Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Jean-Luc Godard: Let’s Talk About Pierrot

Pierrot le Fou (Directed by Jean-Luc Godard)
In February 1964, while shooting Band of Outsiders, Jean-Luc Godard announced his plans for a film based on a crime novel, Obsession, by the American writer Lionel White (translated into French as Le démon d’onze heures – literally, ‘The Eleven O’Clock Demon’). In an interview that month, Godard described it as ‘the story of a guy who leaves his family to follow a girl much younger than he is. She is in cahoots with slightly shady people, and it leads to a series of adventures.’ Asked who would play the girl, Godard told France-Soir in 1964:
‘That depends on the age of the man. If I have, as I would like, Richard Burton, I will take my wife, Anna Karina. We would shoot the film in English. If I don’t have Burton, and I take Michel Piccoli, I could no longer have Anna as an actress; she would form with him a too “normal” couple. In that case, I would need a very young girl. I’m thinking of Sylvie Vartan.’
Both Burton and Vartan (a nineteen-year-old pop singer) were unavailable, and when financing proved difficult to obtain, Godard asked Jean-Paul Belmondo, whom he had made a star with Breathless, to step in. But Belmondo was, and looked, even younger than Piccoli. So when Godard announced in New York in September 1964, when he was in town for the New York Film Festival, that Karina, his wife, would star alongside Belmondo, he was in fact creating an even more ‘normal’ couple and definitively reorienting the tone of the film, as he subsequently explained in Cahiers du cinéma: ‘In the end the whole thing was changed by the casting of Anna and Belmondo. I thought about You Only Live Once, and instead of the Lolita or La chienne kind of couple, I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple, the last descendants of La nouvelle HéloïseWerther, and Hermann and Dorothea.’

The casting of a worldly actress in her mid-twenties and a handsome, vigorous leading man just over thirty did change the project – but not nearly as much as did the personal significance with which Godard invested the story. White’s novel, as its title suggested, was a story of obsessive desire – specifically, that of a middle-aged advertising man and failed writer for a teenage girl, his children’s babysitter. This girl has underworld connections and a feral aptitude for deception and manipulation; after he leaves his family for her, gets caught up with her in a murder, and goes on the lam with her, she uses, betrays, and abandons him. Desperate and humiliated, he catches up to her and kills both her longtime lover (who she had claimed was her brother) and the girl herself. Godard – who had told Belmondo that the film would be ‘something completely different’ from the book – turned the male lead into a failed intellectual who rediscovers his literary ambitions along with his romantic passion. This man, Ferdinand Griffon, begins to fulfill his vast artistic plans when he and the young woman, named Marianne Renoir, take to the road. Marianne has shady connections – to a shadowy and violent group of arms traffickers and political conspirators – but she proves nonetheless, at least for a time, to be Ferdinand’s helpmeet and soul mate in his great artistic project.

Although Godard’s woman uses and betrays the man no less than does White’s, the effect provoked by Godard is even more extreme: in Pierrot le Fou, Marianne not only breaks Ferdinand’s heart but also destroys what was to be his life’s work. The romantic exaltation that Godard thought the casting of Karina and Belmondo had substituted for the story of betrayal and depredation turned into an artistic manifesto and a cry of resentment and pain: by the time he shot the film, from May through July 1965, he and Karina had divorced...

Pierrot le Fou proved a tough ticket in Paris – but, more importantly, it inspired a generation, and most famously Chantal Akerman, who, when she saw it at age fifteen, decided at once to become a filmmaker. The self-destructive romanticism, the artistic self-consciousness, the frenetically unhinged form, the blend of emotional extravagance and cool self-mocking, the vanished boundaries between irony and sincerity and between symbol and reality, the overt cinematic breakdown and breakup, were all of their moment. Pierrot le Fou was the last of Godard’s first films, the herald of even more radical rejections and reconstructions to come – for Godard and for the world around him.

(Extract from ‘Pierrot le Fou: Self-Portrait in a Shattered Lens’ by Richard Brody. Originally published in the Criterion Collection’s 2008 DVD edition of Pierrot le Fou).

The following interview with Jean-Luc Godard on the making of Pierrot le Fou was first published by Cahiers du Cinema shortly after the film’s release:

Cahiers: What exactly was the starting-point for ‘Pierrot le Fou’?

Godard: A Lolita-style novel whose rights I had bought two years earlier. The film was to have been made with Sylvie Vartan. She refused. Instead I made Bande à part. Then I tried to set the film up again with Anna Karina and Richard Burton. Burton, alas, had become too Hollywood. In the end the whole thing was changed by the casting of Anna and Belmondo. I thought about You Only Live Once; and instead of the Lolita or La Chienne kind of couple, I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple, the last descendants of La Nouvelle Heloise, Werther and Hermann and Dorothea.

