Aside from perhaps ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, Hollywood never quite manages to capture the eccentric essence of romance, too often settling for the easy fix of the chocolate box. Even a literary romance as beautifully bonkers as ‘Wuthering Heights’ was bowdlerised for its first well-known big-screen version (the 1939 one with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff), and as a cinematic genre, romance gradually settled into a comfy, soft-focus groove that utterly detached the subject from reality and fabricated a fairy tale it rarely veers from to this day. Not that there’s anything wrong with fairy tales, and I accept for many that cinema-going is all about escapism, pure and simple. I know my grandmother in particular was a huge fan of Doris Day movies, and that’s perfectly understandable; she lived in dull, monochrome 1950s Huddersfield, so I can imagine that going to see a spectacular Technicolor musical like ‘Calamity Jane’ must have felt like visiting another planet for the evening.
Perhaps fairy tales and fantasy tend to be the default backdrop for cinematic portrayals of romance because even in real life falling in love can be something of an out-of-body experience; how else does one illustrate the insane sensation without slipping into dependable cliché? Well, it can be done, but it takes a bit of imagination. I guess the main problem with the Hollywood approach is that its narrow fantasy is routinely lacking the element of surprise, being as predictable as ‘Snow White’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Moreover, such films are almost overwhelmingly aimed at an exclusively female audience, as though the spirit of romance only ever beats in the heart of a woman; I doubt any straight man ever had a craving to watch ‘Dirty Dancing’ or ‘An Officer and A Gentleman’, for example. No, if one of the most intensely electric emotional adventures either sex can be exposed to in life is ever done genuine justice in the world of cinema, it tends not to emanate from Tinsel Town.
I was thinking of this unlikely topic on account of hearing that the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo had passed away. He was never a household name in the English-speaking world, though he was a legend across the Channel; the fact that he declined to relocate to California as a means of capitalising upon a handful of brushes with iconic cinematic cool in the early 60s is perhaps to his credit. The trio of films he made with Nouvelle Vague auteur Jean-Luc Godard – 1960’s ‘Breathless’, ‘A Woman is a Woman’ (1961), and 1965’s ‘Pierrot le Fou’ – are all very different, yet each is a classic of the French New Wave. Despite the fact Belmondo became a mainstream movie star in France, the cult success of his collaborations with Godard in international circles were the films for which he remains best remembered outside of France. And both ‘A Woman is a Woman’ and ‘Pierrot le Fou’ are sublimely romantic movies that manage to avoid the corny tropes that constitute the lazy laurels of Hollywood. The former subverts them with mischievous glee, whilst the latter rewrites the rulebook.
On the surface, ‘Pierrot le Fou’ certainly doesn’t adhere to a conventional romantic narrative, featuring several casual murders and a couple of vicious gangsters who think nothing of water-boarding their enemies. However, in the finest tradition of Romeo and Juliet, the couple at the centre of the story – played by Belmondo and the effortlessly sexy Anna Karina respectively – both die at the end, with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s demise being memorably bizarre as he paints his face blue and wraps a dozen sticks of dynamite round his head; after lighting the fuse he has a belated change of heart, but can’t extinguish it on account of not being able to see it due to the dynamite obscuring his vision. Within seconds he’s blown to smithereens; it’s a dramatically stupid death worthy of Wile E. Coyote. So, yes, it’s not a pitch I could imagine being given the green light by a Hollywood studio executive, to be honest; but it is nevertheless a strikingly romantic movie.
Belmondo’s character is a restless married man dragged along to a dreary Parisian party by his bourgeois wife, whereupon he meets guests who speak in clichés that imply their words are being scripted by advertising agencies; I suppose it was a satirical comment by Godard on crass materialism or something, but the director had yet to squander his talents on Left Bank left-wing polemics, and it actually serves as a humorous way of setting Belmondo apart from his peers. Instead, his wavelength is tuned into that of the pretty babysitter (played by Karina), whom he offers to give a lift home to; he does so and then never returns to his own home. The two go on the run in the style of an existential Bonnie and Clyde, making their way down to the South of France and spending a period living a bohemian beachcomber lifestyle before the past crimes of Karina’s character catch up with them, prompting a fresh getaway.
Throughout the journey that follows their initial flight from Paris, Karina’s Marianne nicknames Belmondo’s character ‘Pierrot’, repeatedly provoking his virtual catchphrase, ‘My name is Ferdinand’. But it’s a novel example of the quirky affection the two quickly develop for each other, one that swiftly blossoms into passionate love. ‘Pierrot’ evidently has his suspicions about the unpredictable Marianne, but he’s seduced by this free spirit and she in turn gives every impression she’s as smitten with him. The stunning visual set pieces which became a hallmark of Jean-Luc Godard movies are never better than in ‘Pierrot le Fou’ and they work as a means of expressing the devil-may-care nature of the love affair between the two leads. The Nouvelle Vague as a whole was a breathtaking breath of fresh air, anyway, and Godard was its most innovative and original artist; ‘Pierrot le Fou’ has the same exhilarating rush of a Pop Art comic strip panel by Roy Lichtenstein or the opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, and as a romantic movie it brilliantly evokes the joyous madness inherent in love during its first stages in a way that few films do.
On paper, the story itself could have been filmed in a relatively conventional, linear fashion and would probably have made sense to an audience raised on less imaginative fare; but, as with Frank Carson, it was the way Godard told ‘em back then that enables it to convey a mood and a feeling with unique accuracy familiar to anyone who’s been there. Long before I got there, the film made a massive impact on me when I first saw it around 30 years ago and proved that romance wasn’t reserved for the soppy and the sappy; cinema could actually show love as crazy as it really can be, and whilst the film may be as much an example of artifice as a Doris Day musical, ‘Pierrot le Fou’ nonetheless offers a fresh take on the fantasy that is irresistible. Also, the fantasy is balanced by the eventual revelation that Marianne has been cruelly using Pierrot to aid her actual, criminal boyfriend in getting back at his rivals; this gate-crashing of crushing reality exposes the short shelf-life of such ‘too-good-to-be-true’ passion, a telling move more realistic than simply having the pair riding off into the romantic sunset.
The Nouvelle Vague was initially celebrated for its injection of realism into film, dispensing with the archaic, time-consuming methods Hollywood took to light its pictures in order to make the old actresses look beautiful. Francois Truffaut was renowned for taking his camera onto the street and hiring non-actors to create a groundbreaking aesthetic that proved hugely influential in the early 60s, especially on British ‘kitchen sink’ cinema. Jean-Luc Godard was responsible for bringing a touch of the surreal to the mix, and ‘Pierrot le Fou’ is perhaps the crowning achievement of his early career. It gives two adventurous actors permission to spread their wings and it gives the viewer permission to dream an alternative dream. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with fairy tales.
© The Editor