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American Culture In Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot le fou both pays homage and aims barbed criticisms at American culture. While its many pop-culture references are often humorous and playful, its criticisms are mainly political in nature and demonstrate the director’s displeasure with American power and conduct. Godard, a film critic before becoming a director in the late 1950s, was an astute observer of American film genres and conventions, particularly the gangster films and road pictures that indelibly influenced both his first feature (1960’s Breathless).

Film scholar Douglas Morrey writes, “[When] Godard refers to his own past, it is to a cinematic past, to the past as cinema. There is, in [Pierrot le fou], a constant confusion of life with cinema and vice versa. . . .” (Morrey 24) Also, in the 1960s Godard’s politics moved sharply to the left, as he came increasingly critical of American involvement in Vietnam (which the French had lost only a decade earlier).

Despite his affection for American cinema and amusement with its popular culture, he disparaged what he considered a new and perilous imperialism. As film scholar Colin MacCabe states: “America, the liberator of Europe in 1945, had turned into the imperialist oppressor, and Vietnam was the most visible sign of this oppression . . . [and] the most obvious element in Godard’s radicalization. ” (MacCabe 181)

As the film begins, the protagonist Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) lives a highly conventional, materialistic life, in which he has just lost his job as a television executive and seems to live a rather American-looking existence, in which he seems the prototypical “man in the gray flannel suit. ” Though he comments that “We see too many squares” (Pierrot le fou), his wife makes him attend a party (so he can meet other executives and find another job), where the conversation consists solely of advertising jargon; everyone there seems to repeat lines from car and soap commercials to one another.

Here, Godard pokes fun at American commercial culture’s crassness, which by the mid-1960s had clearly permeated French life. Morrey describes the party as “a condemnation of the emptiness of consumer society” (Morrey 26), and Ferdinand sees culture in general overrun by shallow, materialistic values; as his fellow partygoers praise a woman’s new girdle, Ferdinand remarks to himself, “After Athens, after the Renaissance, we are now entering the civilization of the rump!

” (Pierrot le fou) Later on, when the two look at the night sky and talk about astronauts (the film was indeed made during the height of the “space race”), Ferdinand tells a fanciful story about the man in the moon, in which an American astronaut landed there and “jammed a Coke into his mouth and made him thank him first! ” (Pierrot le fou) This ending demonstrates how Ferdinand is engaged with American culture but also highly ambivalent about it, while Godard himself makes this ambiguity into a pointed joke.

When Ferdinand renews his affair with Marianne (Anna Karina), the babysitter his wife hired for the evening, he drives her home in his Lincoln – not surprisingly, a large American car he’d bought during his unhappy tenure in television. (While abandoning his marriage and career, he subsequently jettisons the car as well. ) The following day, as they flee Paris, they pass a replica of the Statue of Liberty, and Ferdinand says in a voiceover, “Recognizing two of her children, the Statue of Liberty gave us a friendly wave” (Pierrot le fou).

This appears odd at first because both characters are clearly French, but the statue was a French creation and gift to the United States; this, however, is less important than the statue’s presence as symbol of both freedom and American dominance in Europe. One of Godard’s chief American influences was film noir, and a brief reference to that genre appears as they continue driving south at night.

As they briefly stop, Ferdinand looks in the rear-view mirror and says he sees “The face of a man who’s about to drive over a cliff at 60 mph” – a foreshadowing device common in film noir, in which characters find themselves in circumstances they cannot control and meet their doom. Marianne replies, “I see the face of a girl in love with the man who’s about to drive over a cliff at 60 mph,” and then they kiss in the darkened car, illuminated only by passing headlights (Pierrot le fou).

The transition to the next scene shows what looks like the cover of a pulp crime novel – a cartoonish drawing of an unclad woman clutching a towel and pointing a gun at the viewer, alongside with a large burglar’s mask. The reference to American crime fiction and film noir is thus underscored here. Part of the tragic difference between Ferdinand and Marianne lies in their engagement with American popular culture. While she is clearly less intellectual and prefers the frivolity of American culture, Ferdinand pines for a purer European culture.

An example appears when they destroy the first car they stole (along with a cache of money that Marianne took from her gangster boyfriend); as she scolds him, she remarks, “We’d have gone to Chicago . . . Las Vegas . . . ” while he answers, “I’d have gone to Florence and Athens” (Pierrot le fou). As they become more immersed in crime, they don American clothes (she an Army surplus jacket, he a fedora like those worn in classic gangster films) and steal an American car (a Ford Galaxie convertible).

Las Vegas is mentioned again near the climax, this time as the name of a bar frequented by Marianne’s boyfriend Fred (whom she tells Ferdinand is her brother); Godard thus deems this quintessentially American city synonymous with organized crime (as it arguably then was). After they spend days camping by the beach and living a life Ferdinand finds idyllic and intellectually rich, Marianne becomes surly and restless, pleading with him, “We’ve played Jules Verne long enough!

Let’s go back to our gangster movie! ” (Pierrot le fou) Here, Godard openly pays homage to the genre and depicts it as a sort of trap that the characters cannot escape. Throughout the film, allusions to the widening conflict in Vietnam surface, attesting to Godard’s opposition to American imperialism. At first, they seem to mean little; for example, when Ferdinand drives Marianne home, they hear a brief reference to the conflict on the radio.

Later, they encounter a group of American sailors and stage a farcical enactment of the Vietnam War, in which she dresses in Asian garb while he wears a sailor’s hat and mimics American slang (“Sure! Yeah! New York! Communist”). Despite the mockery, an American sailor claps enthusiastically, as if attesting to American blindness to the imperialistic war they would soon lose (as had the French a decade earlier).

Despite the humor, Morrey deems this “almost unbelievably crass” and adds that “Godard manages to convey something of the jingoistic discourses which circulate in war itself” (Morrey 26) –which the American media spread abroad. While Godard both makes fun of and pays homage to American culture by drawing freely from its visual cues and cliches, MacCabe writes that something darker lies below the surface: “[American] oppression is understood both as economic and aesthetic.

The problem is not simply that American money dominates the cinema . . . but rather that the forms of cinema themselves are dominating; that they insist on a way of understanding the world which is fundamentally false” (MacCabe 182). Godard sees the forms and falsehoods in American cinema but, instead of reacting angrily and stridently, plays with them and infuses a clearly leftist critique with humor and originality.

By manipulating the images he finds compelling (gangster movies and film noir) and satirizing those he finds disturbing (American imperialism and consumerism), he presents Pierrot le fou as a sharply comical jab at an America whose presence and influence he cannot deny, whether comical or abrasive. WORKS CITED Kreidl, John. Jean-Luc Godard. Boston: Twayne, 1980. MacCabe, Colin. Godard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Morrey, Douglas. Jean-Luc Godard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005. Pierrot le fou. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina. Rome Paris Films, 1965.

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