Cahiers: This sort of romanticism is disconcerting today, just as the romanti­cism of ‘La Regie du Jeu’ was at the time.

Godard: One is always disconcerted by something or other. One Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago I saw October again at the Cinematheque. The audience was composed entirely of children, going to the cinema for the first time, so they reacted as if it was the first film they had seen. They may have been disconcerted by the cinema, but not by the film. For instance, they were not at all put out by the rapid, synthetic montage. When they now see a Verneuil film they will be disconcerted because they will think, ‘But there are fewer shots than in October.’ Let’s take another example from America, where television is much more cut up and fragmented than it is in France. There one doesn’t just watch a film from beginning to end; one sees fifteen shows at the same time while doing something else, not to mention the commercials (if they were missing, that would disconcert). Hiroshima and Lola Montes went down much better on TV in America than in the cinemas.

Cahiers: ‘Pierrot’, in any case, will please children. They can dream while watching it.

Godard: The film, alas, is banned to children under eighteen. Reason? Intellectual and moral anarchy [sic].

Cahiers: There is a good deal of blood in ‘Pierrot’.

Godard: Not blood, red. At any rate, I find it difficult to talk about the film. I can’t say I didn’t work it out, but I didn’t pre-think it. Everything happened at once: it is a film in which there was no writing, editing or mixing – well, one day! Bonfanti knew nothing of the film and he mixed the soundtrack without preparation. He reacted with his knobs like a pilot faced by air­ pockets. This was very much in key with the spirit of the film. So the con­struction came at the same time as the detail. It was a series of structures which immediately dovetailed one with another.

Cahiers: Did ‘Bande à part’ and ‘Alphaville’ happen in the same way?

Godard: Ever since my first film, I have always said I am going to prepare the script more carefully, and each time I see yet another chance to improvise, to do it all in the shooting, without applying the cinema to something. My impression is that when someone like Demy or Bresson shoots a film, he has an idea of the world he is trying to apply to the cinema, or else – which comes to the same thing – an idea of cinema which he applies to the world. The cinema and the world are moulds for matter, but in Pierrot there is neither mould nor matter.

Cahiers: There seems at times to be an interaction between certain situations which existed at the moment of shooting and the film itself. For instance, when Anna Karina walks along the beach saying ‘What is there to do? I don’t know what to do’ . . . as if, at this moment, she hadn’t known what to do, had said so, and you had filmed her.

Godard: It didn’t happen that way, but maybe it comes to the same thing. If I had seen a girl walking along the shore saying ‘I don’t know what to do’... I might well have thought this was a good scene; and, starting from there, imagined what came before and after. Instead of speaking of the sky, speaking of the sea, which isn’t the same thing ; instead of being sad, being gay, instead of dancing, having a scene with people eating, which again isn’t the same thing; but the final effect would have been the same. In fact it happened like that not for this scene, but another in which Anna says to Belmondo ‘Hi ! old man.’ and he imitates Michel Simon. That came about the way you suggest.

Cahiers: One feels that the subject emerges only when the film is over. During the screening one thinks this is it, or that, but at the end one realizes there was a real subject.

Godard: But that’s cinema. Life arranges itself. One is never quite sure what one is going to do tomorrow, but at the end of the week one can say, after the event, ‘I have lived’ like Musset’s Camille. Then one realizes one cannot trifle with the cinema either. You see someone in the street; out of ten passers-by there is one you look at more closely for one reason or another. If it’s a girl, because she has eyes like so, a man because he has a particular air about him, and then you film their life. A subject will emerge which will be the person himself, his idea of the world, and the world created by this idea of it, the overall idea which this conjures. In the preface to one of his books, Antonioni says precisely this.

Cahiers: One feels that ‘Pierrot’ takes place in two periods. In the first, Karina and Belmondo make their way to the Cote d’Azur, no cinema, because this is their life; and then, on arrival, they met a director and told him their story, and he made them begin all over again.

Godard: To a certain extent, yes, because the whole last part was invented on the spot, unlike the beginning which was planned. It is a kind of happening, but one that was controlled and dominated. This said, it is a completely spontaneous film. I have never been so worried as I was two days before shooting began. I had nothing, nothing at all. Oh well, I had the book. And a certain number of locations. I knew it would take place by the sea. The whole thing was shot, let’s say, like in the days of Mack Sennett. Maybe I am growing more and more apart from one section of current film-making.

Watching old films, one never gets the impression that they were bored working, probably because the cinema was something new in those days, whereas today people tend to look on it as very old. They say ‘I saw an old Chaplin film, an old Griffith film,’ whereas no one says ‘I read an old Stendhal, an old Madame de La Fayette.’

Cahiers: Do you feel you work more like a painter than a novelist?

