Pierrot Le Fou: The Initial Journey of the Absurd Hero

Alfred Xue

French film director Jean-Luc Godard premiered his Pierrot le Fou in Paris in 1965, the second of his existentialist love stories starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. The film is loosely based on the American novel Obsession, by Lionel White. In Godard’s own words, it is “the story of a guy who leaves his family to follow a girl much younger than he is. She is in cahoots with slightly shady people, and it leads to a series of adventures.” What Godard fails to mention in his pithy summary is that the main character, Ferdinand, also embarks on a series of metaphysical adventures that ultimately collapses and leads to his suicide. While the result of his journey would be considered by Camus to be the prime example of inauthenticity, Ferdinand nevertheless demonstrates many qualities of the absurd hero throughout the film.

The Absurd Hero

In the Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1942, Camus suggests that, to be authentic, one must reckon with the absurdity of searching for unity in a world devoid of coherence. Camus uses the condemnation of Sisyphus to describe the authentic journey. Sisyphus, having tricked the Gods and once avoided Death, is doomed to the futile existence; he must, for the remainder of eternity, push a bolder up a hill only to have it roll back and begin the process anew. Sisyphus is not deluded, he is conscious of his hopeless fate. As he pushes the stone up the hill, he is consumed in his labor. As Camus notes, “A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself!” It is not until Sisyphus stands atop the hill, with a “breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering,” that he is able to reflect upon his accursed fate. He is “powerless and rebellious,” and in the lucid moments of his descent “he is superior to his fate.”

Titan. Sisyphus. 1549. Museo Del Prado, Spain.

Titan. Sisyphus. 1549. Museo Del Prado, Spain.

But what does it mean to be superior to one’s fate? It is to become freed from it. Sisyphus is still trapped in his absurd existence – but he is aware of the absurdity of his existence.  No longer is he bound by his anxieties of trying to reconcile his fate – he transcends it in that he is freed from that bondage of thought. He needs not to find a purpose in his punishment and that is his freedom.

According to Camus, we are all trapped in this absurd fate – he even compares Sisyphus’s action of pushing up the rock to the 9-to-5 job that most people engage in. The absurd hero, thus, is able to first recognize the indifference of the world around him. At first, salvation seems to stem from escape through suicide – both physical and philosophical. Both, however, must be rejected. Neither is an affirmation of existence. Physical suicide is the act of a coward. Camus writes, “It [suicide] is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it (Myth of Sisyphus 19).” Camus approaches the question of suicide not by explaining why it is morally irresponsible, but instead by affirming the value of life above all else. He explains, “the absurd is an experience that must be lived through, a point of departure, the equivalent, in existence, of Descartes’s methodical doubt (The Rebel 4).  Camus views philosophical suicide in a similar light. Camus rejects the “leap of faith” required to believe in a transcendent realm beyond the absurd (i.e. religion) because it creates the hope of a elusive utopia that is never realized. This illusion of hope sacrifices intellectual thought and creates the loss of lucid awareness. Thus, the absurd hero must reject suicide and instead affirm the value of his existence in the indifference of the world.

Absurdism in Perriot Le Fou

Godard paints the meaningless world and the absurd man’s struggle into images in the introductory sequence of Pierrot le fou. When the viewer is first introduced to protagonist Ferdinand, he is seen in front of a bookstore with a sign “Le Meilleur des Mondes”, or “Brave New World”. Godard’s framing of the sign is intentional, but it’s intent is at first unclear. However, Huxley’s Brave New World is an exploration of life in a dystopian future devoid of meaning. Thus Godard’s framing serves to establish Ferdinand’s disillusionment with the world around him.

Pierrot le Fou. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Graziella Galvani. 1965.

Pierrot le Fou. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Graziella Galvani. 1965.

Godard continues to explore Ferdinand’s relationship with the world through his experience at a cocktail party. Godard weaves together a series of colorful tableaux now complete description (they are still shots in blue, red, etc. Each represents a different conversation, and Ferdinand walks through the frame, observing; only once does he pause to engage in conversation, with the American film director Samuel Fuller. paint a picture for the reader. The camera separates Ferdinand from the people and things around him, while showing why Ferdinand is so disillusioned with the world they reflect and re-create. Throughout the sequence , Ferdinand remains in the foreground while the other party-goers converse in the background. Already, Godard successfully isolates Ferdinand from the remainder of society. Godard continues to press this issue through his transition scenes. The audience immediately notices that the camera does not follow Ferdinand, but rather that it appears as if Ferdinand is walking through a set of stills. This is particularly evocative because it suggests that the other members of the party are nothing more than props in Ferdinand’s world. Furthermore, the majority of the “conversations” that Ferdinand observes are pointless. The men talk about cars and the women beauty products, and neither acknowledges what that the other says. Each voice seems to represent a radio or television advertisements–for Buick, shampoo, etc. No one but Ferdinand seems to be capable of listening or of communicating authentically.

