"The Americans," Jean-Luc Godard said in an interview at the time of his 1965 film Pierrot Le Fou, "know how to tell stories very well; the French, not at all. Flaubert and Proust don't know how to narrate; they do something else."
That characterization of Flaubert and Proust—and by implication, French cinema too—is, of course, very debatable. But the assertion does speak volumes about the man making it. In his own movies, Godard was unquestionably doing "something else."
Not only that, he wanted to convince us that his "something else" was comparable to those of Flaubert and Proust and other cultural icons cited in Pierrot le fou, ranging from Velazquez to Rimbaud to Joyce. Such high-culture citations, a hallmark of Godard's cinema from the first, always seemed a touch rhetorical as well as obliquely self-serving, as if to say, "These are my artistic peers; we inhabit the same elevated plane—they in their various disciplines, me in cinema."
The funny thing is, history has done nothing to make those implicit claims look foolish or outlandish. On the contrary, at defining forums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Godard reigns as arguably the great embodiment of the Film Director as Modern Artist. What Picasso is to painting, Stravinsky to music and Warhol to multimedia, he is to cinema.
The only qualification is that cinema is still movies; most people—even highbrows and critics—like movies to tell stories, and Godard, by his own admission, wasn't very interested in that. (In fact, he sometimes seemed interested in anything but that.) As a consequence, he has always had plenty of detractors and precious little commercial success. Many cinephiles familiar with the great renown of his early-'60s films would probably be shocked to learn that some of these played only a week or two in New York, the U.S. capital of Godard worship.
It is, then, more a testament to his continuing high-culture credentials than to any box-office track record that Godard films keep turning up as re-releases on the art-house circuit. Pierrot le fou, the latest to be revived, is thought to be among his most accessible and likable films—although, this being Godard, those terms are very relative.
To anyone unfamiliar with the film, I would say put aside thoughts of Proust and Velazquez and consider instead that the year this film debuted, 1965, also saw the advent of the second Beatles' romp, Help!, and the third James Bond opus, Goldfinger. Though it is decidedly more intellectual, rarefied and, well, French, Pierrot le fou deserves being bracketed with those films: all are cheeky, self-conscious, quasi-anarchical, gorgeously crafted pieces of pop art.
Godard's film has long been regarded as a hinge in his career, a summing-up and turning point midway through the decade that established that incandescent reputation. Like Breathless, his celebrated 1960 debut, it features Jean-Paul Belmondo as a disaffected outlaw on the lam with a girl. Yet where the earlier movie moved from the French Riviera to Paris, this one goes in the opposite direction: a reversal of itinerary deliberate enough to suggest a retracing of the thematic territory that had preoccupied Godard for an extraordinary half-decade.
Pierrot le fou was the tenth feature he made during that time, which says something about both his career-long productivity and the era. In the early '60s, bands like the Beatles would release three or four albums a year, while directors like Godard churned out two or more full-length movies. In 1965, besides a short he unveiled in May, Godard shot Alphaville in January and February and released it in May, then shot Pierrot le fou in June and July and debuted it at August's Venice Film Festival. (So much for the notion that digital technology has sped things up for filmmakers!)
That speed was bound up with Godard's usual method of skipping most of a film's scripting stage and writing scenes—inventing the story, such as it was, as he went along. Like many French New Wave movies, Pierrot le fou is nominally based on a pulpy American crime novel, Lionel White's Obsession. But Godard simply tossed out the book's main narrative element—a Lolita-like infatuation of an older man for a teenage vamp—and kept the travel motif.
His story casts Belmondo as Ferdinand, a bored Parisian television employee who encounters an old flame, Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina, Godard's then-wife and the great female icon of his early films), and decides to leave his wife and kids for a southbound fling with her. Typically for Godard, the lovers' passion for each other is stated or presumed rather than felt. Though the actors are full of youthful beauty and charm, it would be easy for contemporary viewer to think there's nothing physical between the characters. They're clearly mismatched, too. Maybe 50 times during the film, she calls him Pierrot le fou (Crazy Pete) and he corrects her: "My name is Ferdinand."
Their flight southward is a crime spree as frivolous as it is impulsive. They steal to get to the next scene. At one gas station, Marianne fells an attendant with a move learned from Laurel and Hardy (Godard's cinematic references never stop). Reaching the Mediterranean, they drift through one casually gorgeous landscape after another, wasting time, playing verbal cat and mouse with each other, tempting boredom.
