What is art? I have been asking myself this question ever since I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou , in which Belmondo-the-Sphinx asks an American producer the question, “What is the cinema?” There is one thing of which I am sure; and thus I can begin all this, in spite of my trepidations, by an assertion which, at least, stands like a solid beam driven into the middle of a swamp: art, today, is Jean-Luc Godard. It is perhaps for this reason that his films, and in particular this film, have provoked insult and scorn; people say things about Godard’s films that they would never say about a current commercial production, they allow themselves to go to extremes having nothing to do with criticism: they attack the man.
The American, in Pierrot le fou, says about the cinema what one could say about the Vietnam war, or any war for that matter. And the statements have a strange ring to them when they are considered in the context of that extraordinary scene in which Belmondo and Karina, in order to earn some money, improvise a little play before an American couple and their sailors, somewhere on the Riviera. He plays Uncle Sam, she plays the niece of Uncle Ho. . . . “But it’s damn good, damn good!” exclaims (in English) the delighted sailor with the red beard . . . because the film is in color, of all things. But Гт not going to tell you what happens in the film, like everybody else. This is not a review. Furthermore, this film defies review. You might as well go count the small change in a million dollars!
What if Belmondo, or Godard, had asked me, “What is the cinema?” I would have answered in a different way, by talking about certain people. The cinema, for me, was at first Charlie Chaplin, then Renoir, Buñuel, and now Godard. That’s all; it’s quite simple. Somebody is going to say I’m forgetting Eisenstein and Antonioni. You’re wrong, I’m not forgetting them. Or several others, for that matter. But I’m not talking about the cinema, I’m talking about art. Therefore, the question must be discussed in this context, in the context of another art, of one art with another one, a long history, in order to resume what art has become for us—I mean contemporary art, a modern art, painting for example. In order to characterize it through its personalities.
Painting, in the modern sense of the word, begins with Géricault, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet. And then the multitude follows. Finding its raison d’être because of these painters, or in using them as a starting point, or in opposing them, or in going beyond them. A flourishing such as has not been seen since the Italian Renaissance. In order to be entirely summed up in a man named Picasso. What interests me, for the moment, is this period of pioneers in which one can still compare the young cinema to painting. The game of saying who Renoir is, or who Buñuel is, doesn’t amuse me. But Godard is Delacroix.
First of all because of the way his work has been received. At Venice, it would appear. I wasn’t at Venice, and I didn’t belong to the juries that handed out the prizes and the Oscars. I saw, I found myself seeing Pierrot le jou, that’s all. I won’t talk about the critics. They’re good enough at dishonoring themselves! Nor am I going to contradict them. There were some, of course, who were taken by the film’s grandeur—Yvonne Baby, Chazal, Charpier, Cournot. ... All the same, I can’t pass up this chance to mention Michel Cournot’s extraordinary article—not so much because of what he says, which manifests an almost exclusive obsession with the reflections of personal life in the film (for Cournot, like so many others, is intoxicated by cinema-truth, whereas I much prefer cinema-lie.* But all right! at least we have here a man who lets himself go when he likes something. Furthermore, he knows how to write, if you’ll pardon the expression—even if there is only one left, to me, that’s important. I love language, marvelous language, delirious language—nothing is rarer than the language of passion in this world, where we live with the fear of being caught unawares, a fear that goes back, you’d better believe it, to the flight from Eden, to that moment when Adam and Eve notice they are naked, before the invention of the fig leaf.
What was I talking about? Ah! yes1; I love language, and it’s for that reason that I love Godard. Who is completely language.
No, that’s not what I was talking about; I was saying that Godard’s work has been received like Delacroix’s. At the Salon of 1827, which is just as good as Venice, Eugène had hung up his La Mort de Sardanapale, which he called his Massacre no. 2, because he too was a painter of massacres and not a painter of battles. He had had, he says, a number of difficulties with “the jackass members of the jury.” When he saw his painting on the wall (“My little daub is perfectly placed”) next to the paintings of the other artists, it gave him the impression, he said, “of a première where everybody would boo.” This, before the booing ever started . . .