Godard: Jean Renoir explains this very well in the book he wrote about his father. Auguste would go away, feeling a need for the country. He went there. He walked in the forest. He slept in the nearest inn. After a couple of weeks he would come back, his painting finished.

Cahiers: Early films tell us a good deal about the period in which they were made. This is no longer true of 75 per cent of current productions. In ‘Pierrot le Fou’, do contemporary life and the fact that Belmondo is writing his journal give the film its real dimension?

Godard: Anna represents the active life and Belmondo the contemplative. This is by way of contrasting them. As they are never analysed, there are no analytical scenes or dialogue. I wanted, indirectly through the journal, to give the feeling of reflection.

Cahiers: Your characters allow themselves to be guided by events.

Godard: They are abandoned to their own devices. They are inside both their adventure and themselves.

Cahiers: The only real act Belmondo accomplishes is when he tries to extinguish the fuse.

Godard: If he had put it out, he would have become different afterwards. He is like Piccoli in Le Mepris.

Cahiers: The adventure is sufficiently total for one not to be able to know what comes next.

Godard: This is because it is a film about the adventure rather than about the adventurers. A film about adventurers is Anthony Mann’s The Far Country, where you think about the adventure because they are adventurers ; whereas in Pierrot le Fou, one thinks it is about adventurers because it describes an adventure. Anyway it is difficult to separate one from the other. We know from Sartre that the free choice which the individual himself makes is mingled with what is usually called his destiny.

Cahiers: Even more than in ‘Le Mepris’, the poetic presence of the sea . . .

Godard: This was deliberate, much more so than in Le Mepris. This is the theme.

Cahiers: Exactly as if the gods were in the sea.

Godard: No, nature; the presence of nature, which is neither romantic nor tragic.

Cahiers: Adventure seems to have vanished today, to be no longer welcome; hence the element of provocation now in adventure and in ‘Pierrot le Fou’.

Godard: People pigeon-hole adventure. ‘We’re off on holiday,’ they say,‘the adventure will begin as soon as we are at the seaside.’ They don’t think of themselves as living the adventure when they buy their train tickets, whereas in the film everything is on the same level: buying train tickets is as exciting as swimming in the sea.

Cahiers: Do you feel that all your films, irrespective of the way they are handled, are about the spirit of adventure?

Godard: Certainly. The important thing is to be aware one exists. For three­ quarters of the time during the day one forgets this truth, which surges up again as you look at houses or a red light, and you have the sensation of existing in that moment. This was how Sartre began writing his novels. La Nausee, of course, was written during the great period when Simenon was publishing Touristes de Bananes, Les Suicides. To me there is nothing very new about the idea, which is really a very classical one.

Cahiers: ‘Pierrot’ is both classical – no trickery with montage – and modern, by virtue of its narrative.

Godard: What is modern by virtue of its narrative? I prefer to say its greater freedom. By comparjson with my previous film, one gets an immediate response. Although I ask myself fewer and fewer questions now, one still remains: isn’t no longer asking questions a serious thing? The thing that reassures me is that the Russians, at the time of October and Enthusiasm didn’t ask themselves questions. They didn’t ask themselves what cinema should be. They didn’t wonder if they should take up where the German cinema left off or repudiate films like L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise. No, there was a more natural way of asking questions. This is what one feels with Picasso. Posing problems is not a critical attitude but a natural function. When a motorist deals with traffic problems, one simply says he is driving; and Picasso paints.

Cahiers: Don’t you think that most great films have been directed by men who had no taste for questions?

Godard: To think that would be a mistake. When one sees an early King Vidor film, for instance, one realizes how far in advance he was of Hollywood even today. Truffaut compared The Crowd to The Apartment. Well, Vidor had already used the famous office shot – which Wilder got from Lubitsch anyway. But great films like that could no longer be made today, or at least not in the same way. So the silent cinema was more revolutionary than the sound cinema, and people understood better, even though it was a more abstract way of talking. Today, if one imitated Chaplin’s method of direction, people wouldn’t understand so well. They would think it a peculiar way of telling a story. It’s even more true of Eisenstein’s films.

Cahiers: For the majority of spectators, cinema exists only in terms of the Hollywood structures which have become convention, whereas all the great films are free in their inspiration.

Godard: The great traditional cinema means Visconti as opposed to Fellini or Rossellini. It is a way of selecting certain scenes rather than others. The Bible is also a traditional book since it effects a choice in what it describes. If I were ever to film the life of Christ, I would film the scenes which are left out of the Bible. In Senso, which I quite like, it was the scenes which Visconti concealed that I wanted to see. Each time I wanted to know what Farley Granger said to Alida Valli, bang! – a fade out. Pierrot le Fou, from this standpoint, is the antithesis of Senso: the moments you do not see in Senso are shown in Pierrot.

Cahiers: Perhaps the beauty of the film springs from the fact that one senses this liberty more.