The desultory odyssey tempts our boredom, too, because Godard's improvisatory approach cares little for storytelling rigor or momentum. Each scene is a miniature world built of digression and spontaneous reflection: Whether you find it entrancing or exasperating is up to you, but feel free to embrace both emotions in successive moments, or even simultaneously—Godard's provocative paradoxes invite nothing less.
The essential paradox is that he redefines cinema by treating it as anything but cinema: a poem, a painting, a play, a collage, a magazine spread, a political tract, a news report, a diary, an essay. Pierrot le fou has elements of all of these, intermixed and held together only by the glue of Godard's passionate, playful skepticism. More than any of the New Wave's critics-turned-directors, he testifies to cinema's seductive wiles by keeping them at bay via a process of abstraction and Brechtian distancing: The people we're watching are not characters but "characters," figures in a brittle imaginary landscape called "story." The fake-looking blood we see in some scenes here is not blood, Godard famously said: "It's red."
No other director invites us to take the medium apart and put it back together again in each film, as Godard does. There's much to be learned and pondered in that operation, for those willing to undertake it, and a fair amount to be enjoyed too: Like most Godard films, Pierrot le fou abounds with isolated moments of intense lyricism, the grace notes of an artist in love with the beauty of the ephemeral.
If the film also has a disjointed, sometimes-careless feel, that's no doubt owed in part to the fact that Godard was not only summing up the first phase of his career, he was already in the process of leaving it behind. Ahead lay the astringencies of his political period, when the brainy movie-love of his early work would be interrogated as bourgeois romanticism. This part of the '60s was full of such ruptures. Indeed, the spectacular act of self-destruction that ends Pierrot le fou always reminded me of Bob Dylan's near-fatal motorcycle accident one year later: Both suggest an artist flirting with self-erasure.
Appropriately, the latest homage to Godard's influence is the brief vamp on Masculine Feminine (the third feature he shot in 1965) in I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' Dylan quasi-biopic. As that film reminds us, self-erasure is a necessary concomitant of endless self-reinvention. For Godard, who was no less gnomic, protean and elusive than Dylan, the successful, extravagantly lionized young cineaste who created Breathless finally had to be obliterated. Pace Haynes, Pierrot le fou (a name denied every time it's said) might have been titled I'm Not He (Anymore).
Pierrot le fou opens Friday at Colony Theatre.
Of cities and simulacra: I Am Legend, the slick and engrossing new zombie movie starring Will Smith, derives from two earlier movies based on Richard Matheson's fiction of the same title, about a man who has survived a terrible plague that's left him alone and threatened by legions of the ghoulish undead. The first, The Last Man on Earth, a 1964 horror cheapie starring Vincent Price, was shot in Rome. Its 1971 Hollywood remake, The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, takes place in Los Angeles.
The new film also seems to contain echoes of two more recent movies. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later envisions a London emptied by plague and turned into a zombie playground. Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, though not so zombie-obsessed, gave us a justly famous scene of Tom Cruise alone in a becalmed, vacant Times Square.
I Am Legend takes the empty-city premise of these movies and adds its own spectacular spin. In the film's first few minutes, Smith motors through an eerily depopulated Manhattan, from midtown through Times Square, down to Madison Square, Union Square and Greenwich Village. In every direction, streets are filled with abandoned cars and resurgent wildlife. There's not a living human soul to be seen.
The earlier incarnations of I Am Legend suggest that its central idea has a perennial appeal: Who isn't attracted by the idea of ghost cities and sole survivors? Yet this spate of recent movies poses an additional possibility. These days, movie zombies are often computer-generated, which gives them an inevitable aura of unreality. Putting them in the context of a city that is obviously, unfakeably real, however, brings them back to the realm of the concrete and the palpable, giving their tales a chill of awful believability.
Directed by Francis Lawrence, I Am Legend is a solid, handsomely mounted addition to the zombie-metropolis canon. Anchored by Smith's subtle and resourceful performance, it may not win over those who feel that 2007 has seen too many zombie movies already—does this have anything to do with the impending elections?—but its vision of an uninhabited New York comprises some of the year's most riveting movie imagery.
I Am Legend opens Friday throughout the Triangle.