Let’s Talk About Pierrot: An Interview with Jean-Luc Godard

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(The following interview with Jean-Luc Godard—conducted by Jean-Louis Comolli, Michel Delahaye, Jean-André Fieschi, and Gérard Guégan—appeared in the October 1965 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, upon the film’s release in France.)

Cahiers du Cinéma: What exactly was the starting point for Pierrot le fou?

Jean-Luc Godard: A Lolita-style novel whose rights I had bought two years earlier. The film was to have been made with Sylvie Vartan. She refused. Instead I made Band of Outsiders. Then I tried to set the film up again with Anna Karina and Richard Burton. Burton, alas, had become too Hollywood. In the end the whole thing was changed by the casting of Anna and [Jean-Paul] Belmondo. I thought about You Only Live Once, and instead of the Lolita or La chienne kind of couple, I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple, the last descendants of La nouvelle Héloïse, Werther, and Hermann and Dorothea.

Cahiers: This sort of romanticism is disconcerting today, just as the romanticism of The Rules of the Game was at the time.

Godard: One is always disconcerted by something or other. One Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago I saw October again at the Cinematheque. The audience was composed entirely of children, going to the cinema for the first time, so they reacted as if it was the first film they had seen. They may have been disconcerted by the cinema, but not by the film. For instance, they were not at all put out by the rapid, synthetic montage. When they now see a Verneuil film they will be disconcerted because they will think, “But there are fewer shots than in October.” Let’s take another example, from America, where television is much more cut up and fragmented than it is in France. There one doesn’t just watch a film from beginning to end, one sees fifteen shows at the same time while doing something else, not to mention the commercials (if they were missing, that would disconcert). Hiroshima [mon amour] and Lola Montès went down much better on TV in America than in the cinemas.

Cahiers: Pierrot, in any case, will please children. They can dream while watching it.

Godard: The film, alas, is banned to children under eighteen. Reason? Intellectual and moral anarchy.

Cahiers: There is a good deal of blood in Pierrot.

Godard: Not blood, red. At any rate, I find it difficult to talk about the film. I can’t say I didn’t work it out, but I didn’t pre-think it. Everything happened at once: it is a film in which there was no writing, editing, or mixing—well, one day! [Antoine] Bonfanti knew nothing of the film, and he mixed the soundtrack without preparation. He reacted with his knobs like a pilot faced by air pockets. This was very much in key with the spirit of the film. So the construction came at the same time as the detail. It was a series of structures that immediately dovetailed one with another.

Cahiers: Did Band of Outsiders and Alphaville happen in the same way?

Godard: Ever since my first film, I have always said I am going to prepare the script more carefully, and each time I see yet another chance to improvise, to do it all in the shooting, without applying the cinema to something. My impression is that when someone like Demy or Bresson shoots a film, he has an idea of the world he is trying to apply to the cinema, or else—which comes to the same thing—an idea of cinema that he applies to the world. The cinema and the world are molds for matter, but in Pierrot there is neither mold nor matter.

Cahiers: There seems at times to be an interaction between certain situations that existed at the moment of shooting and the film itself. For instance, when Anna Karina walks along the beach saying, “What is there to do? I don’t know what to do…,” as if, at this moment, she hadn’t known what to do, had said so, and you had filmed her.

Godard: It didn’t happen that way, but maybe it comes to the same thing. If I had seen a girl walking along the shore saying, “I don’t know what to do,” I might well have thought this was a good scene, and, starting from there, imagined what came before and after. Instead of speaking of the sky, speaking of the sea, which isn’t the same thing; instead of being sad, being gay, instead of dancing, having a scene with people eating, which again isn’t the same thing; but the final effect would have been the same. In fact it happened like that not for this scene but another in which Anna says to Belmondo, “Hi, old man!” and he imitates Michel Simon. That came about the way you suggest.

Cahiers: One feels that the subject emerges only when the film is over. During the screening one thinks this is it, or that, but at the end one realizes there was a real subject.