Godard: The trouble with the cinema is that it imposes a certain length of film. If my films reveal some feeling of freedom it is because I never think about length. I never know if what I am shooting will run twenty minutes or twice that, but it usually turns out that the result fits the commercial norm. I never have any time scheme. I shoot what I need, stopping when I think I have it all, continuing when I think there is more. This is full length dependent only on itself.

Cahiers: In a classical film, one would query the thriller framework.

Godard: On the narrative level, classical films can no longer rival even Serie Noire thrillers, not to mention born storytellers like Giono who can hold you in suspense for days on end. The Americans are good at story­ telling, the French are not. Flaubert and Proust can’t tell stories. They do something else. So does the cinema, though starting from their point of arrival, from a totality. Any great modem film which is successful is so because of a misunderstanding. Audiences like Psycho because they think Hitchcock is telling them a story. Vertigo baffles them for the same reason.

Cahiers: So freedom has moved from the cinema to the ‘Serie Noire’. Do you remember ‘The Glass Key’? The end?

Godard: Not very clearly. I’d like to re-read it.

Cahiers: At the end a woman who has hardly featured in the story suddenly recounts a dream.

Godard: The Americans are marvellous like that.

Cahiers: In the dream, there is a glass key. Just that, and the novel is called ‘The Glass Key’. And the book ends with this dream. If one did something like this in the cinema, people would say it was provocation. This sort of reaction is typical of a public which has a cinematographic pseudo-culture but nevertheless indulges in terrorist tactics.

Godard: This is why the Cinematheque is so good, because there one sees films pell-mell, a 1939 Cukor alongside a 1918 documentary.

Cahiers: There is no clash between ancient and modern?

Godard: None at all. There may be technical progress, but no revolution in style, or at least not yet.

Cahiers: With ‘Pierrot le Fou’, one feels one is watching the birth of cinema.

Godard: I felt this with Rossellini’s film about steel, because it captured life at source. Television, in theory, should have the same effect. Thanks to the cultural alibi, there is no such thing as noble or plebeian subjects. Every­ thing is possible on television. Very different from the cinema, where it would be impossible to film the building of the Boulevard Haussmann because to a distributor this isn’t a noble subject.

Cahiers: Why do you think certain scenes are filmed rather than others? Does this choice define liberty or lead to convention?

Godard: The problem which has long preoccupied me, but which I don’t worry about while shooting, is: why do one shot rather than another? Take a story, for example. A character enters a room – one shot. He sits down – another shot. He lights a cigarette, etc. If, instead of treating it this way, one . . . would the film be better or less good?

What is it ultimately that makes one run a shot on or change to another? A director like Delbert Mann probably doesn’t think this way. He follows a pattern. Shot – the character speaks; reverse angle, someone answers. Maybe this is why Pierrot le Fou is not a film, but an attempt at film.

Cahiers: And what Fuller says at the beginning?

Godard: I had wanted to say it for a long time. I asked him to. But it was Fuller himself who found the word ‘emotion’. The comparison between film and a commando operation is from every point of view – financial, economic, artistic – a perfect image, a perfect symbol for a film in its totality.

Cahiers: Who is the enemy?

Godard: There are two things to consider. On the one hand the enemy who harries you; on the other, the goal to be reached, where the enemy may be. The goal to be reached is the film, but once it is finished one realizes it was only a passage, a path to the goal. What I mean is that when the war is won, life continues. And maybe the film really begins then.

Cahiers: Isn’t this sort of liberty in the cinema rather frightening?

Godard: No more than crossing a road either using a crossing or not. Pierrot seems to me both free and confined at the same time. What worries me most about this apparent liberty is something else. I read something by Borges where he spoke of a man who wanted to create a world. So he created houses, provinces, valleys, rivers, tools, fish, lovers, and then at the end of his life he notices that this ‘patient labyrinth is none other than his own portrait’. I had this same feeling in the middle of Pierrot.

Cahiers: Why the quotation about Velazquez?

Godard: This is the theme. Its definition. Velazquez at the end of his life no longer painted precise forms, he painted what lay between the precise forms, and this is restated by Belmondo when he imitates Michel Simon: one should not describe people, but what lies between them.

Cahiers: If ‘Pierrot le Fou’ is an instinctive film, one might wonder why there are connections with life and actuality.

Godard: It is inevitable, since making Pierrot le Fou consisted of living through an event. An event is made up of other events which one eventually discovers. In general, I repeat, making a film is an adventure comparable to that of an army advancing through a country and living off the inhabitants. So one is led to talk about those inhabitants. That is what actuality is: it is both what one calls actuality in the cinematographic and journalistic sense, and casual encounters, what one reads, conversations, the business of living in other words.

– ‘Let’s Talk About Pierrot’. Interview with Cahiers du Cinema. In Godard on GodardEdited by Tom Milne. p 215-224.


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