“Velazquez, past the age of 50, no longer painted specific objects. He drifted around things like the air, like twilight, catching unawares in the shimmering shadows the nuances of color that he transformed into the invisible core of his silent symphony. Henceforth, he captured only those mysterious interpenetrations that united shape and tone by means of a secret but unceasing progression that no convulsion or cataclysm could interrupt or impede. Space reigns supreme. It’s as if some ethereal wave skimming over surfaces soaked up their visible emanations to shape them and give them form and then spread them like a perfume, like an echo of themselves, like some imperceptible dust, over every surrounding surface.”–opening lines of Pierrot le Fou, supposedly from the book on modern painters Ferdinand reads throughout the film
PLOT: Ferdinand, who is married to a wealthy Italian woman and has recently lost his television job, leaves a bourgeois cocktail party early and skips town with babysitter Marianne, with whom he had coincidentally had an affair years before. After knocking out an intruder, the two go on a crime spree and end up living on a remote island, but Marianne grows bored and wants to return to city life. Things get complicated when Marianne, who claims her brother is a gun runner, kills a man in her apartment, and the lovers are separated.
- Pierrot le Fou is a (very) loose adaptation of Leonard White’s pulp novel “Obsession.” In the novel, the babysitter is much younger than the man she runs away with, creating a “Lolita” dynamic; when Godard decided to cast Belmondo and Karina, the nature of their relationship had to change.
- “Pierrot” means “sad clown,” a stock character from commedia del arte. Pierrot is archetypically foolish, in love, and betrayed by his lover.
- Two days before the film was to shoot, Godard still had no script. Some of the film was therefore improvised, although, according to Anna Karina, the extent to which the film was made up as it went along was later exaggerated.
- Godard and Karina were married in 1961; by the time Pierrot was released, they were already divorced.
- The film was booed at its debut at the Venice Film Festival, yet went on to do well at international box offices.
- Director has a cameo as himself in the cocktail party scene, where he gives his theory of the essence of cinema.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The despondent Ferdinand, speaking on the phone, grabs a paintbrush and begins daubing his face blue. Once finished, he goes out into the Mediterranean sun, carelessly swinging two bundles of dynamite—one red, one yellow—around his body. He’s off to end the movie.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Topless cocktail party; scissored dwarf; Pierrot is blue
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Inspired by a film noir plot, but shot in a sunny primary-color pop art style that banishes all shadows, Pierrot le Fou is a bittersweet contradiction, and a story that refuses to sit still: it’s a road movie, a romance, a comedy, an adventure, a musical, a satire, a meditation, a surreal fantasy, and a postmodern lark (sometimes, it’s all of these in a single scene). Godard’s personality holds it all together with a lighthanded unity that he would seldom pull off.
Video review of Pierrot le Fou from Lewis Senpai (MoviesEveryday)
COMMENTS: “Fou” means “crazy” in French. Ferdinand’s lover, Marianne, calls him “Pierrot” throughout the film, although he constantly corrects her. Pierrot is the sad clown of commedia de arte. Therefore, we might translate the title “Pierrot le Fou” as “the sad, crazy clown.” And Pierrot is a clownish and crazy piece of cinema, although its sadness is buried beneath a brave grin. Fortunately, we don’t have to dig so deep to locate the film’s craziness. Ferdinand goes to a cocktail party where every room is tinted a different color, the women are casually topless, and the topics of conversation revolve almost exclusively around the virtues of brand-name shampoos. When he sleeps over at Marianne’s for the first time, she sings him a happy song accompanied by an offscreen piano, but they avoid discussing the assault rifles in the corner or the bloody corpse in the spare bedroom. A brawl at a gas station turns into a Laurel and Hardy sketch. The couple pauses for another, more elaborate, musical number in a forest. They perform a cringe-inducing play about Vietnam for American sailors, with Marianne jabbering singsong nonsense with her face painted yellow underneath a conical straw hat. Marianne takes care of an inconvenient dwarf gangster with a pair of scissors. Ferdinand gets waterboarded. He meets a lovelorn man (comedian Raymond Devos) who hears music no one else can. Finally, Ferdinand paints his face blue and decides to off himself with dynamite.
Godard is once again noodling about in genre film, this time fracturing a film noir/road movie into unrecognizable shards. Narrating, and taking turns finishing each others’ sentences, Ferdinand and Marianne promise to “tell a story—all mixed up.” Each scene is an individualized doodle, operating according to its own logic: sometimes realistic, sometimes blatantly comic, sometimes surreal. No matter what tack he takes in a segment, however, everything fits together because Godard sticks to a single, easily grasped plot and honors the psychological reality of his characters (complex and contradictory as Marianne may be, we believe it is the same woman who loves and betrays Ferdinand). The tone, also, is consistently playful; there are murders and beatings and betrayals aplenty, but ultra-cool Jean-Paul Belmondo shrugs off each misfortune with a shake of his head and another puff off his Gauloise.