It happens that I went to look at La Mort de Sardanapale a little while ago. What a painting this “massacre” is! Personally, I greatly prefer it to La liberté sur les barricades, which I’m sick and tired of hearing about. But that isn’t really the question here. The problem is just how the art of Delacroix resembles, in this case, the art of Godard in Pierrot le fou. Doesn’t the relationship strike you immediately? I’m speaking for those who have seen the film. Apparently the relationship has not struck them immediately.
While I was watching Pierrot, I had forgotten everything one is apparently supposed to say and think about Godard. That he has tics, that he quotes all over the place, that he is preaching to us, that he believes in this or in that ... in short, that he is unbearable, talky and a moralist (or an immoralist); all I could see was one single thing, and that was that the film is beautiful. Superhumanly beautiful. All you see for two hours is that kind of beauty which the word “beauty” defines quite poorly—what has to be said about this procession of pictures is that it is, that they are quite simply sublime. Today’s readers are not very fond of the superlative. Too bad. I find this film shot through with a sublime beauty. The word is ordinarily reserved for actresses and for the special vocabulary of theatre people. Too bad. Constantly, sublimely beautiful. You’ll notice that I hate adjectives.
Pierrot is, therefore (like Sardanapale), a color film. Using a wide screen. Which stands apart from all other color films because the use of a means in Godard always has an end, and because this means almost constantly involves its own selfexamination. It is not simply because the film is well photographed and because the colors are beautiful. ... It is well photographed, and the colors are beautiful. But there is something else involved. The colors are those of the world such as it is . . . how is it said? You have to have remembered: “How horrible life is! but it is always beautiful.”2 If it is said in other words in the film, it amounts to the same thing. But Godard does not stop with the world such as it is—for instance, suddenly the screen becomes monochrome, all red, or all blue, as during the sophisticated cocktail party at the beginning, a sequence that probably provoked the initial irritation of a certain number of critics (which reminds me of a certain evening at the Champs־ Elysées, during the premiere of a ballet for which Elsa [Triolet] had done the scenario, Jean Rivier the music, Boris Kochno the choreography, and Brassaï the settings; the name of the work was Le Réparateur de radios, and the audience went wild booing and hissing, because the ballet showed people dancing in a night club, and, after all, what would you expect? all the members of Parisian high society found themselves to be the target!). During the party sequence, the abandonment of polychromaticism without returning to black and white means J.-L. Godard’s reflection on both the world, into which he introduces Jean-Paul Belmondo, and on the technical means of expression at his disposal. This is further born out when this scene is almost immediately followed by a color effect which is in turn followed by a shot of fireworks and then, slightly later, by the bursts of light that follow one another without any possible justification in a nocturnal Paris in which the passion of the hero for Anna Karina suddenly becomes a reality; this latter effect takes the arbitrary form of discs, of colored moons sweeping across the wind-shield like rain, coloring their faces and their lives with an arbitrariness that seems to deny the world while marking the entrance of a deliberate arbitrariness into their lives. For J.-L. G., color does not exist simply to show us that a girl has blue eyes or that a certain gentleman is a member of the Legion of Honor. By necessity, a film by Godard that offers the possibility of color is going to show us something that could not be shown in black and white, a kind of voice that cannot resound when colors are mute.
