In Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), reality and dreams run parallel. Even if one does not remember much of either, one is certain to remember the violence of the two intersecting, blurring the lines between the unconscious and the conscious, between the ironic and sincere, and between the past and the future. Set in the midst of Godard’s uncertainty about the future of cinema, his divorce from Anna Karina (who stars in this film), and the looming unrest of May ’68, the film resembles a lucid dream with Godard as the dreamer, the object being dreamt, and the psychoanalyst trying to make sense of it all. If a dream is meant to rectify the disappointment of our reality, to mediate the incongruity between our unconscious and conscious ourselves is at best reckless, and at worst, suicidal. Indeed, Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) kills himself much like Godard does 57 years later. Should this audacity be admired or repulsed? Somewhere within this question lies the artistry of Godard.
Ferdinand appears as a typical member of the post-WWII Parisian middle class: he has a wife, a comfortable apartment, and a daughter whom he reads to before bed. Despite this, one cannot help but pity Ferdinand for being born a century too late. In a world run by Alfa Romeos and the latest hair product, Ferdinand, mockingly given the nickname “Pierrot,” is nothing; he reads Élie Faure to his daughter, he laments Paris’ abandonment of Balzac, and most consequentially, he gets laid off. Exhausted by the demands of a Paris increasingly under the thumbs of a mindless managerial class, he leaves his family and runs away with an old girlfriend, Marianne (Anna Karina). They commit a spree of crimes in an attempt to live off the grid, and they eventually head towards the outskirts of France, where Marianne promises Pierrot they can live off her wealthy brother. Along the way, they are chased by OAS gangsters (a far-right terrorist group in opposition to Algerian independence).
Pierrot le Fou is a cinema of destruction; each scene is rejected by the next; every plot point comes with four more plot holes. Within its destruction is Godard’s polemic against the world. Pierrot le Fou is an accusation against France for its inability to reconcile with its defeat in the Algerian War, its betrayal of history in favor of soulless capital, and its unremitting contempt for humanity as Paris relinquishes its freedom to the latest advertising campaign. It’s also an accusation against Anna Karina. They had just divorced before production; Godard is heartbroken; the film is the long text message one sends to an ex after a breakup, one last chance to apologize, to accuse, and find some eternal meaning in the heartbreak. It’s also an accusation against cinema entrapped within the traditions of Hollywood, an accusation that is something of a patricide. The traditions of Hollywood cinema that Godard now regards as mere nostalgia and dishonesty are the same ones that brought him to cinema in the first place. One can feel the intensity of Godard amid these existential tensions; the realization that one must choose between a past and a future that can no longer coexist is painful enough, but what is more heartbreaking is the realization that the decision has already been made for you, that the world has moved on without you.
As a final accusation against Anna Karina, Godard reveals that Marianne’s brother is actually her boyfriend, and she has been using Pierrot this whole time to get to the outskirts of France so she can run away with someone else. At the height of his final moment of despair, when Pierrot wraps himself in dynamite that looks like a cheap plastic toy and blows himself up, Godard isn’t trying to convince you of its reality but of its dream: a new beginning for France, cinema, and Godard himself. For all that the film seeks to destroy, its artistry lies in its incredible hope and prophetic power. Just as the film criticized French culture and alluded to the imminence of social changes, not long after this film, May ’68 promised a new beginning for France. He also ended his collaboration with Anna Karina, promising a new beginning for himself.
The film also delivered on a promise for a new cinema. It exposed the traditions of cinema divinity as mere convention and laid the groundwork for the possibility of a new cinema capable of honestly capturing the emotion of the present moment. This message is Pierrot le Fou’s greatest accomplishment. The film inspired a generation of post-New Wave filmmakers, most notably Chantal Akerman, to expand the boundaries of cinematic language to capture their moment in history.
In the end, when Pierrot kills himself, one hardly feels any emotional connection to him. If there is any sadness to the film’s ending, it’s the sadness one experiences after waking from a vivid dream. It’s the sadness of the realization that we must confront our newly conscious unconscious, that we must find a way to capture our most sincere emotions in an absurd world, and that, ultimately, we must rediscover what it means to live in a world that has long moved past its need for humanity.