Thursday, November 20, 2008

Godard/Meta-Narrative/Pierrot Le Fou

Another viewing of Godard's Pierrot Le Fou (1965) has finally allowed me to be able to articulate what has fascinated me so much with this particular Godard film. I have been fascinated with Godard's strategy of meta-narration. The concept of meta-narration is simple enough to explain, it is narration about the act of narration. Meta-narration is analogous to the use of a meta-language. For instance when you learn a foreign language often times you have to have the foreign language explained to you in your native language. If you were learning French some French terms and concepts would have to be explained to you in English. Thus, English would be the meta-language used to explain the object-language (French) to you.(1) Godard practices this technique at the level of narration in Pierrot Le Fou. He creates fantastic sequences where the characters Pierrot/Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Marianne (Anna Karina) speak about what their characters are doing, will do or have done so that the (object) story becomes divorced from the images that we see and the sounds that we hear. It is with this strategy of meta-narration that Godard is able to detach the cinema from its slavish devotion to communicating a story in a linear sequential order. More than this, it is by deliberately limiting what we can see on the screen that Godard expands what we can hear on screen and conversely it is by limiting what we can hear on screen that Godard expands what we can see on screen. Nowhere is this strategy better demonstrated than in the "C'est Moi, Marianne" sequence of the film; a sequence that has always captivated my cinematic imagination from the first time I encountered it. The Meta-Narration begins with Marianne and Ferdinand speaking off screen about their characters:
Marianne: Marianne tells a story about...
Ferdinand: Ferdinand.
M: A story...
F: Complicated.
M: I knew some people...
F: It's just like during the Algerian war.
M: I will explain everything to you.
F: Waking from a terrible dream. Frank had the Keys?
M: I'll explain everything to you.
F: You were lovers?
M: I'll explain everything to you.
F: Did he make love to you?
M: I'll explain everything to you. A story.
F: Complicated.
M: ... leave very quickly.
F:... waking from a bad dream.
M: I know some people.
F: Politics.
M: An organisation.
F: Go away.
M: Gun-running.
F: In silence... in silence.... in silence.
M: It's me, Marianne.
F: He Kissed you.
M: A story.
F: Complicated.
M: I knew some people.
F: You were lovers.
M: Using my apartment.
F: It was like during the Algerian War.
M: I have a brother.
F: Waking from a bad dream.
M: Leave in a hurry... leave in a hurry... leave in a hurry. (2)
We hear this Meta-Narration, that is characters talking about themselves as characters in a story, telling each other bits and pieces of each other's story. One should note the non-linearity of the dialogue. The repetitions (a la Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais) of narrative information that tell the past and present simultaneously. Yet, the images on the screen show us another set of events from a marvelously constricted point of view. In fact, the images on screen are silent (that is have no diegetic sound as the voices are heard over it). What we see (or don't see but can understand) is that within Marianne's apartment a man has been murdered with a pair of scissors in the back of his neck. His body is laying on the bed and has been there for some time. We see Ferdinand walk into the room and we see Marianne reacting to someone coming in the door that is out of our view. She runs and hides behind a open refrigerator door while Ferdinand runs back into another room (out of our view). When the man enters the room (it is Frank whom we know from a previous scene) we see Ferdinand come back into the room as Frank sits on the bed (where the corpse was, but has now been removed presumably by Ferdinand). Frank looks surprised to see Ferdinand and then Marianne appears and distracts him as Ferdinand cracks him on the head with a champagne bottle. As Ferdinand drags Franks body out of the room, Marianne grabs a gun and begins looking out over the patio for an escape route. Then, through a series of startling and exhilarating jump cuts that jump forwards and backwards in temporal order we see the two climb down from the apartment and escape. My words don't do justice to the way these actions were presented because it is all done cinematically by use of a tracking shot with the camera placed outside on the patio looking through the windows. The camera tracks forwards, backwards, pans left and right and in so doing it obscures just as many actions as it reveals. What this series of camera movements force us to do as spectators is to become involved in the telling of the story we are only partially seeing on screen. Did Ferdinand remove the corpse from the bed? He must've because Frank sat on the bed without noticing the corpse. Who is going to hit Frank with the champagne bottle? The two characters exchange the bottle a couple of times before striking him with it. And again we must remember that the soundtrack carries the off-screen voices of the previous dialogue along with Antoine Duchamel's ominous and tragic music score weaving in and out along with the "silent" actions on screen. Thus, here by use of Meta-narration Godard was able to reveal the polygamous nature of cinematic narration; that is image can tell us (and not tell us) acts of narration that can be divorced from what the soundtrack can tell us (and not tell us) about acts of narration.
This Meta-narrative technique was perhaps first explored cinematically by Alain Resnais and Duras in Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) where we have a character recounting events in her past that we can see but that are not always anchored to what we are seeing. The technique was again explored in Truffaut's Tirez sur le Pianist (Shoot The Piano Player- 1960) and later tentatively by Godard in Une Femme est Une Femme, but here in Pierrot Le Fou Godard expanded his use of the technique and made it the driving force behind his "lovers on the run" narrative. By emphasizing a meta-narrational strategy in Pierrot Le Fou, Godard was shifting the cinematic emphasis of traditional narrative representation. Specifically, by using meta-narration at points in the story where most classical Hollywood directors would dramatize the expositional events (e.g. the escape of Marianne & Ferdinand or showing the police investigating their trail) Godard could place greater cinematic emphasis on the "fantastic" adventures within the story rather than the strictures of the plot. With Pierrot Le Fou, Godard had the best of both worlds: the playful cinematic dynamism of an adventure story with "the last romantic couple" along with the fatalistic trajectory of a "lovers on the run" plot that unified the disparate comedy and the multiple allusions to poetry, painting, literature and previous films within the adventures.
(1) This use of a meta-language is also used in symbolic logic where one has a meta-language used to describe a parenthetical object language: (A v ~B) Cf. page 136 in The Logic Course: The Bluestorm Textbook by Steven DeHaven, Tempest Media Inc., Calgary. 2001
(2) Classic Film Scripts: Jean-Luc Godard, Pierrot Le Fou

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