In Delacroix’ pallet, the reds—vermilion, Venice red, the red lacquer of Rome or madder, mingling with white, cobalt and cadmium (does this represent a particular kind of Daltonism on my part?)—eclipse for me all the other hues, as if the latter were only put there to serve as a background for the reds. One might quote the words of Philarète Chasles concerning Musset—“He is a poet who has no color ... ,” etc. “Personally, I prefer gaping wounds and the vivid color of blood. . . .” This sentence, which has always remained in my mind, came back to me quite naturally when I saw Pierrot le jou. Not only because of the blood. Red sings in the film like an obsession. As in Renoir, where a Provençal house with its terraces reminds one here of the Terrasses à Cagnes. Like a dominant color of the modern world. So insistently does Godard use the color that when I came out of the film, I saw nothing else in Paris but the reds—signs indicating one-way streets; the multiple eyes of the red stop-lights in cochineal-colored slacks; madder-colored shops, scarlet-colored cars, red-lead paint on the balconies of rundown buildings, the tender carthamus of lips; and from the words of the film, only the following sentence, which Godard has Pierrot say, remained in my mind: “I can’t stand the sight of blood,” which, according to Godard, comes from Federico Garcia Lorca. From which work? What does it matter. . . . from the Lament on the Death of Ignacio Sanchez Mejias3 I can’t stand the sight of blood, I can’t see, I can’t, I. . . . The entire film is nothing but this immense sob caused because the hero is unable to, because the hero cannot stand to see blood, or to shed it, to be obliged to shed it. A madder, a scarlet, a vermilion, a carmine-colored blood, perhaps . . . the blood of the Massacres de Seio, the blood of La Mort de Sardanapale, the blood of July 1830, their children’s blood that will be shed in the three Médée furierne paintings (the one from 1838 and the ones from 1859 and 1862), all the blood that covers the lions and tigers in their battles with horses. . . . Never has so much blood flowed on the screen, red blood, from the first cadaver in Anna-Marianne’s apartment until her own blood; never has blood on the screen been so conspicuous as it is in the automobile accident, in the dwarf killed with a pair of scissors, and I don’t know what else, “I can’t stand the sight of blood; Que ne quiero verlaГ And it isn’t Lorca but the car radio which coldly announced the death of 115 Viet-Cong soldiers. . . . Here, it is Marianne who speaks up: “It’s terrible, isn’t it, how anonymous it is. . . . They say 115 Viet-Cong, and it doesn’t really mean anything. And yet they were all men, and you don’t know who they are, whether they loved a woman, whether they had children, whether they’d rather go to the movies or the theatre. You don’t know anything about them. All they say is that a hundred and fifteen were killed. It’s just like photography, which has always fascinated me . . .” Here, you don’t see the blood, or its color. But everything seems to revolve around this color, in an extraordinary way.
For nobody knows better than Godard how to show the order of disorder. Always. In Les Carabiniers , Vivre sa vie , Bande à part , this film. The disorder of this world is its basic matter, arising from the modern cities, shining with neon and formica; in the suburban areas or in interior courtyards, which nobody ever sees with an artist’s eyes; the twisted girders, the rusty machines, the trash, the tin-cans—this whole shantytown of our lives; we couldn’t live without it, but we conveniently put it out of our minds. And from this, as well as from automobile accidents and murders, Godard creates beauty. The order of what by definition cannot have any order. And when the two lovers, who have been thrown into a muddled and tragic adventure, cover up their tracks by blowing up their car next to a wrecked car, they cross France from the north to the south, and it seems that, in order to continue covering up their tracks, they once again, they still have to walk through water, in order to cross that river which could be the Loire . . . and later on in that lost area near the Mediterranean where, while Belmondo is beginning to write, Anna Karina walks (in the water) in a kind of hopeless rage from one end of the screen to the other while repeating the following sentences like a song for the dead: “What is there to do? Don’t know what to do. . . . What is there to do? Don’t know what to do. . . .” All this concerning the Loire. . . .
As I watched this river, with its islets and its sand, I thought that at least it is the one you see in the background in the Nature morte aux homar ds (which is in the Louvre), which Delacroix is supposed to have painted at Beffes, in the Cher River near the Charité־sur־Loire. This strange arrangement (or disorder) of a hare and a pheasant with two lobsters (cooked vermilion red) on the net of a hunting bag and a rifle, all in front of the vast landscape with the river and its islands may very well have been painted for a general living in the Berri province; it nonetheless remains an extraordinary slaughter, this Massacre no. 2-bis, which was done around the same time as La Mort de Sardanapale and which appeared next to the latter painting in the Salon of 18274. It represents the trying out of a new technique in which the color was mixed with a copal varnish. All of the nature scenes in Pierrot le jou are similarly varnished with some kind of 1965 copal, which makes it seem as if we are seeing these sights for the first time. What is certain is that there was no predecessor for the Nature morte aux homards, that meeting on an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissection table in a landscape, just as there is no other predecessor than Lautréamont to Godard. And I no longer know what disorder is, and what order is. Perhaps Pierrot’s madness is that he is there to put into the disorder of our era the stupefying order of pas-sion. Perhaps. The desperate order of passion (one sees despair in Pierrot from the very beginning, the despair of his own marriage, on the one hand, and the passion, the lyricism that represent his only hope of escaping from it).
The year that Eugène Delacroix, suddenly, left for Morocco, crossing France through “snow and bitter, freezing cold ... a gust of wind and rain,” 1832, there was no Salon at the Louvre because of an outbreak of cholera in Paris. But in May a charity exposition replaced the Salon, and here five small paintings lent by a friend represented the absent Delacroix. Three of them seem to have been done in rapid succession, probably during the period 1826-1827—the Etude de femme couchée (or Femme aux bas flanes), which is in the Louvre; the Jeune femme caressant un per roquet, which is in the Lyons museum; and Le Duc de Bourgogne montrant le corps de sa Maitresse au Duc d’Orléans (I have no idea where this one is located)5.
These paintings were done in the midst of Delacroix’ relationship with Mme. Dalton, but it is impossible to know who the three nude women of these works actually were, or even whether it was the same woman. No doubt the Jeune femme au pereoquet has the same heavy eyelids one sees in the Dormeuse, which apparently is Mme. Dalton. But neither one resembles the portrait of this lady done by Bonington. In Delacroix’ Journal, a number of young women who came to pose for him make a brief appearance, and the artist made notes about each one of them in a very particular kind of code. Whatever the case may be, Le Due de В. etc. is held to be the sequel to the first two Etudes, and nobody doubts that there was a strip-tease coincidence between this painting and life, Eugène no doubt being the Due de Bourgogne and his friend Robert Soulier, le Duc d’Orléans. And everyone knows how Mme. Dalton went from one to the other. But the perversity of the painter is not really the point here—in Pierrot le fou, it is Belmondo who plays with a parrot. And Гт not saying all this to show how, if I wanted, I too could indulge in the delirium of interpretation. Furthermore, isn’t this the answer to the question I started off with? Art is the delirium of the interpretation of life.
If I wanted to, furthermore, I would approach J.-L. G. from the painters’ side to show the origin of one of the characteristics of his art for which he is the most often reproached. Quotations, as the critics call them; collages, as I propose they should be called (and it seems to me that Godard, in his interviews, has used the same term). Painters were the first to use collages, in the sense that Godard and I mean here, even before 1910 and their systematic utilization by Braque and Picasso; there is, for instance, Watteau, whose L’Enseigne de Gersaint represents an immense collage, in which all the paintings on the wall of the shop and the portrait that is being packed of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaut are quoted, as everybody likes to say. In Delacroix, all you need is a painting from 1823, Milton et ses filles, to find a “quotation” used as a means of expression. There was certainly some stimulus that made Delacroix use, as the subject of a painting, a man who cannot see, in order to show us his thought—the pale blind man is sitting in an easy-chair with his hand on an embroidered tapestry covering a table; his fingers seem to be feeling the colors of the tapestry, while there is a pot of flowers that escapes him. But below his two daughters seated on low chairs, one taking down the words of Paradise Lost, the other holding a musical instrument that has become silent, one sees an unframed painting on the wall showing Adam and Eve fleeing the Garden of Paradise and the Angel who is banishing them—defenseless, naked and ashamed. This is a collage intended to show us the invisible, i.e. the thought of the man with the empty eyes. This technique has not been lost since that time. There is the painting by Seurat, for instance, Les Poseuses, in which, in the painter’s studio, three undressed women, the one at the right taking off some black stockings, are next to the huge painting of La Grande Jatte, which is quite appropriately “quoted” here so that the whole thing will be something else than what we call a strip-tease. And how about Courbet when he makes a collage of Baudelaire in a corner of his Atelier? In the same way, Godard, in Pierrot, stamps the letter with Raymond Devos before sending it, as he had done with the philosopher Brice Parain in Vivre sa vie. These are not characters from a novel; they are signs to show us how Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise.
