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Pierrot le fou

Pierrot le fou(1968)

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Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most important film director of the 1960s, began the decade with his feature debut Breathless, a scrappy, free-spirited, cinematically audacious take on the B-movie crime genre. By the end of the sixties, he had all but rejected commercial cinema for politically pointed commentaries and film essays like Sympathy For the Devil and Le Gai Savoir.

Smack in the middle of the genre goofing and cinematic game-playing of Godard's earlier sixties film and the consumer satire and cultural deconstructions of his late sixties films lies Pierrot le Fou. Not that there was some sudden turn in direction; Godard embraced both sides throughout and they blur in so many films of this era. But Pierrot feels like a perfect midpoint (whether or not you could even objectively measure such a thing) in the way that it bounces between the flippant play of moviemaking fun and the social commentary on the modern world.

Pierrot le Fou is a road movie, a crime fantasy, a cultural satire, a tale of consumerist alienation and bourgeois apathy, and a femme fatale noir in Technicolor and CinemaScope, shot in the bright sunlit canvas of broad daylight. Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of Breathless, plays Ferdinand, a former teacher pushed into an advertising career by a wealthy wife with high-society values: "You'll do as your told," she demands as they get ready for a party where she hopes he will be offered a job, and he bristles at the empty life he inhabits, escaping only through his books. Anna Karina, Godard's one-time muse and wife (their divorce became final before the shoot was over), is Marianne Renoir, niece of Ferdinand's brother-in-law and the family babysitter.

Oppressed by the banality of his existence, the alienated intellectual Ferdinand flees an empty bourgeois cocktail party (where the conversations read like advertising copy) and runs off with Marianne, who has taken to calling him 'Pierrot,' despite his insistent corrections. Their flight is also motivated in part by the dead body in her apartment (a place strewn with machine guns and other weapons) and armed men on Marianne's trail. Thus they begin a flaky, at times slapstick crime wave of petty thefts, interrupted by an extended second act diversion in a seaside Eden, a repast where their relationship problems simmer underneath the seemingly idyllic surface. She may be mixed up with gun smugglers and killers, but they're not exactly Bonnie and Clyde.

It was Godard's third and final film with Belmondo and his sixth with Karina. The two performers had worked together in Godard's A Woman is a Woman, but Godard had not originally intended to pair them up for this project. He described Lionel White's novel "Obsession," on which the script is loosely based (or perhaps "inspired by" is a better description), as a "Lolita-esque novel" and intended to cast a mature Richard Burton opposite the young Karina. "In the end the whole thing was changed by the casting of Anna and Belmondo," explained Godard in a 1965 interview. "I thought of You Only Live Once, and instead of the Lolita or La chienne kind of couple, I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple..."

By his own recollection, Godard was "completely panicked" as he tried to wrestle the new dramatic dynamic into the pre-existing script and shooting schedule. From the evidence on screen, he was already bored with the conventions of genre cinema as a structure. Where he once played at making crime movies and musicals and other genres with both a love of the form and a desire to deconstruct it onscreen, he seems to be going through the motions here. By the time the film drifts from its playful reverie at the seaside and back in the territory of crime and betrayal, it feels all the more like an put-on, a half-hearted fantasy of a corporate-culture misfit playing at criminal. Godard finds his story in between the beats, tossing in impromptu skit-like diversions (Ferdinand and Marianne recreate the war in Vietnam as a piece of street theater for American tourists) and cinematic games. And Godard's cheeky side is there as well, as heard in this throw-away line that could have come from Godard's early comic short films: "I'm glad I don't like spinach, because if I did then I would eat it, and I can't stand the stuff."

On the one hand, Pierrot is Godard's summation of his films up to that point, from Breathless (as when Belmondo watches Jean Seberg on the screen at a movie theater) to Le Petit Soldat (a torture scene that also resonates with recent history – Belmondo is essentially waterboarded) to Contempt (the car wreck tableaux that our runaway lovers use to fake their own deaths). He liberally references his favorite films and filmmakers (from Hitchcock to Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar) and he has Samuel Fuller deliver the film's most famous line: "Film is like a battleground. Love, hate, action, violence, death. In a word, emotion." "I wanted to say it for a long time," Godard explained in a 1965 interview. "But it was Fuller himself who found the word: emotion."

