Criterion // 1965 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // February 19th, 2008
"I'm glad I don't like spinach, because if I did then I would eat it, and I can't stand the stuff."
To call Pierrot le Fou anything less than a challenging piece of cinematic art would be an insult. As Jean-Luc Godard's fourth film in 1965, it encapsulates the breakdown of his marriage to actress Anna Karina, his frustration with originality in film, and his dissection of the Hollywood narrative structure. It's a film with more meaning in its opening credits than any Hollywood film made at the same time. But does the fact that it's "deep" make it good?
Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) leads a boring life married to a rich Italian. He yearns to think, create, and be free, yet he is confined to a life of socializing and consuming. One night, after returning from a party, he finds that the babysitter, Marianne Renior (Anna Karina), was his love from five years prior. The two run away together. While having their affair, however, he discovers that Marianne is involved in some vague gun-running scheme with her brother, and that she has just killed a man with scissors. Now they're on the run with a suitcase full of money, pursued by police and gangsters. Each time they think they have escaped into their own world of childish freedom, they are discovered and dragged deeper into the corrupt world Marianne once belonged to.
The film opens with a bunch of A's, B's, and C's slowly creating a title and credit screen. It's accompanied by a quote about the Spanish painter, Diego Velázquez: " Velázquez, past the age of 50, no longer painted specific objects..." It's the theme of the film; that Godard was no longer going for specificity and storytelling, but rather something new and original, the stuff in between the shapes. What follows is an episodic adventure, punctuated with landscapes, primary colors, and high art references. There is a story amidst all of this, of course, but Godard is quick to assure us that it isn't all that interesting.
In an interview contained within the beautifully designed booklet accompanying this release, Godard talks about how the film was made up virtually on the spot. He had originally planned to make it an adaptation of Lionel White's novel, Obsession, but due to casting issues the idea had to be abandoned. The plot is fairly simple at first: a man wanting more than his current, boring existence, runs away with an old flame; however, when a dead body suddenly shows up in his love's apartment, the plot thickens. Ferdinand and Marianne become entangled with Algerian gun-runners, thievery, a suitcase of money, and an unassuming parrot. In the end, the plot is simply here to move things along, and to force the characters to convey Godard's emotions.
At the time of its making, Godard was going through a divorce with his wife Anna Karina. For reasons unknown to me, she agreed to play the role of Marianne, which was certainly fashioned after herself. Playing the character of Godard/Ferdinand/Pierrot is Jean-Paul Belmondo, who carries much of the film on his philosophical charm. Karina and Belmondo have some beautiful chemistry in the film; Belmondo representing intelligence and philosophy and Karina representing action. These two stars go through Pierrot fully aware that it is a movie, there is an audience, and that they are acting rather silly. They fill the film with self-referentiality, constantly making asides to the camera, and even referring to one another as "Technicolor movie stars."
It's in this self-referencing that Godard succeeds most. Early in the film, Ferdinand is dragged to an "accidental party" with his boring wife. Because the party is an important and necessary part of the film, if not all that interesting, Godard makes it as bland as possible. The party sequence is shot on a 2D plain, and is lit with monochromatic, primary colors. The actors are lined against the wall, talking in commercial slogans, trying to one-up each other with consumer status. Ferdinand walks from room to room in the party, and eventually happens upon filmmaker Samuel Fuller. He asks Fuller what the exact definition of "cinema" is, to which Fuller replies: "A film is like a battleground. It's love, hate, action, violence, and death. In one word: emotions." Ferdinand responds to this with a shrug and an "eh." The comedic timing is perfect, and the message is rather clear: this movie isn't playing by the rules of Hollywood.
Godard's characters begin the film by declaring their love for each other, but as the movie progresses, Ferdinand and Marianne become distant. Ferdinand realizes that they are two completely different people, and that his love for her is largely physical attraction. Marianne becomes bored with Ferdinand's constant philosophizing and diary-writing. In one scene, after the two of them have been living in a hut on a beach for a few weeks, Marianne simply strolls along the shore yelling, "What is there to do? I don't know what to do!" While Ferdinand is satisfied sitting on the beach writing in his journal and reading, Marianne craves adventure and civilization. Eventually, she is able to drag Ferdinand back to civilization, and to the gun-runners who are perusing them, with deadly consequences.