Furthermore, if there is, in this area, a difference between Pierrot and Godard’s other films, it lies in a certain overall impression that people will not fail to see as Godard simply trying to outdo himself. People have already been reproaching the director of Le Mépris [1963! and Le Petit Soldat  for this technique for years now. They find it to be a mania they hope he will get rid of. The critics hope to discourage him, and they stand ready to applaud a Godard who would simply stop being Godard and make films the way everybody else does. They obviously have not succeeded, if this film is any indication. If anyone should be discouraged, it is the critics. The growth of this system of collages in Pierrot le jou is such that there are entire sections (chapters, Godard calls them) that are nothing but collages. The entire cocktail party at the bginning. Or even before that. The collages simply continue; everybody recognizes (because Belmondo holds the paper-back edition of Elie Faure’s history of art in his hand) that the text on Velasquez that begins the whole story is by Elie Faure. On the other hand, they’re not sure why, later on, Pierrot is reading the most recent printing of the Pieds-Nickelés comic strip. This in a story in which Belmondo waves a Série Noire novel about, as if to say “here is what a novel is really all about!” That gives me quite a laugh—when I was young, nobody said anything if I was found reading Pierre Louys or Charles-Henry Hirsch; but my mother forbad me to read the Pieds-Nickelés. I hate to think of what would have happened to me if she had ever caught me with a copy of L’Epatant, in which the comic-strip appeared. I don’t know what the black-leather-jacket generation must think of the Pieds-Nickelés; but for people of my generation whose memories are not entirely grisly, the resemblance between the Pieds-Nickelés and the characters of the “organization” in the complicated game in which Pierrot has become involved is immediately evident—so much so, in fact, that this whole affair, when Belmondo reads Les Pieds Nickelés, takes on a slightly more complex meaning than it seems to have at first glance.
That is not the essential point—but when everything is said and done, you have to accept the idea that the collages are not illustrations of the film, but that they are the film itself. That they are the very matter of paintings, and that painting would not exist outside of them. Thus, all those who persist in taking the matter for a gimmick would be better off, in the future, changing records. You may hate Godard, but you cannot ask him to practice any other art than his own ... the flute or water painting. You must see that Pierrot who is not named Pierrot and who screams at Marianne, “My name is Ferdinand!” finds himself next to a Picasso which shows the artist’s son (Paulo, as a child) dressed up as a Pierrot-type clown. And certainly the large number of Picassos6 on the wall does not manifest any desire on Godard’s part to show off his talents as a connoisseur, certainly not when Picassos can be bought at your local neighborhood department store. One of the first portraits of Jacqueline, in profile, shows up, somewhat later, with the head pointed downward because in the world and in Pierrot’s brain, everything is upside down. Not to mention the resemblance between the hair painted on the canvas and the long, soft locks of Anna Karina. Or Godard’s obsession for Renoir (Marianne is named Marianne Renoir). Or the collages involving advertising (“There was the Greek civilization, the Roman civilization, and now we have the ass-hole civilization. . . .”), beauty products, underwear.
What Godard is particularly reproached for are his spoken collages—too bad for those who did not react, in Alphaville (which is not my favorite Godard), to the humor of having Pascal quoted by Eddie Constantine as he is being questioned by the robot-computer. Godard is also reproached, along with everything else, for quoting Céline. In Pierrot, it happens to be GuignoVs Band—but if I were to start talking about Céline, this could go on forever. I prefer Pascal, no doubt, and I certainly cannot forget what the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit became. But this does not prevent the fact that Voyage, when it appeared, was a damn beautiful book, and that subsequent generations, who lose themselves in the novel, find us unjust, stupid and partisan. And we are just that. These are misunderstandings between a father and a son. But you can’t solve them by commandments: “My young Godard, thou shalt not quote Céline!” And so he quotes him, fancy that.