Godard: But that’s cinema. Life arranges itself. One is never quite sure what one is going to do tomorrow, but by the end of the week one can say, after the event, “I have lived,” like Musset’s Camille. Then one realizes one cannot trifle with the cinema either. You see someone in the street; out of ten passersby there is one you look at more closely for one reason or another. If it’s a girl, because she has eyes like so, a man, because he has a particular air about him, and then you film their life. A subject will emerge that will be the person himself, his idea of the world, and the world created by this idea of it, the overall idea that this conjures. In the preface to one of his books, Antonioni says precisely this.

Cahiers: One feels that Pierrot takes place in two periods. In the first, Karina and Belmondo make their way to the Côte d’Azur, no cinema, because this is their life; and then, on arrival, they met a director and told him their story, and he made them begin all over again.

Godard: To a certain extent, yes, because the whole last part was invented on the spot, unlike the beginning, which was planned. It is a kind of happening, but one that was controlled and dominated. This said, it is a completely spontaneous film. I have never been so worried as I was two days before shooting began. I had nothing, nothing at all. Oh, well, I had the book. And a certain number of locations. I knew it would take place by the sea. The whole thing was shot, let’s say, like in the days of Mack Sennett. Maybe I am growing more and more apart from one section of current filmmaking. Watching old films, one never gets the impression that they were bored working, probably because the cinema was something new in those days, whereas today people tend to look on it as very old. They say, “I saw an old Chaplin film, an old Griffith film,” whereas no one says, “I read an old Stendhal, an old Madame de La Fayette.”

Cahiers: Do you feel you work more like a painter than a novelist?

Godard: Jean Renoir explains this very well in the book he wrote about his father. Auguste would go away, feeling a need for the country. He went there. He walked in the forest. He slept in the nearest inn. After a couple of weeks, he would come back, his painting finished.

Cahiers: Early films tell us a good deal about the period in which they were made. This is no longer true of 75 percent of current productions. In Pierrot le fou, do contemporary life and the fact that Belmondo is writing his journal give the film its real dimension?

Godard: Anna represents the active life and Belmondo the contemplative. This is by way of contrasting them. As they are never analyzed, there are no analytical scenes or dialogue. I wanted, indirectly through the journal, to give the feeling of reflection.

Cahiers: Your characters allow themselves to be guided by events.

Godard: They are abandoned to their own devices. They are inside both their adventure and themselves.

Cahiers: The only real act Belmondo accomplishes is when he tries to extinguish the fuse.

Godard: If he had put it out, he would have become different afterward. He is like [Michel] Piccoli in Contempt.

Cahiers: The adventure is sufficiently total for one not to be able to know what comes next.

Godard: This is because it is a film about the adventure rather than about the adventurers. A film about adventurers is Anthony Mann’s The Far Country, where you think about the adventure because they are adventurers; whereas in Pierrot le fou, one thinks it is about adventurers because it describes an adventure. Anyway it is difficult to separate one from the other. We know from Sartre that the free choice the individual himself makes is mingled with what is usually called his destiny.

Cahiers: Even more than in Contempt, the poetic presence of the sea…

Godard: This was deliberate, much more so than in Contempt. This is the theme.

Cahiers: Exactly as if the gods were in the sea.

Godard: No, nature, the presence of nature, which is neither romantic nor tragic.

Cahiers: Adventure seems to have vanished today, to be no longer welcome, hence the element of provocation now in adventure and in Pierrot le fou.

Godard: People pigeonhole adventure. “We’re off on holiday,” they say. “The adventure will begin as soon as we are at the seaside.” They don’t think of themselves as living the adventure when they buy their train tickets, whereas in the film everything is on the same level: buying train tickets is as exciting as swimming in the sea.

Cahiers: Do you feel that all your films, irrespective of the way they are handled, are about the spirit of adventure?

Godard: Certainly. The important thing is to be aware one exists. For three-quarters of the time during the day one forgets this truth, which surges up again as you look at houses or a red light, and you have the sensation of existing in that moment. This was how Sartre began writing his novels. Nausea, of course, was written during the great period when Simenon was publishing Touristes de bananes, Les suicidés. To me there is nothing very new about the idea, which is really a very classical one.

Cahiers: For the majority of spectators, cinema exists only in terms of the Hollywood structures that have become convention, whereas all the great films are free in their inspiration.

