Pierrot le fou

Face of the French new wave, Jean-Paul Belmondo passed away this week.

I hadn’t thought about Belmondo for many years. After the news broke, I watched Pierrot le fou for the first time since 2010. (I can oddly remember the last time I watched it: in a Welsh cottage with an old school friend I ran away with for the weekend.) I used to have a poster of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film on my wall back then, with Belmondo’s blue face squinting out at me. It was the only poster I cared enough about to frame.

In my pre-goth days, I wanted to be like Belmondo in that film. I wore a lot of primary colours and had an ill-fitting grey suit I’d wear around a lot too. People just thought I looked preppy. At best, those in the know thought I looked like a David Byrne wannabe (which was fine by me); at worst, I looked like Kenneth Williams. But I wanted to be like Belmondo’s character more than anything, chain-smoking and reading art history in bath whilst railing against the world. He represented a sort of transitory cool that didn’t seem to fit in any particular time or place.

In the film, his character is confounding. Intellectually, he is cultured but resentful of the culture; he is fashionable for the period, if a little shabby, wearing bright colours and patterns, but he exudes an inner darkness. He seems to relish life’s potential but, for that very reason, he is nihilistic, humiliating the restrictive norms and values of an era that he will not be contained by.

In many ways, the relationship between the film’s central couple — Belmondo and Anna Karina — reflects the dynamic he has with his counterpart in Breathless, Jean Seberg. Hubert Dreyfus has a famous lecture on that film in which he argues the two lovers represent the two Nietzschean halves of an active and passive nihilism. With that in mind, Belmondo arguably reprises his role in Pierrot le fou. But whereas Belmondo’s intensity is confined to the inner city in that iconic debut, he is given much more scope in its spiritual sequel. He is no longer a bottle rocket ricocheting around the arrondissements, to be thwarted in an (anti-)climatic police shoot-out. His intensity unfurls into far more surreal regions of France, out into its provinces. Rather than die in the gutter, he blows himself to pieces on the coast. It is the perfect one-up on a film like Breathless, so renowned and celebrated. Indeed, for many, Godard’s own career seems to start and end there. But just as Godard references Arthur Rimbaud throughout, Pierrot le fou is truly his season in hell. He seems to forsake the reputation of his debut ahead of time and insists, as Rimbaud does, that one must be absolutely modern. Belmondo and Karina aren’t so much on the run from the law as from the past and the encroaching present.

Still, they are hardly unperturbed by their desires. Together, they swing back and forth between manic creativity and depressive inactivity. They muse on fate, relishing the arrival of choices made that are so far unknown to them, only to refuse those that have become more apparent. Their trip to the coast starts to resemble a kind of Robinson Crusoe adventure or a journey into the heart of darkness. They bring scraps of culture and drink them deep, all the while fighting the urge to live by the things they read. They attempt to give themselves over to the tide. La mer, les vagues, le ciel. La vie est peut-être triste, mais elle est toujours belle, Belmondo says. But when he says these words, Karina pokes fun at him. They have made it to the coast, and yet, whilst Belmondo might feel like he is finally living a care-free life, Karina points out that he still had to follow a load of straight roads to get there. “Oh yeah?” he says, as he turns right off the road, bumper bouncing off the sand and driving straight into the sea.

La vraie vie est ailleurs, they repeat throughout, again quoting Rimbaud. Real life lies elsewhere. A truism if ever there was one, the pair surge towards real life whenever the confines of artificiality are made apparent to them. But, of course, they never find what they’re looking for. Still, the search continues. Soon enough, their constant veering off-road becomes increasingly metatextual. And yet, there is no mise en abyme. The film echoes and rebounds off itself perpetually, but never produces an exact copy of its own reflection, because not even the film can contain them — nor narrative, nor words, nor actions, nor ideas, nor feelings. Belmondo tries to write a modernist novel, aping Joyce or Woolf; Karina sings and dances along her fate line. The absurdity of making a song and dance about shooting a film about writing a book about capturing real life remains stable for just a scene or two before it, too, collapses like everything else. Quoting Sartre, Belmondo scribbles in his journal: La poésie, c’est qui perd gagne.

It is funny, watching the film back now, for the first time in over a decade, after reading through every obituary that begins by highlighting Belmondo’s role in Godard’s Breathless. It is certainly the most significant role he had, according to the Anglosphere, particularly because it set the stage for a dozen American rip-offs, and the travesty that is Tarantino. (Or was that Bande à part?) But Pierrot le fou has no interest in American’s New Wave fetishism. Instead, it attempts to break out of the bounds of that film — and cinema — altogether, always leaving in a hurry…

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The tragic irony, of course, is that the world is a stage. Though it is hard to believe Godard could cast such a shadow over America in the five years between Breathless and Pierrot le fou, seen today the desire to outrun the relationship between America and France is palpable. Although Hollywood pays tribute to him incessantly, he makes jokes about stupid tourists and the Vietnam War. But there is no non-Americanised outside for any of them to escape into, especially not in the world of cinema. (In one scene, Belmondo fantasises about going to the moon, but it’s the moon that is trying to break its orbit with Earth, since Russia tried to tell it about Lenin and America tried to fill it with Coke.) Still, Godard embraces the absurdity of trying. He plays for laughs what America always casts as horror. In this sense, Pierrot le fou oddly reminds me of other films from the 1960s, like Carnival of Souls or Psycho, for the way it lampoons the seductive horror of the American interior, the provincial motel, or of small-town violence. But if Belmondo and Karina are at all like Marion Crane and Norman Bates, they are from an alternate universe where the pair took Crane’s embezzled money and eloped. Godard tells a different story. If there is a Nietzschean quality to the film, as Dreyfus says of its predecessor, it is in Belmondo and Karina’s love of fate. But they really put the amour back into amor fati.

Belmondo puts Bataille quotes in his journal too: l’érotisme, en ce sens, trahit cette nostalgie d’une continuité des êtres… “Eroticism, in this sense, betrays nostalgia for continuity.” But he does not write this down. Instead, our eye follows the quote as he erases it with a formless scribble from his pen.

RIP Jean-Paul Belmondo.

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