Arrested Narrative in Pierrot Le Fou; The Fine Line Between Reality and Absurdity


We leave him on the beach. One must imagine Ferdinand happy. Also known to his femme-fatale as “Pierrot” and maybe to the viewer as “le Fou”, Jean-Luc Godard’s Ferdinand rejects the disillusionment of Parisian society and embraces life on the run as he searches for meaning in the countryside. The realistic cinematography and escape of the absurd in Pierrot Le Fou (1965) involves intellectual, moral and narrative ambiguities[1] emblematic of the ethos belonging to French New Wave auteurs like Godard[2]. About Pierrot Le Fou, Godard remarked, “One should not describe people, but what lies between them and the world”[3]; our melancholic hero’s struggle with inauthenticity results in his disassociation with Parisian society and ultimately his mélange with death. In this account of Pierrot Le Fou, I argue that cinematic realism is asserted briefly through the cinematic landscape’s spatial unity and mise-en-scène, while Godard asserts realism through Ferdinand’s battle to find authenticity. Preempted by asocial feelings, Godard’s fragmented narrative of Ferdinand’s melancholy sees some progression, but results in self-murder.

The Unheimlich Party

“We’re living in an age of rump,” suggests Ferdinand in preparation for the evening cocktail party, mocking the banalities of his wife’s preparations. Very tightly scripted, which is perhaps why the absurd portion of Pierrot Le Fou is so fascinating, the cocktail party’s technicolor and staged theatricality show an inventiveness that breaks boldly from straight-laced historical dramas or melodramatic adaptations of literature. The women inside the party, however seemingly liberated by their bare breasts and partner-switching, resonate no differently than a traditional advertisement. Unimpressed by the rump-shaping fascination of his wife or the aqua-net commerciality of the nameless party-goer, Ferdinand can only blow smoke at the shallow discussions until his entrance into the room without a color filter, with an American film director.  I think that Godard’s use of hypercolorful filters suggests the commodity culture of pop art of the 1960s, moreover, blue and red, the primary colors of Godard’s attention, assert themselves as an extension of the French flag that encompasses Ferdinand from the beginning of the film, in his comfortable blue and red striped robe, to the end, when he wrapped his blue-painted face in red dynamite. This attention to color as a social commentary is addressed by Edgar Morin in his book The Cinema, Or The Imaginary Man (1978):

“Color is only a luxury of perception but any luxury, taking root, becomes a need. It does not have the powers of black and white, but it develops others. Color goes hand in hand with sobriety and splendour[…]

So, if color is on the way to becoming necessary to film, it needed twenty years of perfecting and insistence to begin to devitalize black and white, which had not waited for its arrival to institute a total universe.” (The Cinema, 138)


Morin insists that film aesthetics are a “history of perpetual adaptation… always adjusting itself to the ebbs and flows of spectatorial expectation and subjective needs,”[4] and suggests that color can be attributed to both technology and social desire, revealing the historical significance of uses in cinema which “have today become needs,” (The Cinema, 142).

This aestheticization of Godard’s attention to then-contemporary French society through Pierrot Le Fou’s existential journey could potentially answer Ferdinand’s question, “What exactly is cinema?” To which Godard would answer about Pierrot Le Fou in particular: “It is a film about painting, well not really painting, but a film that resembles a work of art.”[5]  Posed to the American director filming an adaptation of Baudelaire’s attestation to the decadent plague of Parisian society, Le Fleurs Du Mal (1857), the response “like a battleground,” full of blood, violence and love, doesn’t fulfill Ferdinand’s query, prompting his exit to the party. Should André Bazin have been cast as the director, rather than Samuel Fuller, perhaps the answer would have pleased conflicted Ferdinand: “[Cinema is] to reveal the hidden meaning of being and things without breaking up their continuity,” (What is Cinema?, 104). Like Godard, Bazin is inscribing himself into a debate about cinematic form that is ontologically valenced. This makes Ferdinand’s comment, “A person ought to feel unity… They [the party attendees] are like separate machines, there is no unity,” applicable within the scene of the party, staged without realistic character movement and exclusively scripted, mechanical interaction, but compliant with a photographic unity of space by way of full shots and logical montage. The realistic cinematography of Ferdinand walking from room to room is offset by the absurdist conversation.

