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Godard ou Truffaut

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Two of the biggest names from La Nouvelle Vague. Often the first two directors of the French New Wave that we, the young or uninitiated, come across. And the films of both are undergoing some form of British revival, with restored prints doing the independent cinema rounds thanks to the BFI. As a youngster, and with a keen but uninitiated father, I am currently exploring the oeuvres of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut at one such cinema, and would like to self-indulgently reflect on an important difference between two key works: Les 400 Coups, and Pierrot le Fou. Side by side:


Classic images. Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical muse and the caged protagonist of Les 400 Coups (a figure of speech which roughly translates as “to raise hell”). Jean-Paul Belmondo as Ferdinand, aka Pierrot “the Mad”: nonchalant, bookish, existentially preoccupied and insubstantive; Anna Karina, wife of Godard, as Marianne: intuitive, emotive and easily politicized. The first image, as with almost every from that masterpiece, captures the essence of the character, place, time, theme (and is reducible to an art-work itself). The second does much the same, but in a limited sense; it cannot represent the whole, given the tremendous discontinuity and fracture of Pierrot le Fou. Nor can it because, misleading as the still is, unlike Les 400 Coups, Pierrot le Fou unfolds in a shocking array of surreal vivid colour: a first sign of the re-situated creative plain.

It is a tale of a dysfunctional couple on the run from the law and Algerian mobsters. Ferdinand is newly unemployed, bored by his marriage and the ubiquity of consumer culture. He absconds with a former girlfriend who’s killed a member of a gun-running organization and must escape to her ‘brother’ in the south. On the way, they indulge in a paratactic crime-spree, flitting about a dreamlike tale incorporating grand theft auto, carefree road-trip, sedentary beach-life and violent encounters with criminals who must have inspired David Lynch. Pierrot le Fou engages with the politics of the Vietnam and Algerian wars, of consumer culture and of the postmodern citizen; it makes startling new aesthetic turns, in the introduction of pop art aesthetics, fragment and pastiche, the radical re-contextualization of violence, musical routine, artistic highs and lows. 


Having fallen for the impatient, commanding, intellectual (impenetrable?) Godard through À bout de souffle and Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou was not a stretch. It was easy to be seduced by the aesthetic acrobatics, the political witticisms; and frustrating to be without internet access, unable to pursue the myriad cryptic tangents, symbolic codes, embedded references. Yet Godard could not have anticipated audiences with such a hyperlink mentality. He clearly meant the film for himself, his friends; and by extension, all those equally prepared. To appreciate it as would the intended audience, we need the web of beliefs and associations that only a comprehensive preparation can afford. One needs to study Godard’s works and understand how he reinvents the language of cinema; one needs to become immersed in the culture to which it refers and out of which it springs. When it starts to make sense, it’s incredibly rewarding, self-gratifying. I was enchanted, astounded by the beauty and audacity, and chuckling with both cognition and ignorance. My father was sombre.

Most people don’t have time to swot up for a movie. For those unsympathetic to the cause, impatient with the indolence and insouciance of Godard after 1960, or simply too busy to prepare, the films don’t work. From my father, who hasn’t the time, to a friend with all the time, money and education required, but too studied in alien literary traditions, Godard’s work is tiresome. It is a part of the history which helps to characterize the misinformed stereotype of pretentious continental art film. Could this be some kind of evidence that cinema does not so easily transcend a dialectic of high and low cultures? Or that the quintessentially Gallic assumption that there is no such divide for film-goers both generates (and precipitates the defense against) accusations of pretension, obfuscation, woolliness? Or are these questions, as les cinéphiles might argue, symptomatic of my own ingrained cultural elitism, a patronizing attitude to the experience of the common man? In any case, the two acquaintances who balked at Pierrot le Fou went on to love Les 400 Coups. Could it be because it speaks for itself; may be decontextualized but somehow remains universal?


In Les 400 Coups, which sort-of chronicles some of Truffaut’s early years, and introduces Antoine, who will reappear in a further four films, a boy streetwise beyond his years comes into confrontation with a system of authority which offers him no chance, and a sort-of family which offers only conditional love. Truffaut keeps his politics within the tale itself, and also in exciting developments of formal style, while capitalizing on their creative limitations – the interplay of light and shadow, or most famously, the final lengthy tracking shot of Antoine running (to freedom?). As it turns out, Les 400 Coups is more than the sum of its parts, for each frame is synecdochic. There is a thematic coherence and power to the film that bleeds through every frame.

Most frames, most shots in Pierrot le Fou do not stand for a whole. The film may be holistic, but it is not more than the sum of its parts. It plays games with convention. Things lead nowhere, as if in jest. Music to ramp up the tension suddenly disappears. It all ties up, or does it? And when it does ascend into sheer artistry, it is in pastiche, in deliberate contrast to the whole. The musical sing-songs, with their exquisite choreography and colour, are angry counterpoints to violence and emotional distance. Amongst the most beautiful scenes to behold, there is the most subtle cohesion. And to the detractors of this style, all it would take is a little editing to cut the film into shape. But that would beg the question, what’s the point of it all? Lost in translation. Yet not many would venture to question the status of Pierrot le Fou as a seminal classic, sine qua non much of what has gone on in cinema since. Even the skeptics can’t deny the technical invention and challenging convention. But I believe that in most films by Jean-Luc Godard, to find a masterpiece you must go in prepared to find one.

les400coups3Of course my assumptions might appear anachronistic: it was so shocking, revolutionary at the time. A paradigmatic example of postmodern cinema. Whatever he has to say, it isn’t anywhere near as plain and direct as Truffaut’s thesis in Les 400 Coups. The fact is, I’m deeply enamored with Pierrot le Fou. So let’s not hesitate to remember that just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t a masterpiece. It’s just exclusive and elitist (though I will welcome, in advance, any criticism on the grounds that Pierrot le Fou isn’t really that inaccessible at all, when approached with the period eye and a head full of political code; or that I’m being anachronistic in characterizing the oeuvres by films from ’59 and ’65). I would like to think that professional critics, whose job it is to tell us what we should see, should include in their endorsements the caveat that those without the luxury of a cinematic education, required to decode an artifact from a movement that redefined the language of cinema, might seek more accessible stimulation.

In any case, both Pierrot le Fou and Les Quatre Cents Coups are masterpieces not to be missed. If you have done your homework, and can appreciate its remarkable and joyous fragments, I recommend the former; and otherwise, your time will be far better spent in the hands of Monsieur Truffaut.


Les Quatre Cents Coups, Dir. & Writ. François Truffaut, France, 1959 // Pierrot le Fou, Dir. & Writ. Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1965
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Written by James P. Campbell

23/05/2009 at 22:43

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