Godard: The great traditional cinema means Visconti, as opposed to Fellini or Rossellini. It is a way of selecting certain scenes rather than others. The Bible is a traditional book, since it effects a choice in what it describes. If I were ever to film the life of Christ, I would film the scenes that are left out of the Bible. In Senso, which I quite like, it was the scenes that Visconti concealed that I wanted to see. Each time I wanted to know what Farley Granger said to Alida Valli, bang!—a fade-out. Pierrot le fou, from this standpoint, is the antithesis of Senso: the moments you do not see in Senso are shown in Pierrot.

Cahiers: Perhaps the beauty of the film springs from the fact that one senses this liberty more.

Godard: The trouble with the cinema is that it imposes a certain length of film. If my films reveal some feeling of freedom, it is because I never think about length. I never know if what I am shooting will run twenty minutes or twice that, but it usually turns out that the result fits the commercial norm. I never have any time scheme. I shoot what I need, stopping when I think I have it all, continuing when I think there is more. This is full length dependent only on itself.

Cahiers: In a classical film, one would query the thriller framework.

Godard: On the narrative level, classical films can no longer rival even Série noire thrillers, not to mention born storytellers like Giono, who can hold you in suspense for days on end. The Americans are good at storytelling, the French are not. Flaubert and Proust can’t tell stories. They do something else. So does the cinema, though starting from their point of arrival, from a totality. Any great modern film that is successful is so because of a misunderstanding. Audiences like Psycho because they think Hitchcock is telling them a story. Vertigo baffles them for the same reason.

Cahiers: So freedom has moved from the cinema to the Série noire. Do you remember The Glass Key? The end?

Godard: Not very clearly. I’d like to reread it.

Cahiers: At the end, a woman who has hardly featured in the story suddenly recounts a dream.

Godard: The Americans are marvelous like that.

Cahiers: In the dream, there is a glass key. Just that, and the novel is called The Glass Key. And the book ends with this dream. If one did something like this in the cinema, people would say it was provocation. This sort of reaction is tpical of a public that has a cinematographic pseudoculture but nevertheless indulges in terrorist tactics.

Godard: This is why the Cinematheque is so good, because there one sees films pell-mell, a 1939 Cukor alongside a 1918 documentary.

Cahiers: There is no clash between ancient and modern?

Godard: None at all. There may be technical progress, but no revolution in style, or at least not yet.

Cahiers: With Pierrot le fou, one feels one is watching the birth of cinema.

Godard: I felt this with Rossellini’s film about steel, because it capture life as source. Television, in theory, should have the same effect. Thanks to the cultural alibi, there is no such thing as noble or plebian subjects. Everything is possible on television. Very different from the cinema, where it would be impossible to film the building of the boulevard Haussman, because to a distributor this isn’t a noble subject.

Cahiers: Why do you think certain scenes are filmed rather than others? Does this choice define liberty or lead to convention?

Godard: The problem that has long occupied me, but which I don’t worry about while shooting, is: why do one shot rather than another? Take a story, for example. A character enters a room—one shot. He sits down—another shot. He lights a cigarette, etc. If instead of treating it this way, one…would the film be better or less good.

What is it ultimately that makes one run a shot on or change to another? A director like Delbert Mann probably doesn’t think this way. He follows a pattern. Shot—the character speaks; reverse angle, someone answers. Maybe this is why Pierrot le fou is not a film but an attempt at film.

Cahiers: And what Fuller says at the beginning?

Godard: I had wanted to say it for a long time. I asked him to. But it was Fuller himself who found the word emotion. The comparison between films and a commando operation is from every point of view—financial, economic, artistic—a perfect image, a perfect symbol for a film in its totality.

Cahiers: Who is the enemy?

Godard: There are two things to consider. On the one hand, the enemy who harries you; on the other, the goal to be reached, where the enemy may be. The goal to be reached is the film, but once it is finished one realizes it was only a passage, a path to the goal. What I mean is that when the war is won, life continues. And maybe the film really begins then.

Cahiers: Isn’t this sort of liberty in the cinema rather frightening?