Furthermore, Ferdinand demonstrates that he holds little regard for his family. While in the car with love interest Marianne, a high class prostitute posing as a babysitter, he notes that he has little feeling for his wife and that he married her for her money. The exception is when Ferdinand holds a conversation with American film director Samuel Fuller. Fuller, when pressed by Ferdinand, notes, “Film is like a battleground. There’s love, hate, action, violence, death… in one word, emotion.” This is at once Godard’s tribute to Fuller and a self-conscious commentary on cinema, and the focus of Ferdinand’s intellectual growth. Ferdinand becomes obsessed with finding the purpose of existence. Just as Fuller is able to ignore the details of a movie to highlight its significance, so too does Ferdinand want to remove himself from the hollowness of his life to find an authentic feeling and touch the absurd.

While Ferdinand discovers the absurd and infers the dissonance between his desire for purpose and the world’s indifference, he is unable to respond to it with authenticity. He becomes a failed intellectual – though he is at first able to walk the path of the absurd hero, he fails to transcend his fate because he is unable to see the value within his life. The greatest obstacle to Ferdinand’s meditation is his obsession with Marianne. At first, Ferdinand endeavors to transcend his attachment through reflection. Marianne’s disinterest in metaphysical reflection is obvious – she becomes so spiteful of Ferdinand’s literature that she throws his books and notes into the ocean. Marianne is also responsible for drawing Ferdinand back into society. Midway through the movie, Ferdinand and Marianne have found themselves isolated on a beachfront in Algeria. Camus describes the Algerian landscape as a “Strange country that gives the man it nourishes both his splendor and his misery! ”  Ferdinand is most certainly enjoying the landscape while Marianne is driven crazy by her detachment from society.

The landscape allows Ferdinand to reflect. He looks into the ocean and sees the insignificance in his own actions yet is inspired by the beauty around him to write as if he might grasp some authentic intuition or understanding. It is at this moment that Ferdinand most closely acquires authenticity. He has adopted Sisyphus’ nonchalance and his defiance, striving to establish his purpose while knowing that doing so is futile.

Initially, Marianne too, is captivated by the discovery of the indifference of the world. When Ferdinand comments that he sees in himself ‘a man who’s about to drive over a cliff at 60 mph,” which is not so much a death wish as an expression of his disdain for society, Marianne in turn responds that she is “in love with the man who’s about to drive over a cliff at 60 mph.” The two appear in sync – one finishes the sentences of the other; they act in perfect harmony to escape those who chase them. It is on the beach, however, that Godard establishes the differing visions of the two. Ferdinand comments that, “It is impossible to have conversation with you, you never have ideas, only feelings.” Ferdinand is a man who is at this moment, largely authentic, and honest in his attempts to reconcile himself with the world. Alternatively, Marianne was simply drawn to the idea of this absurd journey and becomes disenchanted when she realizes that it is a painful journey with no end. In Camus’ language, Ferdinand wants to touch the absurd and transcend his existence while Marianne merely wishes to escape. She avoids reflection in favor of constant movement, which she looks to as her salvation from the indifference.

Marianne becomes the pinnacle of inauthenticity. She has seen the indifference of the world, but finds the truth unbearable. While with Ferdinand, she walks along the beach, claiming, “I don’t know what to do.” Her repetition of this phrase suggests that she is going crazy, and it is here that she comes to a crossroads. She has the capability to continue with Ferdinand on the beach, to accept the absurd and her futile longing to overcome it, and perhaps find comfort in her friendship with Ferdinand. but she instead chooses to reject the indifference of the world. She succumbs to the illusion that the world has purpose, and convinces Ferdinand to return as well.

Unfortunately, Marianne is also Ferdinand’s foil. Marianne helps push Ferdinand away form his home, and becomes someone that Ferdinand can rely on as he enters his metaphysical journey. Ferdinand views the two as one unit – as if they had crossed the metaphysical sea together. He asks if Marianne will ever leave him, and she assures him that she will certainly not. For Ferdinand, the departure for the absurd has become intertwined with his relationship with Marianne – she keeps him sane. Thus, when Marianne rejects the absurd, Ferdinand finds himself lost and ultimately chooses to return with her.

