Criterion // 1965 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 22nd, 2009
"Godard's last frolic before he moved ever further into radical cinema."
For almost a decade between 1959 and 1969, Jean-Luc Godard was an unstoppable force in international cinema. The decade started with his transition from influential critic to influential director with Breathless and ended with the apocalyptic vision of Weekend, which signaled Godard's commitment to a more radical, more socialist-oriented, more politically motivated cinema than his previous (average) two features per year. As the '60s waned, Godard sank into relative obscurity with a series of radical films that while interesting, never capture the attention of audiences like his early work. It is appropriate, however, that what might be considered Godard's last gasp of respectability and popularity came with the American release of Pierrot Le Fou in 1969 (after, as Andrew Sarris points out in an included essay, much delay) when the film was greeted with much acclaim and public interest. It's appropriate because Pierrot Le Fou finds Godard aiming for the cheap seats combining his love/hate relationship with Hollywood forms, his masterful use of color, and his socialist ideas into a hypnotic package that balances radical notions and audience expectations. Criterion has decided to re-release its previous DVD of Pierrot on Blu-ray and the results are unsurprisingly spectacular.
Pierrot/Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Breathless) is fed up with middle-class life and decides to run away with the babysitter, Marianne (Anna Karina, Band of Outsiders), who is wanted by Algerian hitmen. Together, the two travel around getting into scrapes and generally living life as if they were in a movie.
When Godard is finally gone and future generations get to assess his contributions to cinema, I doubt he'll be remembered for questioning "What is cinema?" since practitioners have been doing that since the form was invented. I also doubt he'll be remembered for combining radical politics with cinema either, because that too has been done almost since the moving camera was born. No, Godard's legacy will be his films and the fact that so much of his work is compulsively, almost irresistibly watchable. This is especially ironic given that so many of his films are a reaction against the kind of film that tries to make us forget we're watching a film. No, Godard wants us to be aware for every frame that we are experiencing "cinema," and perhaps that's what makes them so watchable. Even in the parts of Pierrot Le Fou I found boring (and there are a few, where Godard's theory gets ahead of his ability to present it), I never wanted to turn the film off; I had to see what was coming next even though there's very little investment in what most people would consider a compelling "story."
Certainly part of the reason I wanted to keep watching was to see the new ways Godard was going to skewer capitalism or cinema (sometimes both) in each scene. One of the film's highlights is in early dinner party where the guests speak to each other in advertising slogans bathed in monochromatic light, that is until Pierrot encounters Samuel Fuller, the infamous director, who spouts platitudes about cinema instead of advertising, but the link is clear. Another beautiful moment occurs when the lovers-on-the-run encounter a wrecked vehicle which they will use to disguise their own stolen car. When the camera pulls back as the lovers leave the smoldering wrecks, we see that the original crash happened when a car hit a pylon supporting an overpass that's only twenty feet long which doesn't connect anything to anything else. It's a brilliant little dig at car culture (which Godard would extend in Weekend).
Finally, it's hard not to see Pierrot as a semi-sequel to Breathless, assuming that Belmondo's character had survived the first film. I can imagine Michel growing into a life of middle-class dis-ease as Pierrot and finally rebelling by joining up with Marianne. Which is just another way of saying that Godard is perfectly aware of the kind of patterns he can make with his cinema and the cinema of others.
As a bizarrely compelling piece of cinema, Pierrot Le Fou is given the deluxe treatment by Criterion. This Blu-ray is basically a copy of the previous two-disc DVD set. The film itself looks more gorgeous than I would have expected from a forty-five-year-old film, with strong colors and limited grain. Although there is occasionally some flicker, and the film isn't meant to be polished, this is a strong transfer that maximizes the strengths and minimizes the weaknesses of the source. The audio isn't quite as impressive, but for a mono track from the Sixties it sounds reasonably clear and free of distortion or hiss.
For extras we get a pair of featurettes and a bunch of interviews. The interviews include a recent chat with Karina about her experiences with the film and Godard, as well as some archival interviews with Karina, Belmondo, and Godard. For featurettes we're presented with a "video primer" on the film that goes over the techniques of the first part of the film so that the viewer can get acclimated to Godard's style. The other featurette is a 50-minute documentary that covers Godard's life up to Pierrot including some of the details of his life with Karina. The disc finishes off with the film's trailer. As usual, there is a booklet included with essays by Andrew Sarris, Richard Brody, and an interview with Godard.
Although Hollywood has long since assimilated Godard's techniques, his films still remain difficult viewing for many. There is very little emphasis placed on the typical niceties of plot and characterizations, but instead on surface and emotional relationships. Pierrot Le Fou is not a popcorn flick, and it's definitely not for those looking for a relaxing night of movie watching.
Criterion has done it again, porting one of its typically strong DVD releases to hi-def with everything intact. The only problem is that Criterion did such a good job the first time around that it's hard to recommend an upgrade just for the hi-def video. However, Godard fans who skipped the first release should absolutely check this one out.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1965
MPAA Rating: Not Rated