If a viewer is not used to the films of French director Jean-Luc Godard, than Pierrot le fou can be an extremely frustrating experience. Like other great artists like Bergman, Fellini, Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer and Tarkovsky, once you get used to the world that Godard has created for you, you end up appreciating and enjoying his films much more. And even if you personally don't think Godard is one of the worlds greatest directors you can at least come to the conclusion that he is probably the most courageous and audacious. That being said, Pierrot le fou is an extraordinary experience that tells the romantic story of a failed TV writer who decides to run off and leave his boring family and society friends with his children's babysitter, who are both played by the two most iconic faces of the French New Wave; Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina. The two of them decide to go on a cross-country road trip toward the Mediterranean Sea, because the woman claims to hold several underworld connections. The two rob, kill and steal to get where they're going and even though this could have easily been the predictable formulaic outlaw road film, Godard makes it his own with a collage of B-movie thriller conventions, social satire, political commentary, and beautiful primary colors.
The film opens with a man named Ferdinand Griffon 'Pierrot' (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in town shopping for books and later that evening is reading one of those books which is a quote from the art critic Elie Faure in the bathtub: "The world he lived in was a sad one: a degenerate king, sickly infants, idiots, dwarfs, cripples, clownish freaks dressed as princes..." He calls his younger daughter over to listen. "Your crazy to read her things like that," says Ferdinand's wife Maria offscreen as she takes their daughter to bed. Maria wants to head to a cocktail party in Paris that evening and they are leaving their children with their social friend's niece because Ferdinand sent their regular babysitter out to the movies for a third time to see the western Johnny Guitar (One of Godard's favorite Nicholas Ray films) with Ferdinand saying, "Good for her education. There are too many idiots around."
Maria orders Ferdinand to get ready because their friends Frank and Paola will arrive any minute to pick them up. Ferdinand doesn't want to attend the social event and would rather stay home with the kids after being recently fired from his TV job. Maria orders him to go and reinforces him that her father will get him a managing director job at a Standard Oil company. When Ferdinand asks why his wife is not wearing a slip she says that she is wearing the new 'Scandale' girdle which is invisible as she shows him an ad in the paper of this new product. As Ferdinand looks at the ad he says, "First there was Greek civilization. Then there was the Renaissance. Now were entering the Age of the Ass."
When Frank, Paola and Frank's niece Marianne arrive they all head out to the cocktail party leaving their children with Marianne. Upset that he is going Ferdinand says to Frank before leaving, "Can't you say 'Balzac 70-01? You don't know Balzac? Read Cesar Birotteau, how the Fifth Symphony pounded in his poor head. Let's go, daddy-O."
When attending the party the tint is in complete hot red as Ferdinand overhears stuck-up society French people talking about health products, cars, and several other shallow discussions. Ferdinand walks in and out of the frame to another area of the party while the tint of the color changes from red to green. Ferdinand rests and stands next to famous American director Samuel Fuller and says to him that he looks lonely. Samuel Fuller doesn't know French and asks his assistant to translate what Ferdinand had said. When Samuel Fuller introduces himself as an American film director and that he's in Paris shooting a movie called The Flowers of Evil, that greatly interests Ferdinand.
Their conversation between one another is translated through the assistant as Ferdinand asks Fuller, "I've always wanted to know exactly what cinema is." Fuller tells him, "A film is like a battleground. There's love, hate, action, violence, death, and one word...emotions." Ferdinand eventually walks away and continues throughout several different room and sections of the party continuing to overhear high-class society people discussing boring nonsensical things, (with one woman interestingly enough is topless.)
"Give me the keys to the Lincoln, I'm tired," Ferdinand says to Frank. "Ive' got a mechanism for seeing called eyes, for hearing called ears, for speaking called a mouth. But they feel disconnected. They don't work together. A person should feel like he's one individual. I feel like I'm many different people." Paola tells Ferdinand that he talks too much and it tires her. "Your right, I talk to much. A man alone always talks too much," Ferdinand says.
Before leaving the party Ferdinand takes some of the party cake and throws it at several of the high-class stuck up guests, which I believe is something Godard always wanted to do personally. When returning home Ferdinand finds Frank's niece Marianne sleeping on a chair near the front door. When Marianne wakes up Ferdinand tells her she missed the last train and Marianne says that Ferdinand looks depressed. Ferdinand says, "Some days are like that. Everyone you meet is an imbecile. So you start looking in the mirror and wondering about yourself. Come on. I'll take you home."
While driving Frank's car Marianne says to Ferdinand how funny it is that they have meet again since they have dated in the past and been in a relationship about 5 years earlier. Marianne asks if Ferdinand is married and Ferdinand says, "Yes, to an Italian with money. But she doesn't really interest me." Marianne asks why he doesn't divorce but Ferdinand tells her how he wanted to but grown too lazy to go through with it. He says, "Like you pointed out once: To want something you have to be alive." Ferdinand starts asking questions about Marianne's personal life but she doesn't like talking about herself as she puts on a the car radio which blasts reports of a garrison massacre of the Viet Cong.
Marianne says how awful that is saying, "They say 115 guerrillas, and it means nothing to us. But each one is a man, and we don't even know who he is, if he loves a woman, if he has kids, if he prefers movies or plays. We know nothing about them. All they say is '15 killed.' It's like photographs. They've always fascinated me. You see this frozen image of a guy with a caption underneath. Maybe he was a coward. Maybe he was a nice guy. But at the moment it was taken no one can really say who he was, what he was thinking about. His wife? His mistress? The past? The future? Basketball? No one will ever know. That's what makes me sad: Life is so different from books. I wish it were the same: clear, logical, organized. Only it isn't."
Ferdinand disagrees and believes life is similar to books much more than people think. Marianne calls Ferdinand 'Pierrot' because he can't sing the song, 'My friend is Ferdinand;' but Ferdinand doesn't like the name and corrects her. (Which he will do several times throughout the film.) Marianne describes to Ferdinand all the things she wants to do with him like putting her hand on his knee and wanting to kiss him all over and Ferdinand repeatedly says, "Me too, Marianne."
The two spend the night together at her apartment and during the next morning you see Marianne making breakfast for Ferdinand as she walks past a dead man hunched over a bed with a scissors in his neck several times without even reacting. "You didn't believe we'd always be in love" Ferdinand tells her when she comes to his bed with breakfast. She says, "No, I never told you I'd love you forever." She starts to sing along to a song on the radio about love for another person as Ferdinand watches her with a cigarette in his mouth, which feels like an homage to the classic shot of him in Breathless.
After she's finished singing Ferdinand says, "Well, in 60 years, when we're dead, we'll know if we were always in love." Marianne says how she is sure she loves him but isn't so sure about him. In a scene of no dialogue Frank arrives home and Marianne and Ferdinand welcome him as Marianne suddenly attacks him from behind and smashes Frank on the head with an object as Ferdinand drags his body out of the room while Marianne takes Frank's gun. Ferdinand questions Marianne on Frank and how much she loves him and she repeatedly says, "I'll explain everything" as the two lovers leave Paris by hopping rides from stolen vehicle to vehicle.
When the two arrive at a gas station the two young lovers have a plan of hitting the gas station attendant over the head with the hood of their vehicle and when they see another gas station clerk come out and approach them Marianne says to Ferdinand, "I know a trick from Laurel and Hardy. Get in the car." Marianne walks up to the man and when he asks how they will pay for the gas she tells him to look up and she lightly knocks him down with a punch as Ferdinand continues the confrontation with a short fist fight before the two take off.
While on the road the two talk on where they should be heading and Marianne suggests Nice and then Paris. Ferdinand realizes their money won't get them to Nice and they better dump the Peugeot that they are currently driving. "Have you ever killed a man, Pierrot?" Marianne asks him. Ferdinand responds, "My name's Ferdinand. Why do you ask?" Marianne says, "because it's going to turn your stomach." When Ferdinand talks about his wife and on how he feels sorry for her Marianne says, "Guys like you are always sorry....but always too late."
They pull over on the side of the road and kiss and when Ferdinand looks in the rearview mirror he tells Marianne he sees himself as a man who is about to drive over a cliff at 60 mph. Marianne looks into the mirror and says she sees herself in love with a man who is about to driver over a cliff at 60 mph. They embrace and kiss once again and later arrive in central France as the film cuts to strangers they con and rob throughout their journey towards the Mediterranean Sea.
When they decide to ditch their current stolen car they pull over and walk past another vehicle flipped over on its front and two dead bloody bodies hanging out of the vehicle. The two never take any notice to it as Marianne has an idea of burning their vehicle so the authorities will think they are dead. "Always fire, blood and war!" shouts Ferdinand. "It's gotta look real," says Marianne which is ironic since the dead victims in the car next to them look nowhere near realistic to the audience. Marianne takes Franks stolen gun from the trunk, in which Ferdinand says that the gun is the same model as the one that killed Kennedy. Marianne then aims and shoots at the vehicle causing it to explode off-screen with Marianne unfortunately finding out afterwards that all their stolen money was purposely left in there by Ferdinand.
The two continue on foot across a field as you see the smoke from the fire they just created drifting throughout the sky and the landscape. In a scene that mixes slapstick comedy, Marianne and Ferdinand hop in and steal a Ford Galaxy convertible right off a pneumatic lift in a garage and as the two head down the road Ferdinand reads in the paper that his wife Maria is telling lies to the police and the media on how she caught him and Marianne in bed together. "Ditch a woman and she'll say you've got a screw loose" says Ferdinand but Marianne adds in that men are just the same. While on the road Marianne comes up with the idea of heading to her brothers who runs an illegal gun buisness, and who will give them some cash.
Ferdinand turns to the camera and says to the audience, "All she thinks about is fun." Marianne asks Ferdinand who he is talking to and he says "The audience," and Marianne looks back at the camera and says, "Ah.. " Ferdinand starts to show off his driving skills with no hands and when finally reaching the Mediterranean Sea he than decides to head straight into the sea. After five years of being on the road the two of them decide to rest near the French Riviera and live off the land and make love near the beach as Ferdinand says to Marianne, "I think your legs and breasts are very moving."
The two very cartoonishly live directly out of a Robert Louis Stevenson like novel as Ferdinand relaxes in peace with a parrot on his shoulder while he reads and writes in his journal, (which is actually Godard's handwriting) as Marianne goes hunting and fishing in the ocean. Within time the relationship between the two of them becomes strained as Marianne starts to get bored and restless as she repeatedly shouts to herself, "What am I to do? I don't know what to do."
Marianne again insists on heading back into town and meeting up with her brother. Ferdinand is content on where he is at and writes in his journal a plan for a novel to write writing," Not to write about people's lives anymore, but only about life...life itself. What lies in between people: space, sound, and color. I'd like to accoomplish that. Joyce gave it a try, but it should be possible to do better." When Ferdinand looks at Marianne he asks her why she looks so sad and she says, "Because you speak to me with words and I look at you with feelings."
Ferdinand gets frustrated with her attitude and says, "You never have ideas, only feelings." Marianne says, "That's not true. There are ideas inside feelings." Marianne believes that she was right five years ago and that they will never understand one another again shouting, "What am I to do. I don't even know what to do." Eventually Marianne becomes fed up with this life and shouts, "I'm sick of the sea, the sun, the sand! Sick of eating out of tin cans! Sick of always wearing the same dress! I want outta here. I want to live. Come on. We've played Jules Verne long enough. Let's go back to our detective novel, with fast cars and guns and nightclubs."
They eventually both decide to start back on the road and decide to return to town to find her brother. They decide to plan and steal from some tourists but when running into Americans tourists from a nearby town Ferdinand changes his plan and decides to put on a show for them and maybe the Americans will give them money for their performance. The two lovers decide to put on a play about the Vietnam War as Ferdinand plays a cocky American soldier and Marianne plays a Vietnamese woman as they perform with complete accents, make-up and costumes as you can hear the sound effects of gunfire and explosions in the background. The Americans eat it up and clap along with the show as they give them some cash. "Love live Kennedy!" Marianne yells while taking all their money and the two of them quickly run off and get away.
While taking a stroll in the woods Marianne goes into a musical like sequence prancing around, climbing trees and singing, "My fate line, my fate line. Darling, what do you think of my fate line..." After stealing a motor boat the two lovers finally arrive back into town and Ferdinand decides to go to a small bar and have a few beers. A stranger approaches him and says that Ferdinand stayed at his place in Fontainbleau last year, slept with his wife and lent him 100,000 francs and then gets up and walks away. Marianne calls Ferdinand up at the bar informing him that some gangster associates of her brothers are holding her hostage, with a small man in particular who is threatening her with torture devices that are similar to what they do in the Vietnam War.
Ferdinand quickly comes to her rescue but when arriving to the apartment he realizes it's a set-up and finds Marianne gone and a man dead inside the room with a scissors stuck in the back of his neck. When Ferdinand realizes it's all a trap it's too late and he is surrounded by several gangsters as they take him down and hold him down in the bathtub to question him. The gangsters water-board him as Ferdinand realizes Marianne is a criminal and was being chased by OAS gangsters all along.
The gangsters inform Ferdinand that Marianne was the one who stabbed their friend Donovan and ran off with 50,000 of their money. They say they are not interesting in Ferdinand and it is her that they want. Ferdinand at first won't coöperate and only says, "Ploom ploom tra-la-la," but after several water boards he eventually reveals to them that they will find her at the Marquise dance hall. The hit men eventually let Ferdinand go and Ferdinand makes his way in Toulin wandering along the waterfront near the Little Palace hotel looking for Marianne, and for several days sleeps in all-day movie theatres (which plays several Vietnam news reels) while still writing in his diary. Eventually to survive Ferdinand finds himself getting a job on a boating dock and helping an older Princess and queen of Lebanon who says she is in exile.
One day Marianne suddenly returns to Ferdinand and when he asks what she is doing here she tells him she is happy she found him at last. Ferdinand asks Marianne where she is staying and she says, "With you idiot." Marianne tells Ferdinand that after she called him for help she got away before the other gangsters arrived and she ran to the dance hall to meet him but he never came thinking he was probably killed. She eventually found out he was alive when Fred told her that he spotted him working at the boating dock near town. Ferdinand doesn't trust Marianne and Marianne says, "Why don't you ever believe that I love you? I love you in my own way."
They both decide to head back on the road again together with Ferdinand asking her what is keeping the cops, because they should be in jail for murder by now. Marianne says, "They're smart. They let people destroy themselves." After their eventual reunion, Marianne uses Ferdinand for a job with her brother to retrieve a suitcase full of money from the OAS gangsters. Ferdinand initially agrees to it but is suspicious on about Marianne, her mysterious brother and the job itself; and while taking a boat ride out of the city Ferdinand starts to question Marianne's background, to try to find out exactly who she is, especially since she denies killing that man he found in the hotel room. Ferdinand starts to question the briefcase scenario and tells her that it sounds too complicated to him but she says it is simple and is similar to his favorite novels like: involving a little harbor from a Conrad novel, a sailboat like in Robert Louis Stevenson, an old brothel like in Faulkner, and a steward turned multimillionaire like in Jack London.
After using cartoony like net traps and Marianne shooting the OAS gangsters with a rifle from afar, Ferdinand successfully retrieves the briefcase and meets up with Marianne later at a bowling alley. The two do not trust one another as you can hear faint whispers on their doubts and loyalties as he hands her the briefcase. The two agree to separate and later meet up and leave so they can be together again, but Marianne lies and instead leaves with her brother who was never really her brother, but a boyfriend. After being abandoned Ferdinand sits for a few minutes on the dock listening to a rambling fisherman go on about the love of his life and how he always hears the romantic song of this woman who is obviously in his head. (We can hear the piano music though.) Before Ferdinand leaves the man asks him if he thinks he is crazy and if he does, to just say it. Ferdinand bluntly says 'he is' and walks away while the crazed man says, "That's more like it."
Ferdinand hops on a boat and goes to search for Marianne. When finding Marianne and Fred together on an abandoned island he shoots the both of them down. Ferdinand grabs Marianne who is still alive and holds her close as he begins to cry. Ferdinand makes a phone call from the island and asks for Balzac 75-02. He than says, "You've forgotten Balzac too?" and hangs up. Ferdinand lays Marianne down and tells her that she shouldn't have betrayed him. "Forgive me, Pierrot," she says to him as he corrects her one last time telling her his name is Ferdinand, and Marianne then dies.
Believing he no longer has a reason to live Ferdinand paints his face blue and decides to blow himself up by tying sticks of red and yellow dynamite to his head. Regretting his decision at the last second, he tries to extinguish the fuse, but, due to the dynamite obstructing his vision, fails and is blown up as his last words are, "What an idiot! Shit! A glorious death!" After the explosion you can faintly hear the two dead lovers whispering, "It's ours again. Eternity."
In February 1964, while shooting Band of Outsiders, Jean-Luc Godard announced his plans for a film based on a crime novel, Obsession, by the American writer Lionel White (translated into French as Le démon d’onze heures—literally, “The Eleven O’Clock Demon”). In an interview that month, Godard described it as “the story of a guy who leaves his family to follow a girl much younger than he is. She is in cahoots with slightly shady people, and it leads to a series of adventures.” Asked who would play the girl, Godard told France-Soir in 1964:
That depends on the age of the man. If I have, as I would like, Richard Burton, I will take my wife, Anna Karina. We would shoot the film in English. If I don’t have Burton, and I take Michel Piccoli, I could no longer have Anna as an actress; she would form with him a too “normal” couple. In that case, I would need a very young girl. I’m thinking of Sylvie Vartan.
Both Burton and Vartan (a nineteen-year-old pop singer) were unavailable, and when financing proved difficult to obtain, Godard asked Jean-Paul Belmondo, whom he had made a star with Breathless, to step in. But Belmondo was, and looked, even younger than Piccoli. So when Godard announced in New York in September 1964, when he was in town for the New York Film Festival, that Karina, his wife, would star alongside Belmondo, he was in fact creating an even more “normal” couple and definitively reorienting the tone of the film, as he subsequently explained in Cahiers du cinéma: “In the end the whole thing was changed by the casting of Anna and Belmondo. I thought about 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, the last descendants of La nouvelle Héloïse, Werther, and Hermann and Dorothea.”
The casting of a worldly actress in her mid-twenties and a handsome, vigorous leading man just over thirty did change the project—but not nearly as much as did the personal significance with which Godard invested the story. White’s novel, as its title suggested, was a story of obsessive desire—specifically, that of a middle-aged advertising man and failed writer for a teenage girl, his children’s babysitter. This girl has underworld connections and a feral aptitude for deception and manipulation; after he leaves his family for her, gets caught up with her in a murder, and goes on the lam with her, she uses, betrays, and abandons him. Desperate and humiliated, he catches up to her and kills both her longtime lover (who she had claimed was her brother) and the girl herself. Godard—who had told Belmondo that the film would be “something completely different” from the book—turned the male lead into a failed intellectual who rediscovers his literary ambitions along with his romantic passion. This man, Ferdinand Griffon, begins to fulfill his vast artistic plans when he and the young woman, named Marianne Renoir, take to the road. Marianne has shady connections—to a shadowy and violent group of arms traffickers and political conspirators—but she proves nonetheless, at least for a time, to be Ferdinand’s helpmeet and soul mate in his great artistic project.
Although Godard’s woman uses and betrays the man no less than does White’s, the effect provoked by Godard is even more extreme: in Pierrot le fou, Marianne not only breaks Ferdinand’s heart but also destroys what was to be his life’s work. The romantic exaltation that Godard thought the casting of Karina and Belmondo had substituted for the story of betrayal and depredation turned into an artistic manifesto and a cry of resentment and pain: by the time he shot the film, from May through July 1965, he and Karina had divorced.
For Godard, the long interval that separated the conception of Pierrot le fou from its realization had been a time of aesthetic as well as personal transition. As a result, when he was finally able to make the film, his original ideas about the project proved to be of little use to him. Recalling the shoot, Godard later said: “I remember that when I began Pierrot le fou, one week before, I was completely panicked, I didn’t know what I should do. Based on the book, we had already established all the locations, we had hired the people . . . and I was wondering what we were going to do with it all.”
In his earlier films, Godard had relied on preexisting frameworks to guide his spontaneous invention, whether Hollywood genres (as in Breathless, Band of Outsiders, and Alphaville) or the intellectual modernism of Brecht or Barthes (as in Vivre sa vie and A Married Woman). But by the time he started shooting Pierrot le fou, the film noir conventions underlying it no longer inspired him, and his theoretical references were in a state of flux due to his political anger as the Vietnam War escalated. The result of Godard’s personal, cinematic, and intellectual turmoil was an immediate creation that reached, even for Godard, new heights of spontaneity and lightning invention—and this was largely an effort to compensate for his inability to be methodical even by the casual terms of his own practiced methods. Shortly after completing the film, he told Cahiers du cinéma: “In my other films, when I had a problem, I asked myself what Hitchcock would have done in my place. While making Pierrot, I had the impression that he wouldn’t have known how to answer, other than ‘Work it out for yourself.’” Godard had had trouble working it out. Classic Hollywood forms couldn’t sustain him as they had in his previous film, Alphaville, which depended heavily on the conventions of the secret-agent and science-fiction genres. Not only was his absorption of the entire classical cinema of no help to him, but also his own experience as a filmmaker was of little use. He said that, in making Pierrot le fou, he felt as if he were making his “first film”; he had lost his North Star of cinematic navigation, and was out at sea.
Yet this lack of mooring, this state of doubt and bewilderment, had surprising results. Godard filmed the genre elements of the story with an inert mechanicalness and a conspicuous boredom, which he masked with elaborate editing, insert shots, and voice-over; but in the scenes of Godard’s own making, in which he did not have to connect the narrative dots, he created a free and flamboyant array of images that were filmed with a manifest burst of untrammeled creation. He called the shoot “a kind of happening, but one that was controlled and dominated,” and said of Pierrot le fou, “It is a completely unconscious film.” In making it, Godard gave unusually free vent to his emotions, and those emotions were harrowing ones: Pierrot le fou was an angry accusation against Anna Karina, and a self-pitying keen at how she destroyed him and his work.
After the release of Pierrot le fou, Godard gave the public a skeleton key to it: “The only scenario that I had, the only subject . . . was to convey the sense of what Balthazar Claës was doing in The Unknown Masterpiece.” The Unknown Masterpiece is a novella by Balzac about a painter in seventeenth-century France who has been working alone for a decade on a portrait of a woman that he considers to be not only his masterpiece but an epochal advance in the history of art; he shows it to two artist friends, who find it to be an incomprehensible mess, a blunder and a disaster, and he kills himself. But Balthazar Claës is not a character in that novella (the painter is named Frenhofer); rather, he is the protagonist of another work by Balzac, The Quest of the Absolute. In that novel, an alchemist in single-minded pursuit of the secret of nature brings about his wife’s premature death, his financial ruin, and his public humiliation. The two fictions by Balzac that Godard’s memory had run together unite in Pierrot le fou, a self-portrait of the artist on the verge of pushing a philosophical inquiry into form, or rather formlessness, to an extreme that destroyed not only himself but also his wife.
Exactly as Godard intended, Pierrot le fou reflects appropriately vast, cosmic, quasi-metaphysical artistic dreams of a Balzacian grandeur. Early in the film, Ferdinand sits in his bathtub and reads to his young daughter a passage from the art critic Elie Faure that begins, “Velázquez, past the age of fifty, 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.” The first scene thus announces Godard’s own search for another kind of cinematic art, one that goes beyond the visual presentation of objects and characters to a higher relation of musical ideas. (It was a project that would take him another decade and a half, many wanderings, false starts, studies, sufferings, and personal transformations to begin to realize.)
The core of the film is a scene that takes place in the tranquil natural splendor of unspoiled lands in the south of France: Ferdinand and Marianne live off the land, hunting and fishing (albeit cartoonishly—like most of the film’s narrative action), while Ferdinand (sitting with a parrot on his shoulder) begins to keep a journal, which appears in extreme close-up on-screen, and which is in fact in Godard’s handwriting. Among the passages that Ferdinand reads aloud is a description of his ambitious plans for a new form of novel: “Not to write about people’s lives anymore, but only about life—life itself. What lies in between people: space, sound, and color. I’d like to accomplish that. Joyce gave it a try, but it should be possible to do better.” The sequence is the crowning moment in Ferdinand’s dream: the couple will exist together, in isolation at a wild seaside, where the setting and the romantic idyll will inspire Ferdinand’s artistic creation. The glory of nature and a life of shared purpose with a beloved woman are, in Godard’s personal mythology of that period, a natural pair. But soon thereafter—in the famous scene in which Marianne wanders past him and whines repeatedly, “What can I do? I don’t know what to do”—the dream, and the art, are destroyed, by Marianne’s demands and, it turns out, her duplicity. She drags him back to a corrupt civilization and pulls him from his contemplative isolation into a vortex of unwanted action.
Pierrot le fou is filled with art and its attributes, from Marianne’s last name (and some paintings to go with it) to works by Picasso on walls and as insert shots, Ferdinand’s repeated references to Balzac, his lengthy recitation from a novel by Céline (whose first name, Louis-Ferdinand, Marianne likens to his), a reference to Beethoven, the film’s Mondrian-like scheme of primary colors and white, Ferdinand’s daubing of his face with Yves Klein blue—all suggesting that Godard rooted his film in a high artistic and literary tradition that transcended the conventions and habits of the cinema. Indeed, the many cartoonish references and devices suggest exactly what Godard thought of the standard-issue narrative that he used as an indifferent frame for his speculations and accusations.
In Pierrot le fou, Godard sought to accomplish something that goes far beyond the bounds of the cinema, beyond its familiar genres, conventions, and forms. The stakes are suggested in a scene at a cocktail party, where Ferdinand meets the American director Samuel Fuller and asks him to define the cinema. Fuller responds: “A film is like a battleground. It’s love, hate, action, violence, and death. In one word: emotions.” Rather than have actors act out emotions on-screen, Godard wanted to find a way to signify emotion and thus to arouse it in the viewer—so that emotion would go from the filmmaker to the viewer not analogically but in concentrated, sublimated form, by means of style. The rejection of naturalistic drama in favor of shards of images, voice-over recitations, incongruous insert shots, and intrusive music hall–like interludes is not a deflection or avoidance of emotion but an attempt to evoke—to provoke—an intensity and spectrum of feeling of an ineffably romantic scope, beyond the small-scale personal identification with characters in filmed melodrama.
The film is filled with contradictions: sublime, overwhelming images of nature and acrid gasoline haze (a big ’62 Ford Galaxie convertible that Ferdinand drives into the sea, smoke from a burning car filling the sky above a verdant landscape); the Vietnam War, repeatedly mentioned, suggested, viewed as newsreel footage, followed by a clip of Jean Seberg in Godard’s own 1963 Le grand escroc, which calls into doubt the veracity of documentary filming; Joyce and Beethoven and Balzac and Céline alongside comic books and music-hall comedy and Laurel and Hardy–ish pranks; a gangsterish genre that Godard no longer believed in and a new kind of form that he couldn’t yet find; the self-searching of Ferdinand in the mirror, his allusion to Poe’s “William Wilson,” about a man and his double. Pierrot le fou was the work of a divided person whose film fell into the abyss of his own character.
If Godard was at war with himself, he was in perfect sync with a time that was also at war with itself; and as his personal crises mirrored those of the age, the age looked upon him as its reflection. It was a bind from which only drastic measures would free him. The romantically transcendent self-immolation with which Pierrot le fou would end foreshadows an age of political violence and self-abnegating ideological rigors that would come to take the place of a lost faith, not least in himself.
Pierrot le fou was booed when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 1965, but in Le nouvel observateur the influential critic Michel Cournot wrote, “I feel no embarrassment declaring that Pierrot le fou is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in my life,” and when it opened in France at the end of the year, he virtually wrote in tongues to praise it. In Les lettres françaises, the novelist and poet Louis Aragon waxed dithyrambic in a front-page rave (“There is one thing of which I am sure . . . : art today is Jean-Luc Godard”); these and other critics recognized and mentioned the film’s intense and intimate personal significance.
Pierrot le fou proved a tough ticket in Paris—but, more importantly, it inspired a generation, and most famously Chantal Akerman, who, when she saw it at age fifteen, decided at once to become a filmmaker. The self-destructive romanticism, the artistic self-consciousness, the frenetically unhinged form, the blend of emotional extravagance and cool self-mocking, the vanished boundaries between irony and sincerity and between symbol and reality, the overt cinematic breakdown and breakup, were all of their moment. Pierrot le fou was the last of Godard’s first films, the herald of even more radical rejections and reconstructions to come—for Godard and for the world around him.
In February 1964, Jean-Luc Godard wanted to make a film that was based on the crime novel Obsession which was written by the American writer Lionel White. It originally was a story about a guy who leaves his family to be with a much younger girl who seems to be in cahoots with some shady criminals, which leads the both of them on several thrilling adventures. Godard originally wanted Richard Burton to play the part of Ferdinand and would've shot the film in English but that idea fell through. He also originally wanted actress Sylvie Vartan to play the part as Marianne but eventually decided to have his current wife play the role and the whole shift and tone of the film had to be changed when the cast was finally chosen. Godard stated in his Cahiers du cinema: "In the end, the whole thing was changed by the casting of Anna and Belmondo. I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple, the last descendants of La nouvell heloise, Werther, and Hermann and Dorothea."
In many ways the film takes up several film noir tones especially the role of Marianne as the seductive, manipulative femme fatale, who uses and betrays Ferdinand to be with her long time lover who she lied and said was her brother. Ferdinand's character was completely different from the book and become more of a failed writer and intellectual who for some short time rediscovers his literary ambitions with his runaway lover who helps him fulfill his artistic dreams. While the two lovers settle down on the French Riviera Ferdinand begins to fulfill his artistic projects of writing and reading and yet his artistic artistic creation is destroyed when Marianne drags him back into the shady world of crime and corruption.
Godard seems to blend in several popular genres like the outlaw romantic road movie, Laurel and Hardy slapstick like pranks, the gangster crime genre, the lighthearted musical when Marianne suddenly breaks into song, political commentaries on the rise of the Vietnam War and last but not least comic books, in which you can look at Marianne as the main villain and her deadly weapon of choice is a scissors. Like many of Godard's films, Pierrot le fou features characters who intentionally break the fourth wall by looking into the camera, which started with Godard's first film Breathless. Pierrot le fou also includes many startling film techniques like insert shots, voice over narrations, documentary footage and elaborate editing; such as, when Pierrot throws a cake at a woman in the party scene, (one of my favorite scenes in the film) Godard cuts to an exploding firework just as it hits her.
Godard stated, "It is a completely unconscious film," and in a lot of ways while making it Godard was able to vent out his emotions toward his soon to be ex-wife Anna Karina who he believed was keen on destroying him and his work. The film has many of the characteristics of the then dominant pop art movement, making constant disjunctive references to various elements of mass culture. Like much pop art the film uses visuals drawn from cartoons and employs an intentionally garish visual aesthetic based on bright primary colors. In the classic scene at the cocktail party in which Ferdinand meets the great American director Samuel Fuller, Godard wanted to define the cinema in the way Fuller described it which involved the use of 'emotions.' The rejection of a traditional narrative and style was a way to provoke strong emotions from the viewer and fulfill what Fuller believed defined the true power of film.
Godard purposely wanted to express his thoughts and feelings on what was going on with the rise of the Vietnam War with Pierrot le fou, as he contains references to the war and several times throughout the film even cuts to documentary footage of the bloodshed. In the famous play sequence within the story in which Ferdinand and Marianne perform a show in front of American GI's, the two impersonate a American soldier and Viennese civilian, which can be looked at as a commentary on how Europeans viewed the war in Vietnam and of its stereotypes that were created through the media. And the disturbing climax in which it shows the daubing of Ferdinand's face with the color blue which can be a contrast to army paint as he straps himself up with several strips of dynamite to blow himself up as a sort of suicide sacrifice to the woman he claims he loves, can be looked at as the extreme violence and pointless death that was going on overseas at that time.
Pierrot le fou is sometimes seen as an early and paradigmatic example of postmodernism in film. The film's postmodern elements include its parodic but affectionate attitude towards American pop culture, its deliberate mixing of high and low art, its frequent dissection of popular movie conventions, its cuts to famous paintings of Picasso and of the music of Beethoven, and its use of a decentered, collage-like narrative structure. The films also reflects the artistic ideas of famous literary authors and of a Balzacian grandeur in which greatly Godard intended. There are several references to many great literary authors in the film like Joseph Conrad, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, William Faulkner, Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson, Honoré de Balzac; and Godard purposely lays out the story in a very literary style as it is separated by chapters, which are very similar to a novel.
The central character of Ferdinand also embodies Jameson's notion of the postmodern citizen as a victim of "compensatory decorative exhilaration" or a mass media-addled mindset in which individuals lose the ability to distinguish truth from fiction or important issues from trivial ones. While other films before Pierrot le fou were challenging for Godard, he was having extreme trouble sustaining this particular film and several times while making it he stated he felt that he was making his very first film and that he had lost his North Star of cinematic navigation which was out at sea.
In many ways Pierrot le fou can be looked at as Godard's farewell to the gangster genre and of his stories of reckless lost youths that he started out with in Breathless, Contempt, Band of Outsiders and Vivre Sa Vie. Godard's transition after Pierrot le fou enters into the beginning of his more radical experimental stage which involves political, philosophical essays full of existential, abstract collage like images in films like Weekend, Masculine Feminine and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Similar to director Quentin Tarantino, Godard will introduce a scene that is perfectly conventional in a Hollywood gangster film, but because of his style, technique and his love of wanting to provoke an audiences emotions, he will come of with something completely different that doesn't necessarily have to make much sense within the context of the story. For instance, there are two scenes in the film, one where Ferdinand wakes up in Marianne's apartment and finds her making breakfast for him. The camera follows Marianne into the bedroom and back to the kitchen and while in passing the camera shows a bloody dead body just laying their on the bed. Later in the film when the two lovers decide to get rid of their vehicle and blow it up so people will believe the two of them are dead, they walk past another vehicle flipped over on its front as the shot shows two dead bloody bodies hanging outside of the vehicle. With both of these scenes, nothing is made of it and the character's don't seem to either care or react to the horrific imagery. What's amazing about these subtle and strange touches is that Godard completely changes the tone and the mood of the scene from something that is conventional and formulaic to someone more shocking and complex with these disturbing presences, which I find remarkable. Pierrot le fou wasn't very well received when first released and it was initially booed when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1965. And yet there were some critics who supported the film like critic Michel Cournot who wrote, "I feel no embarrassment declaring that Pierrot le fou is the most beautiful film I've ever seen in my life." The poet and novelist Louis Aragon wrote a front page review saying, "There is one thing of which I am sure....art today is Jean-Luc Godard." The film even inspired the director Chantal Akerman who made the experimental masterpiece Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, and after seeing the film at age 15 Chantel decided to become a filmmaker. Even if greatly disliked when viewing it for the first time, like every great art film Pierrot le fou is deserved to be seen more than just once. I wasn't crazy about it the first time I viewed the film and yet the more times I watch it the more I understand the artist behind the camera and of his intentions which greatly increases my appreciation for the film; in which the film now has become one of my personal favorites.