Let us belt the battle cry of Godard, cinema’s own Robespierre and Whitman and Dylan all rolled into one transfiguring powerhouse, reinventing film from Day One and never letting the rest of the world quite catch up. We’re lucky to have had him, and to have him still. There should be no question that Godard has been to his medium what Joyce, Stravinsky, Eliot and Picasso were to theirs — utterly unique, rule-rewriting colossi after whom human expression would never be quite the same. Quentin Tarantino may be the most famous public genuflector before Godard’s legacy, but Martin Scorsese, Abbas Kiarostami, Gus Van Sant, Spike Lee, Lars von Trier, Jim Jarmusch, Raul Ruiz, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Richard Linklater and Wong Kar-Wai, among innumerable others, all owe him a debt they could never pay out. Wrestling in any capacity with movies as art means facing his body of work and taking a deep breath. Workaday reviewers still quake in dread at the prospect of having to elucidate the complicated reality of a Godard film to their readers. Somehow, though, the seductive energy of this most elusive filmmaker maintains its grip on each successive generation of moviehead, and now, years after graduating to video-making himself, Godard’s oeuvre is finding itself properly feted on DVD.
When I interviewed Anna Karina, swooningly, in 2001 for the re-release of “Band of Outsiders,” I asked her what was her favorite of the seven features she’d made with Godard, and, after demurring (“If you had seven children, how would you say which one you prefer? After all, it was a love story, wasn’t it?”), she dared to guess mine, and nailed it: “Pierrot le Fou.” Of the Godardian ’60s, this effervescent, self-mocking, effortlessly iconic masterpiece may be the filmmaker’s quintessential work, the ultimate commentary on how life and movies fuck and spawn spectacularly beautiful children. It’s not merely a guy-&-girl-on-the-run film, nor a farcical tango with the subgenre, but a catapulting Godardianism, a living tissue, a fabulous and hilarious shared week in the life of Godard, Karina and co-star Jean-Paul Belmondo as they make a movie together on the Cote d’Azur, and make it part of our lives, too. Karina and Belmondo, whatever their screen names, jump magically – that is, cinematically – from being acquaintances meeting at a high-end party (where Sam Fuller appears, pronouncing famously on the essence of cinema) to homicidal lovers escaping to a depopulated, semi-tropical island (in a convertible!), blithely leaving thug corpses in their wake.
Where another filmmaker would focus on the telling of the tale, Godard trains in on the vibe, the aura, the juice, the silly Ã©lan of the movie-life experience. His reputation as cold, intellectually forbidding artist is decimated by “Pierrot,” which in all of its advertising-haiku clutter and goofy playacting is rampagingly spontaneous, intimate, irreverent and sometimes as messy as a fucked-in bed. The few musical numbers, whispered off-handedly by Karina, alone reveal a filmmaking heart bleeding with joy at the world. “Pierrot” is very much a young man’s movie, a spirited lark with tragic modernist undertones and a sense of pretending that plays like new lovers’ experimentation with life. But it’s not real (when asked why there’s “so much blood” in the film by a journalist, Godard famously replied, “That’s not blood, that’s red.”), it’s a movie.
But the movie is real, of course, a graceful, rebellious, life-affirming fact of our culture community, just as much as it was real in 1965 for Godard and his young, lovely, ocean-eyed wife, playing at being a genius and a movie star on the beach. The Criterion party thrown for “Pierrot,” so supercool and long overdue, comes with an extra disc packed with interviews, docs and video pieces.
Godard, like us all, has aged, and if his formal voice has remained furiously consistent over the decades, he has been perfectly frank about his maturation from a crazy jukebox meta-movie youth to a pensive, cynical old man finding poetry less in the buoyant fantasy of movieness than in the captured simplicities of earthly life: young girls with translucent skin, meadows in the breeze, European metropoli cooling at dusk, spectators frozen by the beauty of landscapes. Sticking out in a new box set of Godard’s later films (including 1982’s “Passion,” 1983’s “First Name: Carmen,” and 1985’s “Detective”), “HÃ©las pour Moi” (1993) takes as its structure the Greek myth about Zeus and Alcmene, but as Godard has aged, his movies became even more fragmented and, at the same time, more contemplative. “HÃ©las pour Moi” is a creative nonfiction essay, built from multi-layered tableaux of random incidents and gestures and dramatic dialogues and arguments with God on love, devotion and memory, which to Godard all translate to regard for The Past, and our pitiful disregard for it. Godard is still attentive to pure cinema: The long composition-in-depth featuring a park, a couple, a voyeur, a trash collector and a canal ship is breathtaking, as is the simple close-up that Godard morphs into a emotional statement by beginning in sub-irradiated overexposure and moving slowly to brooding, portentous underexposure.
But his primary movies-are-life idea still stands. The reality of cinema is all there: the experience we have watching, the experience Godard and his team had filming, the passage of minutes, the affectionate distance between the actors (including Gerard Depardieu) and their “roles,” between the camera itself and what it photographs – all of it happily naked to the eye and mind, none of it slickly masked by editing sleight-of-hand or “story.” What the work may be “about” at any given moment is never prioritized over the beauty of a morning garden, a woman’s watchful eyes, the political injustice currently burning in the filmmaker’s conscience, or the fact that he may be eating an apple. For Godard, it’s all good.
“Pierrot le Fou” (Criterion Collection) will be available on DVD on February 19th; “HÃ©las pour Moi” is now available as part of the Jean-Luc Godard Box Set (Lionsgate).