As for me, I am quite proud to have been quoted (or “collaged”) by the creator of Pierrot with a regularity that is none the less remarkable than the determination Godard shows as he shoves Céline in your face. None the less remarkable, but much less remarked upon by the critics, either because they haven’t read my works, or because I annoy them just as much as Céline, but offer them fewer reasons to attack than Céline, so that only their irritation remains and they use the weapon of silence, an irritation that becomes worse because it remains mute. In Pierrot le fou, a large extract of La Mise à mort. . .—a good two paragraphs; I don’t know all my works by heart, but I can certainly recognize them when I hear them—spoken by Belmondo shows me once again the kind of secret understanding that exists between this young man and me on certain essential things—let him find his tailor-made expression either in my works, or elsewhere, where I have my dreams (the cover of UA me at the beginning of La Femme mariée; the French translation, Admirables fables, done by Elsa of Mayakovsky’s work, on the lips of the partisan girl about to be shot in Les Carabiniers [1962-63]). When Baudelaire, in his poem “Les Phares,” had used Delacroix (“Lac de sang, hanté des mauvais anges ... ”) in a “collage,” the aged painter wrote to him, “A thousand thank-you’s for your good opinion—I owe you a great many just for Les Fleurs du mal; I’ve already talked to you about your volume in passing, but it deserves a great deal more. . . .” And when, at the Salon of 1859, the critics assassinated Delacroix, it was Baudelaire who took his side and answered for him, and the painter wrote to the poet, “Since I’ve had the good fortune to please you, I can console myself over the reprimands I received. You treat me in a manner that is usually reserved for great people who have died. You make me blush while making me very happy at the same time. That is the way we’re made.”
I’m not quite sure why I’m quoting this, why I’m making a collage of this in my article—everything is backwards here, except that, actually, when in that intimate little theatre where only Elsa sat there with me, I heard these words that I knew but did not immediately recognize, I blushed in the darkness. But I’m not the person who resembles Delacroix. It’s the other one. That child of genius.
Here I am back at the beginning. What is new, what is great, what is sublime always provokes insults, scorn and outrage. And this is always more unbearable for an older man. At the age of sixty-one, Delacroix met with the worst affront given by those who hand out glory. How old is Godard? And even if the game had been lost, the game is won, he can believe me on that. . . .
How many films has Godard already shot? Every one of us is a Pierrot le fou in one way or another, Pierrots who sit down on the railroad tracks, who wait for the train to come and run over them and who dash out of the way at the last minute, who continue to live. Whatever the ups and downs of our lives may be, and whether or not they resemble Pierrot’s. Pierrot blows himself up, but at the last second he decided he didn’t want to. Nothing is over, particularly since others will follow the same path, only the date will change. How alike it all is. . . .
I set off to talk about art. And I’ve only talked about life.
From Les Lettres françaises, no. 1096 (9-15 September 1965), pp. 1, 8. Translated by Royal S. Brown. Reprinted by permission of Aragon and Les Lettres françaises.
*See Le Nouvel observateur, 1 Oct. and 3 Nov., 1965. [ed.]
1.For tic collectors: this is, in my writing, a tic. This note turns it into an auto-collage.
2.This is not a quotation; all the sentences I may quote are the dreams of a deaf man.
3.In the Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias (1935), the sentence is not formulated in the same manner. It is in the second part of this poem, entitled La sangre derramada (wasted blood), that you find the refrain “Que no quiero verla!” (“How I don’t want to see it!”). Godard told me: “It’s Lorca, but it could just as well not be Lorca!”
4.And why, in the foreground, is there a blue Wyvern, a heraldic animal found in various legends of the Beri region? And what about the hunter who had cooked his lobsters!
5.The person in question here is Louis I of Bourgogne, the lover of the Queen of France Isabeau de Bavière and of her uncle from Orleans, Philippe le Hardi. It is not hard to understand why these three paintings were not shown with the Sardanapale in 1827 and that the absence of Delacroix was necessary in order for the "friend" who owned them (probably Robert Soulier) to send them to the exposition of 1832. It is not hard to imagine the scandal they provoked in the midst of a cholera epidemic.
6.Picassos ... the industrialization of the work of art has become a new sociological phenomenon. And you can have on your walls (in a smaller version than the original) the Guernica, for instance, as a permanent explanation of Algeria, of Vietnam, of Santo Domingo, of the Indo-Pakistani conflict (an “up to date” remark). . . . Snobbery is out of date. A Picasso means something and is taken by the everyday spectator for what it has to tell—once again, we are right in the middle of the era of the Massacres de Seio, of the Sardanapale era.