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.
My extended review/overview of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou and Criterion’s new 2-disc edition is running on Turner Classic Movies online. Here is another excerpt:
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.
Read to complete review here.