Avant Godard! – Part 2, Musical Subversion (Bande à Part and Pierrot Le Fou)

Part 1.

Ideas In Later Films By Godard.

Godard would continue to subvert the role of record players in his work to similar but more extreme effects. It seems odd that the connecting factor to all the scenes mentioned is the presence of his, then wife, Anna Karina.  Godard is capable of presenting her dancing and singing with a relatively normal relationship between the visual and the aural. In his film Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Karina again puts on a record to dance to and though the sound levels are unrealistically loud, the scene is no different to a Hollywood film and the music stays strictly within the diegetic role it is given. However, this is an anomaly.

In his 1964 film Bande à Part, he plays a similar trick as in Une Femme Est Une Femme, but at a more obviously controlled level. The three characters are in a bar after planning a robbery. One of them has put on a record of some dance jazz. In what seems to be an impromptu Madison dance, all three perform a routine to the music. This is not only unexpected but influential too with the likes of Quentin Tarantino quoting it as the inspiration for his famous dance scene in Pulp Fiction:

Bande à Part clearly reached a much wider audience than virtually all of Godard’s post 1968 work, and draws upon a largely popular-cultural set of referents, one reason perhaps why it influenced Quentin Tarantino who pays tribute to the Madison sequence in Pulp Fiction, 1994.” (Reader, 2007, p. 81))

However, Godard does more than surprise the viewer with this quirky scene; he completely breaks down the conventions of diegetic music by again stopping and starting the piece. Unlike the rhythm being continued with singing, the rhythm is kept by the sound of the dance which includes clicking of fingers and dance stamps. Yet the characters can hear something as they’re still in time, again implying that the film is being controlled by the director and is not a reality of its own accord. Godard goes further still and adds a voice over of himself over the silent sections explaining where the characters are in their emotional journey. The mix is utterly absurd in the most Avant Garde of fashions and the reality created throughout the film is left in tatters on the floor.

It’s interesting to note that this is one of only a few moments in the film that abandons its reality through sound. Compared to both Une Femme Est Une Femme and Pierrot Le Fou, Bande à Part seems tame in its few moments of Avant Garde sound exploration. There’s plenty of space in the film for some of the more traditional film music analysis with large swaths of score being allowed to play uninterrupted. Gorbman does, however, still find its music anti-Hollywood, using it to show the juxtaposition of music in genre narratives:

In Godard’s Bande a part, a film abounding with Hollywood genre expectations gone wrong, brass instruments pleasantly execute a waltz as two would-be robbers tensely attempt to break into a house via a ladder to the upper floor”.(1987 p. 78)).

The aforementioned dance scene sits nicely next to the scene where, on demand of a minute’s silence from Odile (played yet again by Karina), the characters are not simply quiet but instead the whole of the film’s sound is muted for a whole minute. Silence is in itself a powerful tool in a film’s soundscape, yet a whole minute of silence is such an uncomfortable effect that it brings the viewer out of film slowly rather than abruptly. Gorbman even suggests that Godard was overdoing it, stating “Non-diegetic silence can also be put to “modernist” or comedic use, as in Godard’s Bande a Part (1964). When three characters in a cafe decide to stop talking and have “one minute of silent,” Godard overdoes it by removing all sound for exactly one minute” (1987 p. 19). However, any interpretation of “overdoing it” must surely come from either buying into the relatively solidified fictional world of Bande à Part or lack of experience in Godard’s films. Gorbman’s is no doubt born from the former rather than the latter.

Bande à Part was made before Pierrot Le Fou but it reinforces the idea that Karina, no matter what character she plays, has just as much control over the worlds within the films as Godard has. This may just be a freedom granted by Godard but, with knowledge that Karina was his spouse until 1967, it seems that romantic favouritism has given Karina’s characters power outside of the narrative worlds created for them which manifests powerfully in the soundscapes and music of their films.

Pierrot Le Fou – Musical Interaction With Fictional Characters.

Pierrot – “All she thinks about is fun”

Marianne – “Who are you talking to?”

Pierrot – “The audience”.

Marianne – “Ahh”.

The sound experimentations in Godard’s pre-1965 films were to seem tame in comparison to the disruptions in Pierrot Le Fou (1965). The film seems determined to break its boundaries as a work of fiction by whatever means possible, whether visually or aurally.  The quote that opens this section sets the tone for the film which is one of nonchalance and apathy toward caring for the viewer’s interest in believing in the story and its constructed reality.

More than simply stopping or intervening with diegetic music, Pierrot Le Fou presents the viewer with scenarios where characters clearly interact with sounds and music that are made outside of their diegetic reality. As Cousins states when discussing about À Bout De Souffle: “The reason for cutting the sequence in this way was because the cuts were beautiful in themselves, because they emphasised that what we were watching was cinema, just as painters had turned to cubism many years earlier because it emphasised the flatness of the canvas,” (2004 p. 270) meaning that perhaps all that is about to be discussed is simply because Godard wanted to draw attention to the medium itself by taking personal pleasure in its aesthetic aspects.

It is a film that seems determined, not just to deconstruct the reality at potential expense of the viewer of traditional leanings, but to playfully mocking the very medium itself. “With Godard, spontaneity prevails over formula, completing and recapitulating” states Moullet (1987 p. 213), summing up Godard’s priorities and perhaps going some way to explaining his sometimes absurd uses of music. This deconstruction of reality starts near the very beginning of the film where Pierrot attends a party and has a conversation with the real Samuel Fuller who’s “In Paris making a picture called Flowers of Evil”. This is a trick Godard has already pulled in Le Mépris (1963); a fictional film about Fritz Lang attempting to adapt Homer for the screen. The musical experiments are still the film’s most extreme attempt to distort its reality though and, even with the excessive visual disturbances (random colour filters, fast jump cuts, out of sequence scenes etc), they still do more to break down the illusion more than anything visually.

Part 3.

Adam Scovell

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