Godard: No more than crossing a road either using a crossing or not. Pierrot seems to be both free and confined at the same time. What worries me most about this apparent liberty is something else. I read something by Borges where he spoke of a man who wanted to create a world. So he created houses, provinces, valleys, rivers, tools, fish, lovers, and then at the end of his life he notices that this “patient labyrinth is none other than his own portrait.” I had quite this same feeling in the middle of Pierrot.

Cahiers: Why the quotation about Velázquez?

Godard: This is the theme. Its definition. Velázquez at the end of his life no longer painted precise forms, he painted what lay between the precise forms, and this is restated by Belmondo when he imitates Michel Simon: one should not describe people but what lies between them.

Cahiers: If Pierrot le fou is an instinctive film, one might wonder why there are connections with life and actuality.

Godard: It is inevitable, since making Pierrot le fou consisted of living through an event. An event is made up of other events that one eventually discovers. In general, I repeat, making a film is an adventure comparable to that of an army advancing through a country and living off the inhabitants. So one is led to talk about those inhabitants. That is what actuality is: it is both what one calls actuality in the cinematographic and journalistic sense, and casual encounters, what one reads, conversations, the business of living, in other words.

Cahiers: Each time actuality crops up in the film, one has the impression that there is a rupture in mood.

Godard: When, for instance?

Cahiers: The Vietnam War references…

Godard: I don’t think so. In a world of violence, it is violence that controls the way things evolve. Anna and Belmondo meet some American tourists, and they know how to amuse them. They play the game. If they had met Russian or Spanish tourists, they would probably have acted differently. Of course it was I who chose to have American tourists rather than any other. But in any case it suited the improvised theater aspect. Someone coming back from China told me this is how it happens: suddenly, in a marketplace, five people come along; one plays the American imperialist, and so on. Just like children playing cops and robbers. My inclusion of a newsreel about Vietnam after that was pure logic: it was to show Belmondo that they were playing a game but that nevertheless the matter of their game preexisted.

Cahiers: Conversely, would you consider filming a political subject with individual repercussions?

Godard: A purely political subject is difficult to do. For politics you need insight into the points of view of four or five different people, and at the same time to have a broad overall grasp. Politics involves both past and present. When you reach Churchill’s memoirs, you understand very clearly what is happening today. You think, “So that is what he was thinking when he took part in such and such conference”; but you only learn this twenty years later. It is more difficult in the cinema: you have no time, since you are dealing with the present. What would interest me is the life of a student, the story of Clarté, for instance. But a film about the life of an editor of Clarté would have been possible two years ago. Now it’s too late, or too soon. It should have been done at the time, since the situation made it possible, with a broad outline scenario, and working along cinema verité lines subject to direction and structural organization.

Cahiers: It is often said that dragging politics like this into a story such as the Anna-Belmondo adventure is dilettantism. 

Godard: The answer to that is simple: you can read Le monde seriously or as a dilettante. Either way, the fact is that you do read it, and that is part of life. In the cinema, however, one isn’t supposed, if one is in a room, simply to open the window and film what is going on outside. The grumblers see this as a rupture in unity, but for all that fail to see where the unity lies. One may feel that in Pierrot the unity is purely emotional, and point out that something does not fit this emotional unity; but simply to say politics have no right to be there is pointless, since they are part of the emotional unity. Here we come back to the old classification by genres: a film is poetic, psychological, tragic, but it is not allowed simply to be a film. Naturally if I were to make a film about the Dreyfus case, you would see very little about the case and a good deal about people and their personal relationships. Another fascinating thing to do now would be the life of a shorthand typist at Auschwitz (Mikhail Romm has made a documentary compilation along these lines called Ordinary Fascism). But a film about a shorthand typist at Auschwitz would be hated by everybody. The so-called left wing has always been the first to criticize the real left-wing filmmakers, both Pasolini and Rossellini in Italy, Dovzhenko and Eisenstein in Russia. One can only talk about the milieu one knows at first; later, with age and experience, this milieu opens out. It is very curious that in France there have never been any films about the Resistance. The Italians, of course, dealt with the problem of the Resistance and the liberation in political terms, because they had experienced them in a much more obvious way, and Fascism had affected Italy more than France. Yet from an emotional point of view, the lives of the generation before our own were completely disrupted by the war. Even now they are still living the prewar days and have not emerged into the postwar period. But no films about this either. No film about the adventures of the Ponchardier brothers, the real Frank and Jesse James of the Resistance. In America or Russia there would have been twenty films about Moulin, the Maquis des Glières, and so on. In France, one film did try to evoke the ambiance of 1944, Dewever’s Les honneurs de la guerre. It was all but banned. As soon as a film comes along that is more or less honest, a climate of suspicion and disparagement springs up.

