think of them. Godard was clearly a highly influential filmmaker. As part of the ‘60’s New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), he made an effort to break with the conventions of traditional Hollywood-style filmmaking. He used hand-held cameras, long tracking shots, curious cuts between shooting angles, and long talking scenes. The effect of his experiments is to sacrifice photographic perfection in favor of intimacy with the actors. This works, which is why so many of his methods have been adopted by modern directors like Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater and others. Unfortunately, once we get intimate with his characters, we find that there isn’t much to them. In these two films, at least, Godard seems to have focused on style at the expense of character and story.

“Breathless” is the better of the two, in my opinion. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel, a small-time crook who hits the big time by killing a cop. He flees to Paris to collect some money he is owed and hook up with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American girl with whom he is in love, to the extent that he is able to love. The film explores what it means to love someone, especially for an emotional midget like Michel. The film never manages to convince me that Michel is capable of viewing another person as more than an object to be used, but he does seem to love Patricia in that he is unable to drag himself away from her, even when staying puts him in danger of getting caught by the police. As for Patricia, I can’t really figure out what she is feeling for Michel. She allows him to make her an accessory after the fact to murder, so I suppose there is some devotion there, but in the whole affair I get the feeling that she is just watching herself from outside to see how self-destructive she might allow herself to be over a man whom she doesn’t even necessarily like. I suppose we have all been guilty of emotional confusion and delusion, and this was Godard’s way of exploring that. At the end of the day, I don’t know that Godard said anything extraordinary, but he does manage to make Jean Seberg and Paris look absolutely charming.

Godard worked with Jean-Paul Belmondo again in “Pierrot le Fou” (Peter the madman). Belmondo plays Ferdinand, a bored husband who casually leaves his family one night to run off with a crazy ex-girlfriend. Marianne (Anna Karina) is all mixed up with various criminal types, and she and Ferdinand wind up fleeing across France with a rifle and a suitcase full of money. This is a classic setup for a fun, action-packed, Bonnie-and-Clyde-style movie, but somehow the actors never manage to make life on the lam seem all that compelling. Any normal person would be wildly turned on to be on the run in the company of someone as sexy as Anna Karina or Jean-Paul Belmondo, but Michel and Marianne seem to be bored before the journey is even begun. I don’t think this is completely the fault of Godard’s script. Some interesting things happen to the two fugitives, but Belmondo in particular seems to be sleep-walking through most of the movie. It’s a shame, because “Pierrot, Le Fou” could be a classic example of New Wave film. There are some interesting uses of voice-over to create commentary and inner dialogue, unique cuts between camera shots, and the actors even break into song at times. The beginning of the movie has a particularly scathing scene at a high-society party, where all the conversation is in the form of commercials. (It is this party that drives Michel to run off with Marianne.)

“Pierrot, Le Fou” also showcases a general amorality that seems to be popular in French movies. In American movies, outlaws have a code of their own, and if they break that code or harm an innocent person, they are usually punished for it. In French movies, on the other hand, the stars will do truly rotten things to innocent bystanders and never be made to pay for their deeds. Some people think of the French as socialists, but judging by their movies, I think the French are naturally anarchists. Socialism may just be what it takes to keep those crazy bastards in line.

I feel bad that I wasn’t more into these movies, since Godard is considered such a master. My take on Godard so far is that he was an innovator of filmmaking style, who helped others make some truly great films. As for these two films, they are just okay.

Breathless - 3 stars
Pierrot, le Fou - 2 stars

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