At the cocktail party which Ferdinand flees, he bumps into American director Samuel Fuller (playing himself), who offers up his definition of the essence of cinema: “A film is like a battleground. It has love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotions.” Many critics accept that Fuller acts as Godard’s mouthpiece for Pierrot le Fou, bluntly stating the film’s aesthetic. I find this identification hard to swallow. While Godard admires Fuller, it would be hard to pick any two filmmakers with such different styles. Fuller was known for the visceral thrills of his war movies, westerns and tabloid melodramas. Godard’s Brechtian alienation techniques–such as characters speaking directly to the camera—wouldn’t appeal to the American; even the experimental Shock Corridor was achingly sincere, the hallucinations immersive, the emotions on the sleeve. Rather, I think that Godard’s attitude towards Fuller’s aesthetic is one of envy. He admires the purity of Fuller’s vision, but believes that he’s lost the innocence necessary to recreate it. Godard loves old classic American movies, but he can’t make them, because he knows them too well: he knows the tricks they use to lead the audience where they want. To be authentic, Godard needs to develop his own tricks; and he stays far away from genuine emotions. “There are ideas inside feelings,” feminine Marianne complains, but masculine Godard tries to do the opposite: elicit feelings indirectly from ideas. Consider the seduction scene: Marianne tells Ferdinand “I’m putting my hand on your knee,” “I’m kissing you all over” and Ferdinand responds “me too, Marianne,” without emotion. The seduction is described, abstractly, not felt or experienced. Godard does not give us emotions—his characters don’t visibly cry, or rant, or make love—but gives us the impression of emotions, spread like a perfume over the surface of the movie.
In commedia del arte, the character of Pierrot always loses his love, Columbine, to Harlequin. Godard stays true to the tradition here (and if the well-read Ferdinand had been up on his commedia del arte, alarm bells would have gone off when Marianne insisted on referring to him as “Pierrot”). By the late 18th century, the Symbolist poets had made Pierrot into the alter-ego of the melancholy artist (through Albert Giraud’s “Pierrot Lunaire” poems, later turned into an song cycle by Schoenberg). Ferdinand is an artist, a writer, constantly scribbling lines in his notebook and thinking up plots for novels, though accomplishing nothing. The mercurial Marianne, the feminine muse, represents the world of passionate emotion, the one realized in Samuel Fuller’s melodramas; Ferdinand/Pierrot, the detached intellectual artist and stand-in for Godard, chases her, but cannot keep her for long. Of course, Karina was also Godard’s literal muse, as he was married to the younger model for four or five tempestuous years, making her into his favorite leading lady in his most fertile period. You can watch their relationship play out over the course of Godard’s early Sixties films. In 1961’s Une Femme Est une Femme, Karina is an object of adoration. In 1965, she stars in Pierrot as the femme fatale who betrays the artist—yet, Godard still treats her character with a good deal of tenderness, affection and understanding. By 1967’s Weekend, Karina is long gone, her memory replaced by bitterness. Marriage is now depicted as a surreal, self-made bourgeois hell, an eternal battle of wills between travelers condemned to wander the scorched earth together, although they can’t stand each other.
The film’s vivid color scheme matches the French flag: red, white and blue. Most of the backgrounds are white. Marriane dresses in red, the color of passion; Ferdinand in blue. In the final scenes, our Pierrot recognizes his clownish nature, and dons facepaint: blue, the opposite of Marriane’s fiery scarlet, cool to her hot, water to her fire. It’s no accident that blue is also the color we associate with sadness. Even Frenchmen get the blues. But the sad clown’s job is to keep ’em entertained even while he’s crying inside, and so Godard sends us off with one last bitter joke. It’s a blast.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Though the whiz-bang, comic book-panel aesthetic of Pierrot le Fou is as potentially intoxicating as any contemporaneous head movie, it’s also one of his most finely balanced works, one that successfully straddles generational gaps far wider than the one separating Ferdinand and Marianne—even the one separating 1960s-era Godard from latter-day JLG/JLG.”–Eric Henderson, Slant
IMDB LINK: Pierrot le Fou (1965)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Pierrot le Fou (1965) – The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s Pierrot page has the trailer, links to Richard Brody’s essay for the DVD release, and other articles mentioning the film (including a brief video appreciation by )
“Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou“: The majority of David Wills’ introduction to the book of the same name (see Bibliography below), provided by Cambridge Press as a preview
Paintings in Pierrot le Fou – An interesting and thorough annotated pictorial essay on the numerous works of art scattered throughout the film
Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou – An influential collection of essays on the film compiled by five scholars for Cambridge Press
DVD INFO: StudioCanal did the world a tremendous disservice when they reacquired the rights to Pierrot le Fou from the Criterion Collection, just a year after the Collection released the film in a 2-DVD (buy) or single Blu-ray (buy) edition. These classic sets have now gone out of print and are fetching ridiculous sums from collectors. The discs were remastered under the supervision of cinematographer Raoul Coutard, and extras included archival interviews with Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Anna Karina, a second, then-recent interview with Karina, a video essay from Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Godard, l’amour, la poésie, a 50-minute documentary about Godard and Karina’s stormy relationship. Plus, the set contained the usual Criterion booklet with a new essay by Richard Brody, a contemporaneous review from Andrew Sarris, and another Godard interview.
The rights dust-up would not sting so much if StudioCanal had issued their own packed Pierrot Blu-ray, but they have not issued a Region 1 disc at all. They best the have done is to make the film available for rental on-demand (rent or buy).
UPDATE 10/6/2020: With the Criterion Collection reacquiring the rights to Pierrot le fou, the Criterion Collection links above have been changed to direct you to the current edition of the film rather than the overpriced out-of-print editions. The special features have not changed, although there is a new remaster (2K only, we’re afraid). The film can no longer be streamed or rented at the moment, however, but will presumably soon appear the Criterion Channel.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Gruntz,” who wondered “Don’t you guys think Pierrot Le Fou a bit strange?” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)