Following Marianne’s betrayal, Ferdinand’s actions become the opposite of the authentic Meursault from Camus’s L’Etranger. According to Jacob Golomb, Meursault becomes the ideal authentic man when “he becomes conscious of the notion of the absurd and reflects upon his life. He affirms his life and authentically faces his imminent death” (Golomb 270). For Meursault, this occurs at the end of his life, when he stands before the guillotine. Ferdinand, on the other hand, engages in such thought in the middle of the film, and then he loses his grip on the absurd. Both Meursault and Ferdinand murder, but for entirely different reasons. Ferdinand kills Marianne and her lover out of jealousy and spite. His action is one filled with both worldly purpose and justification. Ferdinand has been betrayed and used, and loses sight of the value of his own life. Ferdinand has succumbed an illusion of meaning in the world – he feels his purpose is to enact revenge on Marianne and her lover. Ferdinand has committed philosophical suicide. Meursault’s murder of the Arab, on the other hand, is precisely the opposite. Meursault’s murder is an acte gratuit –it has no justification – Meursault is not upset at the Arab, nor does he have any incentive to commit the act. But it is not only in their actions that we can judge their authenticity, but in the manner in which they face their deaths as well (Golomb 270).

Camus writes, “the contrary of suicide, in fact, is the man condemned to death” (Myth of Sisyphus 48). Camus argues that it is impossible to be authentic and to commit suicide – for one could not recognize the value in his life and then choose to throw it away. Meursault has a beautiful death. He has accepted who he is – he refuses to lie about his thoughts, his convictions, and he walks gracefully to the guillotine. He accepts his death and is satisfied with his earthly happiness. In the blade, Meursault has affirmed his individual life as his most important value. Ferdinand’s death could not be any more different. Ferdinand’s decision to commit suicide is a rejection of authenticity. Ferdinand has already embraced philosophical suicide but here too, he embraces physical suicide.

As Ferdinand awaits the dynamite to blow up, he comments that “this is silly” and attempts to extinguish the flame that he ignited, but is unable to do so. In the face of death, Ferdinand’s resolve wavers, and he regrets attempting to commit suicide. What is left unknown to the audience is whether Ferdinand had engaged in a metaphysical revolution in the face of death – and found value in his life, or if he was merely overcome by fear, in the way that Hamlet justified living. The audience is left confused, unable to decipher Ferdinand’s thought process.

The scene that follows Ferdinand’s death suggests that he has become authentic. The camera pans over a majestic ocean and Ferdinand’s spirit converses with Marianne’s. Marianne comments that “It is ours… eternity,” Ferdinand responds, “It is merely the ocean.” Such a response suggests that Ferdinand regards eternity as insignificant – either it does not exist, or it does exist and Ferdinand disregards it. Both align with existentialist doctrine. Yet it still seems preposterous that one who has committed suicide could be authentic.

Recall earlier that the first conclusion of existential thought would be suicide and that Camus calls for us to rise above our fate and affirm our existence. Ferdinand was never able to answer Camus’s call. He is trapped with an incomplete understanding of existentialism – which is why he is able to respond in such an existential manner to Marianne – but his failure as an intellectual inhibits his transcendence, and he pays the ultimate price. Though reductive, this interpretation is supported by Godard’s history. Godard’s wife Anna Karina performed Marianne. During the tedious and extensive process of filming, Godard and Karina divorced. Brody notes that it had “turned into an artistic manifesto and a cry of resentment and pain:” (Brody 11), and that “Godard gave unusally free vent to his emotions, and those emotions were harrowing ones: Pierrot le Fou was an angry accusation against Anna Karina, and a self-pitying keen at how she destroyed him and his work” (Brody 13). There is no redemption for Ferdinand – he has been hallowed and destroyed by Marianne’s betrayal. His intellectual journey has been cast aside – thrown into the ocean. His rejection of eternity is not a metaphysical one, but rather a rejection of Marianne. Thus Ferdinand does not have an epiphany and come to value his life, but is rather briefly consumed by fear, much as Hamlet was.

As is Godard’s purpose, we are able to observe the fall of Ferdinand from a poet struggling with the absurd to a lost and crazed man. Perriot Le Fou is a story of a failed intellectual – one who struggles with his existence in an indifferent world, but is ultimately unable to affirm its meaning. Ferdinand demonstrates many of the initial characteristics of the absurd hero, but his reliance on Marianne ultimately collapses his intellectual exploration. Godard’s Pierrot le Fou is both a cinematic masterpiece and the manifestation of the failed intellectual.

Works Cited

Brody, Richard. “Pierrot Le Fou: Self-Portrait in a Shattered Lens.” RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1975. Print.

Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1951. Print.

Golomb, Jacob. “Camus’s Ideal Of Authentic Life.” Philosophy Today 38.3 (1994): 268. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

Pierrot le Fou. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Graziella Galvani. 1965.

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