Cahiers: There seems to be an unwillingness in France to consider the liberation in ideological terms.

Godard: Things are more open in Italy. In France, politics are a shameful problem. A sin. This why French politics just don’t exist […]

Cahiers: You often talk about music and painting: why is it that with two exceptions—Les carabiniers and A Married Woman—the music in your films is deliberately “film music”?

Godard: Because I have no ideas about music. I have always asked for more or less the same music from different composers. They all wrote very similar music, more or less, and I always asked in general for what is known as “film music.”

Cahiers: If one listened to it without seeing the film…

Godard: It would be worthless.

Cahiers: Yet you have worked with a young musician, [Philippe] Arthuys, on Les carabiniers.

Godard: That was backward music, so to speak. I asked Arthuys to try to write the sort of music [Albert] Juross might imagine if his mind had any possibilities at all. It is crude, backward, caveman music. In any case three-quarters of my films could do without music. I did use music, but if I hadn’t, the film would be no different. In Alphaville the music seems to counterpoint, even to deny, the images: it has a traditional, romantic feel that belies the world of Alpha 60. Here it is one of the narrative elements—it evokes life, it is the music of the world outside, I use their music instead of filming them. These are sounds that should have the value of images. I have never used music otherwise. It plays the same role as black in impressionist painting.

Cahiers: If the music plays a more important role, then should the musician himself make the film?

Godard: I don’t see why Boulez shouldn’t make films, just as Guitry did. Or if one wants to use his music—or Stravinsky’s—they should make the film. I would never ask Stravinsky to compose a background score for me. What I need is bad Stravinsky, because if what I use is good, everything I have shot becomes worthless. I can’t work with a scriptwriter for the same reason: a musician conceives his music from his own world of music, and I conceive my films from my own world of cinema. One added to the other is too much, I feel. For me, music is a living element, just like a street, or cars. It is something I describe, something preexistent to the film.

Cahiers: What about color in Pierrot le fou? For instance, the colored reflections on the windscreen of the car…

Godard: When you drive in Paris at night, what do you see? Red, green, yellow lights. I wanted to show these elements but without necessarily placing them as they are in reality. Rather as they remain in the memory—splashes of red and green, flashes of yellow passing by. I wanted to re-create a sensation through the elements that constitute it.

Cahiers: This is the hand of the painter again…

Godard: But I think one can go much further in this direction—without, however, repeating what Butor did in literature. That is too easy to achieve in the cinema. Writers have always wanted to use cinema as a blank page: to arrange all the elements and to let the mind circulate from one to the other. But this is so easy to do in the cinema. Contrary to what Belmondo says in Pierrot, Joyce is of no interest to the cinema. In any case the silent cinema went just as far. We have lost a considerable part of the silent cinema’s discoveries, and are only now beginning to rediscover them because we are reverting to simplicity and because the influence of the sound cinema as it was practiced is beginning to disappear. The great silent cinema never meant the application of a certain style to a certain event. In my opinion the cinema should be more poetic in a broader sense, while poetry itself should be opened out.

Cahiers: One must deal with anything and everything.

Godard: Two or three years ago I felt that everything had been done, that there was nothing left to do today. I couldn’t see anything to do that hadn’t been done already. Ivan the Terrible had been made, and Our Daily Bread. Make films about the people, they said; but The Crowd had already been made, so why remake it? I was, in a word, pessimistic. After Pierrot, I no longer feel this. Yes, one must film, talk about, everything. Everything remains to be done.

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