Pierrot le Fou, like the two main characters, plays with the juxtaposition of high and low art. Godard starts the movie with a quote about a Spanish painter, and litters the dialogue with further quotes from writers and critics. This could have been because they were working without any real script, but it also works to stress the argument presented that literature is more important than music. Fitting in with the Pop Art movement of Warhol and Lichtenstein, Godard utilizes insert shots of comic books and pulp artwork (alongside Renoir and other classical paintings). Again he stresses high art of Van Gogh and Renoir with the low art of comic strips and half-tone prints. Further melding the film with the Pop Art movement was its use of primary colors. The characters are often draped in loud, basic colors; the blood in the film looks nothing like blood, but rather red tempra paint; and the explosive ending when Ferdinand paints his face blue returns us to the original color of the opening credit's A's and B's. All of this further adds to Godard's use of imagery and emotion, rather than plot or action.
In the end, this film is more of an artist riddle, rather than an exciting movie. There's plenty here to study and analyze (more than I could even touch on in a review), so long as you're not really thinking about the simplistic plot. Godard wasn't necessarily setting out to make a great road movie; rather, he was making an emotional gesture about a time in his life. I wouldn't necessarily watch this movie for a good time, and you certainly can't take it all in with one viewing; but if you're looking for a challenging piece of cinema, then this is a good place to start.
I first saw Pierrot le Fou on the original DVD release, which was a bare-bones release from 1998. Thankfully, Criterion has basically thrown everything from that release out the window, including its weird subtitles, and started anew, creating a magnificent package that does the film the justice it deserves. The film has been completely re-mastered with a new high definition transfer, and looks great. The initial integrity (stress on the "gritty") of the original film stock is in tack, but the colors now pop (again, emphasis on the "pop") more than ever. It's well-balanced, fairly free of defects, and retains that '60s feel to it. The audio doesn't fair as well, but they did the best with what they had. The film comes with just a mono French track, which suffices thanks to the improved English subtitles.
This release comes with a second disc packed with extras that will help you understand the movie. In fact, I'd advise watching a lot of these things first. The 50-minute documentary "Godard, l'amour, la poèsie," features an in-depth look at Godard's life up until Pierrot, including his relationship with Anna Karina. The documentary, which was directed by Luc Lagier, is, in itself, an artistic piece of filmmaking, utilizing a postcard motif to take us through Godard's life. The other really helpful featurette is "A 'Pierrot' Primer," by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin. Here, Gorin walks us through the first 20 minutes or so of the film, analyzing every last frame. He provides time stamps, freeze frames, and play-by-play short of Madden-esque telestrating. At times it's hard to understand what Gorin is saying (unlike Lagier, whose documentary is subtitled, Gorin reads his English essay in a thick French accent), but his incites into the film are great. I only wish that the analysis stretched the length of the whole film, rather than just focusing on the first half.
Accompanying these analytical featurettes is a collection of interviews with Godard, Karina, and Belmondo. Most interesting is the brand new interview with Karina, recorded especially for this Criterion release. In the 15-minute interview, Karina talks about working with Godard and what it was like filming Pierrot. She reiterates that it isn't necessarily a film to be understood plot-wise, rather it's the film's emotion that matters. There is also some archival footage recorded behind-the-scenes of the film back in 1965, and some coverage of the film's premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The footage, which is in black and white, provides a nice look back at the film's premiere and the atmosphere on the set. The clips are taken from French news shows, and it's rather surprising to see how skeptical and candid the reporters are with Godard; at one point a reporter from the Venice Film Festival asks Godard if he is a provocateur, which he finds a tad insulting.
The set is rounded out by the film's theatrical trailer, and the previously mentioned booklet. The booklet for Pierrot is especially helpful, as it contains an essay, review and interview about the film. The essay is a new commentary by New Yorker writer Richard Brody; the review was written back in 1969, when the film first debuted in New York City; and the interview with Jean-Luc Godard was from the film's debut in '65. An impressive supplement, to say the least.
Pierrot le Fou is a dense, emotional, thought-provoking film that more than likely won't be immediately understood upon first viewing (unless, of course, you're some sort of Godard expert). Thankfully, Criterion has done another outstanding job in providing supplements that truly enhance the viewing experience. The second disc in this release is packed with analysis as well as production-side material, and the booklet is a nice collection of three takes on the film.
The story might not be particularly engaging, but everyone in the film seems to know that. But for as much as Godard ignores the plot, he piles on the theory. He mocks Hollywood genre-convention while engaging in Pop Art juxtaposition and "what is cinema?" rhetoric. If you're looking for a challenging movie, Godard's got you covered.
Guilty of being another great Criterion release to a Godard classic.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1965
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Video interview with Anna Karina
* "A 'Pierrot' Primer" video program with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin
* "Godard, l'amour, la poèsie" documentary
* Archival interviews with Godard, Karina, and Jean-Paul Belmondo
* Theatrical Trailer