Every filmmaker's career has a beginning, middle and end, although not always in that order.
There are ways in which Jean-Luc Godard's career ended a long time ago. That's to be expected of a seminal artist who's made films for almost half a century. So it's a pleasure, yet still an ordeal, to see Pierrot le fou, his 1965 film about a husband and father (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who's become disconnected from the banalities of his privileged life.
Godard became famous a few years before Pierrot le fou with Breathless, which also starred Belmondo, and he became an intellectual a few years after that. He opens Pierrot le fou with a lesson -- read from a book by Ferdinand (Belmondo), to his little daughter, as he soaks in a bathtub and draws on a cigarette (Belmondo!) -- about the artist Velázquez, who stopped painting "specific objects" (i.e., "realistic" things) at the age of 50. (Godard was 35 when he made Pierrot, and therefore mature for his age.)
Instead, Velázquez turned to shapes, colors and tones, declaring that "space reigns supreme." This is the blueprint (and redprint and yellowprint) for Godard's contemplation on the thing he most doesn't want to be: upwardly mobile.
When Fernando grudgingly goes to a party thrown by his in-laws, Godard films the event through colored filters that tint the images, except when people engage the only two topics that matter: love (a couple kisses) and cinema (American director Sam Fuller makes a cameo). "I've got a mechanism for seeing called eyes," Fernando says, "for hearing called ears, for speaking called a mouth. But they feel disconnected. They don't work together." Then he throws cake in a woman's face, and Godard cuts to fireworks in a night sky.
This is fascinating to a point, and also to a fault: Godard would spend the next 40 years (and beyond?) making dramatic essays like these, most of them on the same note. Fernando's life -- and Godard's film -- changes after Fernando bumps into Marianne (Anna Karina, Godard's then-wife and muse). When he finds a corpse at her flat, they go on the lam, using movie tricks and clichés to escape. They talk about storytelling and love and death and Vietnam and life versus art along the way to an island, a crime spree and a morose climax.
It's a gorgeous travelogue -- now a reminiscence, like home movies and old photographs -- that leaves them, and us, a little out of breath. Yet it's also like being stuck in a traffic jam with only one CD to play.
I never really sensed that Belmondo grokked what Godard was up to in their collaborations, just as a model doesn't need to understand why the painter asks her to slouch forward. Karina, too, is no Jeanne Moreau. And Godard is eternally Godard: maddeningly idiosyncratic, copiously intellectual, dangerously original. He's the escargot of French cinema, le acquired taste. In French, with subtitles.
Fri., Feb. 29-Sun., March 2. Regent Square