On the other hand, it looks forward to (among other films) the splashy color and advertising sloganeering and political debates of La Chinoise and the far more savage satire of bourgeois culture in Weekend, where Godard pushes he above mentioned car wreck tableaux to epic extremes. And in this film, Godard makes direct reference to Vietnam for the first time.

Like Contempt, which Godard made as his marriage to Karina was falling apart, Pierrot is a portrait of a failing relationship. Critics have described the story as an artist destroyed by a (double-crossing) woman and a reflection of the director's painful private life. But the reflection is hardly flattering to the so-called artist in the equation. Ferdinand holds literature as a high artistic ideal, but he himself does little more than pontificate on the novel he'd like to write ("James Joyce came close, but you can do better"). As he settles into a comic domestic fantasy of effortlessly living off the land and basking in the Mediterranean sun, he spend his days reading aloud from books and scribbling notes in his journal, never actually getting around to writing his great novel. He arrogantly criticizes her interests in popular music while he spends their money on more books, and never once bothers to ask whether this lazy inertia is adventure-junkie Marianne's idea of happiness. He's the complacent intellectual snob to the restless emotional youth of Marianne, the establishment to her rebellion. They belong together like peanut butter and pastrami.

The film was roundly booed when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1965 and was a flop upon its 1966 release in Paris, though it was not without its champions. Michel Cournot proclaimed it "the most beautiful film I've seen in my life" after its Venice screening and Andrew Sarris, writing in 1969, called it "the kind of last film a director can make only once in his career."

Looking back from the present, Pierrot le Fou plays like Godard's formal farewell to his past films, a last play with his old toys before putting them into storage and moving on to more serious concerns. It's also his farewell to Karina, and perhaps his way of working out why they simply don't belong together. Marianne betrays her 'Pierrot,' just as Patricia betrayed Michel in Breathless, but there's no malice in the almost rote way the story plays out, and no emotion in the cavalcade of murder, torture and revenge that fills the final act. They're just going through the motions of a formal declaration of the end of a love affair, as defined by the cinematic conventions of the genre.

Criterion's new 2-disc DVD release delivers a beautiful transfer of the widescreen film, approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. The colors, from the liberal splashes of red paint that stand in for blood to the flashing neon of advertising signs to the shots of Renoir and Picasso canvasses edited through the film, burn through the screen. The second disc is highlighted by Luc Lagier's 53-minute docu-essay Godard, L'amour, la Poesie (Godard, Love, Poetry), a look at Godard's career from Breathless to Pierrot through the prism of the relationship of an artist and his muse, both on and off-screen. Lagier affectionately affects a Godardian style for the visual presentation and calls upon Godard collaborators for their recollections of their romance and marriage. Godard is, of course, nowhere to be seen but for a few publicity stills and other ephemera and Karina is heard from solely through audio interview clips from the "Karina Archive," but the disc also features a new 15-minute interview with Anna Karina (in English), where she generously discusses her life and films with Godard. "Of course there was no script," she recalls of the Pierrot shoot. "There never was a script. But every morning we'd get pages that we'd have to memorize quickly."

Former Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin offers commentary (also in English) on select scenes in the 36-minute A Pierrot Primer. Not exactly "scene specific commentary," it plays like an audio essay with a visual track and Gorin's finger on the pause button. Also includes a nine-minute excerpt from a 1965 French TV program where fluffy talk-show questions are lobbed at Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina and Godard on the set of Pierrot, four minutes of filmed interviews with Godard and Karina at the 1965 Venice Film Festival, the trailer, and a 48-page booklet with new and archival essays and a print interview with Godard from 1965.

For more information about Pierrot le Fou, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Pierrot le Fou, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker