“Poetry Is A Game Of Loser-Take All”: “Pierrot le Fou” at 55

Pierrot le fou Pierrot le fou

Jean-Luc Godard’s tale of fractured romance and love on the run is one of the most fearsome, rebellious works of his career.

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When the career of the legendary and groundbreaking French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard is examined at length, his tenth feature film, Pierrot le Fou (1965), sometimes gets short shrift. However, this says less about the quality of the film itself and more about Godard’s incredible level of productivity at that time: he only made his feature directorial debut five years earlier with the revolutionary Breathless (1960) and would go on to make five more over the next couple of years before ending this era of comparatively conventional filmmaking with a dagger to the heart in the form of the unabashedly radical Weekend (1967). 

And yet it remains, as a recent spin of the new Criterion Blu-Ray special edition can confirm, one of the high points of his career. Not only is its deconstruction of pop cinema as audacious today as when it first came out, but it also served as a summation of Godard’s work to date, while also pointing the direction his artistic muse would soon be taking him. 

Very loosely based on Obsession, a 1962 crime novel from American writer Lionel White, the film begins as Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) goes off to a party thrown by his wealthy in-laws. He’s a self-styled intellectual who has recently lost his job in television; his wife, Maria (Graziella Galvani), hopes that her father can introduce him to a Standard Oil executive who might offer him a job. 

Pierrot le fou
Pierrot le fou

Bored stiff with the vapidness he sees everywhere, he returns home early to discover that the babysitter employed for his daughter is none other than Marianne (Anna Karina), a former lover of his. He offers to take her home and winds up spending the night with her, only to discover the next morning that there is a corpse in her apartment and that she is being chased by members of OAS, a right-wing dissident group she’s allegedly betrayed in an arms deal.

For most men, that might prove to be a deal breaker, even if the person in question did look like Anna Karina. But Ferdinand, whom Marianne dubs “Pierrot” (which roughly translates to “sad clown”), decides to abandon his family and former life for good and go on the lam with her, committing minor crimes along the way in order to sustain themselves. 

At first glance, Pierrot le Fou appears to find Godard once again putting his spin on a familiar form of filmmaking. As with the musical in A Woman is a Woman (1961) the crime thriller in Band of Outsiders and science-fiction in Alphaville, he creates a film here as much about the history and tropes of the genre as the story at hand. This time around, he’s working with the lovers-on-the-run genre. 

Viewers will recognize it as both an homage to You Only Live Once (1937) and Gun Crazy (1949), and a precursor to the classic Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Beyond those and other cinematic allusions, he also appears to be drawing from the pop art movement of the era, the film’s color scheme taking on the cheerfully garish and often eye-popping tones found in comic books, along with Godard’s signature elliptical editing.

Pierrot le fou
Pierrot le fou

Such elements were not unfamiliar in Godard’s films at that time, but while playful, they betray a sense of genuine anger that was new for him. At the time, he was growing increasingly pessimistic with the world around him, as well as with cinema in general, and that sensation can be felt throughout the film. Although his heedless lovers seem to be heading off on the kind of great adventure one normally sees only in the movies, Godard constantly reminds viewers of the artificiality of their journey. It’s only when things take a turn for the apocalyptic towards the end that the film is at its most straightforward. 

Seen today, Pierrot le fou can now be seen as a definite transition between the more playful nature of his previous efforts and the darker, more pessimistic tones he would hit in subsequent films like Weekend (an interesting companion piece to Pierrot).

One of the key sources for Godard’s pessimism was the deterioration of his relationship with Karina, to whom he had been married and who had starred in a number of his previous films, most notably in Vivre sa Vie. In those films, you could sense the true depth of Godard’s feelings and love towards her through how he presented her on the screen. 

Pierrot le fou can now be seen as a definite transition between the more playful nature of his previous efforts and the darker, more pessimistic tones he would hit in subsequent films.

This time around, she’s as beautiful and beguiling as ever, but there’s a more dangerous and treacherous edge to her presentation this time around, clearly borne out by the shift in their relationship. Of course, a great deal of the credit for this goes to Karina, who gives one of the best performances of her career here. Indeed, there is no small irony in the fact that it took the dissolution of their relationship to inspire what would be (Vivre Sa Vie excepted) the high watermark of their collaborations. 

And yet, despite Pierrot le fou’s undercurrent of anger, watching it today isn’t like looking at a cinematic time capsule. It bristles with a style and energy that continues to hit with great force, and Godard’s formal gambits feel right on the nose at a time when popular culture seems to spend most of its time deconstructing itself. The chemistry between Belmondo and Karin—two of the most charismatic stars in the history of French cinema—remains off the charts. 

In the end, I suppose the best way to describe the film comes from Sam Fuller — the director of pulp cinema classics like Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964) — when he famously turns up as himself in the party sequence. To him, film is a battleground.  “There’s love, hate, action, violence death… in one word: emotion.”

Pierrot le fou Trailer:

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