The cocktail party is the only sequence in Pierrot Le Fou that proceeds with a realistic temporal slowness and logic inherent to Bazin’s idea that cinema should substitute for what is real, which “must have spatial density on the screen… or you run the risk of threatening the very ontology of the cinematographic tale,” (What is Cinema?, 47). The single event of the party is presented fragmentarily, with scrolling shots that maintain Ferdinand as the only moving referent among people sitting and smoking in what is a believably suffocating Parisian atmosphere. Godard’s manipulation of Bazinean realism is clear; the full-shots and logical montage maintain a verisimilitude to realistic movements throughout a party, but the content of the attendees’ interactions is inane, banal and therefore, absurd.

Godard’s juxtaposition of realism and absurdity extends throughout Pierrot Le Fou, but the party scene heightens and elicits Ferdinand’s existential angst that spurs the rest of his journey and eventual death. In my opinion, the disjointedness of his experience culminates in the snap change to green in a previously blue room, at which point Ferdinand mutters through his gros bédo, “Olympio’s melancholy” – no doubt an allusion to Victor Hugo’s “Melancholy of Olympio” (Beams and Shadows, 1840). In this poem, Hugo’s realization is that nature’s endless beauty is cruel to human beings, whose happiness is unsustainable: “How little time it takes for you, Nature, with your unwrinkled brow, to change everything, disregardingly, and, in your acts of transformation, to snap the mysterious threads that bind our hearts.”[6] This bit of foreshadowing before Pierrot Le Fou’s transcendence of the absurd Parisian lifestyle to his death in the countryside is another gesture towards the social as an unheimlich space.

To address the party as unheimlich is to give Ferdinand the hero’s role, apart from the others, including even his wife. Ferdinand confirms this distance and estrangement from society when he says “A man alone always talks too much,” and, with a jump-cut change, he throws cake in his wife’s face and retrospectively narrates the plot change as “Next chapter, despair”. What is important about his admittance that the next chapter is despair, is that we can differentiate the first chapter as something other than melancholia; the omniscient viewer and the perturbed Ferdinand are the only privy to the strangeness and absurdity of Parisian society, privileging the viewer’s empathy with Ferdinand’s existential angst, that ultimately leads to his following melancholia, or sense of loss[7]. Heidegger says that while experiencing angst, it “does not signify that the world is absent, but tells us that the innerworldly entities are of so little importance in themselves that on the basis of this insignificance of what is innerworldly, the world in all its worldhood is all that still obtrudes itself,” (187) that is, being in the world is all that is left, and everything else becomes the unheimlich[8], the strange. This angst leads Ferdinand to search for meaning in the world, a sense of comfort that something is still left: “Some days are like that. You meet nothing but squares. So you start to look in the mirror and have doubts about yourself. Come on. I’ll take you home.” At this point, Ferdinand and his former lover Marianne embark on his journey to find a heim, a comfortable home, his unity, transcending the absurdity of Parisian society from which he feels estranged.

Ferdinand’s search for unity, he says, “between his eyes and ears” is also his search for belief in the world. In Cinema 2, Deleuze comments, “Only belief in the world can reconnect man to what he sees and hears. The cinema must film, not the world, but the belief in this world, our only link.”[9] This resonates with Godard’s suggestion of cinema as the relationship between man and the world, rather than the focus on man as the subject. Thereby, Godard departs from Bazin’s necessary verisimilitude for the remaining Pierrot Le Fou by juxtaposing the real and the absurd through the relationship between Ferdinand and the world, rather than focusing on Ferdinand as a subject in a linear narrative. After the escape from Paris under Bastille Day fireworks, concrete scenes are no longer synthesized into a temporal logic, but move as a “disjointed synthesis”[10] no longer subsumed under the imposition of innerworldly entities. Instead of the linear melancholic psychoanalysis we might expect in “Next chapter, despair,” Pierrot Le Fou’s narrative is arrested by a chain of signifiers relating to the engendered diametric opposition of Ferdinand and Marianne, and of filmic illusion and actuality.

Engendered Opposition

Ferdinand and Marianne were lovers, confirmed by the singular intimate contact between them while Ferdinand drives her home after he leaves the “boring” cocktail party. Placing his hand lightly on her shoulder, the viewer’s expectations become that of a typical romance – let their love cure his angst! Instead, Godard continues the unheimlich eeriness for the viewer (but not for Ferdinand): a strangely silent, unrealistic, diegetic sound of car movement; swirling iridescent colors unlike any street lamps I have ever seen; the unembodied but spoken sexual encounters, “I put my hand on your knee.” “Moi aussi, Marianne,” while leaving both hands on the wheel. It is important to note here, that his promise “I’ll do whatever you want, Marianne,” foreshadows Marianne as the force that propels the narrative forward. It is her desire for freedom, both with and from Ferdinand, that promotes his interaction with the world. Without her, would he embark on his journey to transcend the absurd? Had she survived at the end, would he have killed himself? The passive-active opposition of Marianne and Ferdinand display Godard’s penchant for the existential-ontological cinema, while their fragmented adventures resist a Bazinean condition of realistic cinematic spectacle.

Though driving the car, Ferdinand’s passivity is initially expressed by his conversation with Marianne about life’s difference than books. Marianne suggests that she wishes life were easier to understand – like books – “clear, logical, organized,” to which Ferdinand says life is. She responds, “Non, Pierrot.” This is the first of many moments of disagreement between the two, and the instance of naming Ferdinand “Pierrot”, which refers to the Commedia dell Arte clown-figure who imitates the absurdity of others[11], but also to the adventurous nature that Marianne loves about Pierrot-Ferdinand. The initial car scene is significant, because in Ferdinand’s attempt to escape the absurdity of Parisian life, he clarifies that he believes in the “clear” authenticity of the world he wishes to find, a desire seen as foolish, “le fou”, by active Marianne.

Laura Mulvey, author of Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema (1975), would reject the understanding of Marianne as active, saying: “Presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in the normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a storyline, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation,” (Visual Pleasures, 84). Considering Marianne as the passive figure in this narrative about Ferdinand’s quest for authenticity is possible by considering that she punctuates his intellectual progress by her capricious governance. Increasingly throughout the film, Ferdinand attempts to propound his ideas in his journal, embellishing the static nature of his physicality and yet asserting the forward-moving linearity of his intellectual journey.

Ferdinand’s journaling serves as fragmented intertitles to the otherwise questionably linear plot development. I assert here that Godard expresses realism through Ferdinand’s existential-ontological journey through long-shots during Ferdinand’s leadership in the relationship with Marianne, much like Ferdinand values his intellectual pursuits until she interrupts them, at which point Godard fragments the verisimilitude to innerworldly activity through abstracted montage and action. Take, for example, the chunk of discussion beside the bridge with no beginning, where they intend to burn their car after an escape from the gas station brawl. Marianne, directing Ferdinand’s driving to make their death from a car crash “look real, this isn’t a movie!”[12], is still infatuated with her obliging Pierrot, though he is clearly in disagreement with their activities. He states, “Always fire, blood, and war,” alluding to Samuel Fuller’s description of cinema at the cocktail party, to which she responds by exploding the car with a shotgun and saying, “Pretty, isn’t it?” This scene is not only a source of disagreement, but important to the development of the plot: Ferdinand has purposefully left Marianne’s gun-running money inside the car, an attest to his disavowal of society and a separation between Marianne and Ferdinand’s ideas about progress. Ferdinand says, “Travel broadens the mind, let’s go,” taking the active role during the middle section of the film, in which Godard’s cinematography changes from fast jump-cuts of action, to long-shots through rivers and forests, and voice-over narrative.

Leaving the absurd piece of bridge behind in a long-shot of a them walking through a field, “like shadows,” “through a mirror,” Godard’s auteurism shows itself. The theme of the mirror can be addressed as a cinematic reflection back to the viewer of what they already know[13]. Godard’s framing of Ferdinand and Marianne during their traversal of France is distinct from the distracting jump-cuts of their criminal life, which, according to Jean Mitry in The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema (1963), “produces a sort of preoccupying fascination which confines the impressions of consciousness within a frame”[14] and eliminates the viewer’s ability to contextualize that the film isn’t reality. Godard’s assertion of narrative linearity in this middle portion allows the viewer to relax from the anxiety of trying to piece together suggestive montage, and allows us to participate in Ferdinand’s voice-over narrative realization of his impulses[15]. Their captivating, romantic journey is cut off by Marianne calling Ferdinand a “liar”, and a non-linear jump to the pair in a city, discussing the make of a car while Ferdinand reads a children’s book. I argue that Marianne is the active character because the film does not end with Ferdinand’s discovery of authenticity, rather, Marianne wins the struggle against him by throwing his books into the ocean and asking herself “What am I going to do?”, a precursor of her leaving Ferdinand and forcing his attention to divert from static writing (but active thinking) to actively finding her (and ceasing his quest for authenticity). This cessation of Ferdinand’s journey and ultimately his death could allude to Marianne as a femme-fatale.

In the next scene, Marianne says, “show me you’re a man,” to which Ferdinand responds, “let me read this.” Unlike the Mulveynean assertion of the masculine gaze making a female character passive, their engendered difference exists only in the world of Marianne as the leader. The dialogical difference between the two is engendered, notable in Marianne’s statement, “You talk to me with words, and I look at you with feelings,” and the sexualized appropriation of Marianne’s “ejaculatory force of the eyes”[16] with which she lies to Ferdinand with words “I won’t leave you” but looks directly into the camera. Looking at the viewer, she reveals that she is lying, breaking the fourth wall without addressing the camera with words. Marianne’s presence takes up more time than Ferdinand’s journaling, possibly to his dismay, and their dialogue with the viewer about the other arrests the narrative through this fourth wall’s break. Scenes in which Marianne is the active character comprise the majority of the film and cut off Ferdinand’s quest for authenticity, resulting in his suicide.



Illusion and Actuality

On the drive away from Paris, Marianne comments on the radio’s announcement of the deaths in Vietnam, an awkward intrusion of then-contemporary news media into their romance’s revival. She says: “115 killed. Yet each one is a man, and we don’t even know who he is.” She connects the unheimlich feeling of the Barthean “blind field” of the photograph, which captures its referent but leaves out the activity of the referent’s life[17], with contemporary events that affect society but take place outside of her experiential world. This intrusion of actuality[18] arrests the opposing narrative of their romance and receives a response from angsty Ferdinand, “Oui, c’est la vie.” Life, for Ferdinand, and cinematic realism for Godard, is interrupted by society’s absurdity of external actions taking precedence in an otherwise linear narrative. Godard’s existential-ontological cinema includes the intrusion of external matters (Marianne’s gun running business) on the consciousness (Ferdinand’s quest for authenticity).

The next morning, inside Marianne’s apartment, the montage of art takes visual precedence over the murdered man, continuing to skew the conventions of linear narrative and verisimilitude in film. The attention to art is Ferdinand’s, as we can tell by his commitment to Elie Faure’s Histoire de l’Art (1921), but also Godard’s, he says: “It’s a film about painting, well not really painting, but a film that resembles a work of art, a landscape, like the painters do in both a portrait and a landscape. At the beginning my goal was the same as that of a painter”[19]. I think that Godard meant to express that his film has a chain of signifiers, a representation of both society and the self. Author Robert Kinsman suggests that painting in Pierrot Le Fou has political intention, the same as Godard’s “counter-cinema”[20], by virtue of art’s ability to prescribe actuality within the illusion of the cinema. Kinsman cites Barthes’ discussion of Brechtian theatre, that “techniques of the stage,” in this case, the montage of art, “are themselves committed to history” (Radical Form, 25). I agree with this, and suggest that the chain of signifiers between socio-historical actuality and cinematic fiction arrests the narrative by way of breaks in the film’s intention and suggestive montage.

Each time Vietnam is thematized, through the radio, the movies discussion and their impromptu skit, actuality crops up and there is a fissure in the otherwise existential mood. Unlike the wholly postwar concern of Alain Renais in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Godard evokes a Deleuzian concept of the “world-memory” of wartime suffering. Deleuze would recognize the shoreline relation between dissociated Ferdinand and the American soldiers as, “quite different characters and unconnected places which make up a world-memory,”[21] a memory which is addressed through the asocial position of Ferdinand and Marianne, and Ferdinand’s chosen reality. Like Godard, Deleuze incorporates the importance of consciousness into the globally-shifted postwar world, “the world has become memory… but the brain itself has become consciousness,” (Cinema 2, 121).

Shifting focus from the streets of Paris to the shorelines of soldier presence, Pierrot Le Fou doesn’t make banal the international influence of war, but shows its externality to the “real” quest of Ferdinand’s authenticity. Likewise, attending to the imposition of real feelings on Ferdinand, Godard demands his progression from angst- to mourning- to melancholy with the loss of his objet-petit-a, Marianne, when she runs off. Though alone, without Marianne’s distraction, Ferdinand’s melancholic disposition fragments his efforts in his quest for authenticity, resulting in non-linear narrative throughout the remainder of the film. Sigmund Freud discusses how mourning can lead to fragmentation and melancholy in his seminal article on the progressive stages of angst, Mourning and Melancholia (1917). He says, “Mourning is regularly the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal and so on” (243). I add emphasis to abstraction as the fragmentary work of mourning.

“So what is the work that mourning performs? I do not think I am stretching the point is I present it in the following manner: reality testing has revealed that the beloved object no longer exists, and demands that the libido as a whole sever its bonds with that object… Each memory and expectation in which the libido was connected to the object is adjusted and hyperinvested, leading to its detachment from the libido.” (Mourning and Melancholia, 204)


Ferdinand’s hyperinvestment in finding Marianne leads to his murder of her and her lover, which affirms the loss and drives him to suicide. The use of art and Vietnam as social illusions also fragment, or “abstract”, the narrative linearity because they represent a loss of the conscious ego to the imposing socio-historical memory, the concept which Ferdinand attempts to transcend in its absurdity.


Pierrot Le Fou is an excellent example of cinematic realism taking a different shape in the Nouvelle Vague. Godard’s attention to his referent’s consciousness and fragmentation of the narrative linearity provokes the viewer’s involvement with the film, to which Godard has said, “Yeah, well, sometimes in life if children are asleep and you make a noise they wake up, but if they’re already awake it doesn’t do anything at all,”[22] emblematizing his “countercinema” positionality. Pierrot Le Fou maintains an adventurous chain of signifiers between conscious discovery of one’s self and the arrest of consciousness to society. He problematizes Ferdinand’s relationship with his worldliness is provoked by his necessary entrapment within an unheimlich society, the love for Marianne, and socio-historical details that make up his surroundings, making Godardean cinema that of existential-ontological value.


[1] “Interview “Pierrot Le Fou”. Cahiers Du Cinema Oct. 1965: “Godard: The film, alas, is banned to children under eighteen. Reason? Intellectual and moral anarchy.”


[2] “French New Wave – Cahiers Du Cinema.” Review. Audio blog post. Fuds on Film. (2016)


[3] “Interview “Pierrot Le Fou”. Cahiers Du Cinema Oct. 1965

[4] Schoonover, Karl. “The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man and The Stars by Edgar Morin.”

Senses of Cinema. (2010)


[5] “Jean-Luc Godard Raconte “Pierrot Le Fou” – Archive INA.” YouTube. Inaculture. (2012)

[6] “Olympio’s Sadness – Summary” Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition Ed. Steven G. Kellman., Inc. 2009
[7] Freud, Sigmund, Mourning and Melancholia. (1917). I will discuss this point under the section “Illusion and Actuality”.

[8] Heidegger, Martin. Sein Und Zeit. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1979. Pg. 188.


[9] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh T. and Robert Galtea (London and New York: Continuum, 2005) Pg. 172.


[10] Ibid.

[11] Wills, David. Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge UP, 2000. Pg. 101.


[12] The irony of this scene is a source of humor, given the artificial-looking crash alongside the chunk of bridge, which inspired me to use Pierrot Le Fou for this paper.


[13] Mitry, Jean. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana U, 1968.


[14] Ibid. Pg. 82.


[15] Ibid. Pg. 84.

[16] Bresson, Robert. Notes on Cinematography. Copenhagen: Green Integer, 1997. Print.

[17] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Noonday, 1988. Pg. 57.


[18] I use “actuality” instead of “reality” in order to maintain the differentiation between the absurdity of society and Ferdinand’s perceived reality of the mind.

[19] “Jean-Luc Godard Raconte “Pierrot Le Fou” – Archive INA.” YouTube. Inaculture. (2012)


[20] Kinsman, Robert Patrick. “Radical Form, Political Intent: Delineating Countercinemas beyond Godard.” ProQuest Document View. University of Michigan Press, 2007. Pg. 25.


[21] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh T. and Robert Galtea (London and New York: Continuum, 2005), 113.

[22] “Jean-Luc Godard Raconte “Pierrot Le Fou” – Archive INA.” YouTube. Inaculture. (2012)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s