Review by Evan Kindley
Posted on 09 April 2008
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Pierrot le Fou seems to me both free and confined at the same time.
The menu screen for the new Criterion Collection DVD of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou is as good a commentary on the film as anything I could write here. Turn it on and you see four boxes or panels, one large and still, three small and filled with motion. On all four of them are details from larger images: paintings, ads, comic strip panels, neon signs. The menu immediately announces that what is to come will be an experience of frames within frames; or, you could say, of details. This film is in fact almost all detail, by which I mean not just that it has many subtle and graceful touches throughout, but that everything that’s good about it is a miniature, even minor, examination of themes or behavior that the director deals with elsewhere more fully and compellingly. Outside of the larger canon of Godard’s work, Pierrot le Fou makes little sense and satisfies few expectations; within it, it’s perhaps his most perfect achievement.
The best plot summary of Pierrot le Fou 1 is probably the simplest: “Two fictional characters move through space.” True, this description could apply to almost any narrative film, but it’s undeniably the primary interest of Godard’s movie, which somehow takes this most minimal of cinematic imperatives and does it better than anyone else. The relative superiority of Pierrot le Fou to other characters-moving-through-space films, then, is due not so much to the characters – nominally designated Marianne Renoir and Ferdinand Griffon, and played by Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo respectively – as to the space they navigate. And that space is arranged and conducted as well as a mid-century French aesthete steeped in the classical Hollywood tradition could manage. Which is to say, about as well as humanly possible. In Pierrot, Godard, working with godlike supergenius cameraman Raoul Coutard, is mercifully free of the distraction of significant content and can construct little window-boxes of pure beauty. To take an unassuming example, think about the consistency of the color palette in the scene where Marianne and Ferdinand knock over a gas station; the red of the interior lining of the Ford Mustang is the exact same red on the stripes of the building; the car’s exterior is the exact same Yves Klein blue of the sky, and later Ferdinand’s suit. Or, to choose a more celebrated moment, there is the the extended scene in the car, a set-up familiar from countless Hitchcock films, into which Godard introduces an element of natural anarchy: passing lights along the highway describe circles inside the neat rectangle of the car’s windshield. Throughout Coutard favors high angles, giving us no sense of ground, keeping the action on one plane alone. You’re not supposed to think about how one part of this world might connect to another part of it. You’re supposed to think about what’s there, in the frame, right in front of you.
And Godard fills those frames with unfailing taste. Among the pleasures Pierrot offers are Belmondo announcing “the Age of the Ass”; a cocktail party where everyone speaks in commercial pitches; Ferdinand and Marianne wearing t-shirts with their names printed on them; a murder scene featuring some of the most skillful tracking shots in cinema history; a brief, deliberately offensive re-enactment of the Vietnam War; a Spanish midget on a two-way radio; multiple musical sequences; a cadre of dancing gun-runners; and a bizarre, explosive denouement. Not to mention Karina and Belmondo at the height of their physical allure. The narrative, while not quite as disjointed as in later films like One Plus One and Week-End, is decidedly secondary to the shock and pleasure of presenting these strange, beautiful and somehow perfect spectacles, one after the other; the logic is that of the art gallery, the catalogue, not the story or even the series. If the film can’t help occasionally throwing a sliver of dramatic interest our way (if only because “eroticism betrays nostalgia for continuity,” don’t you know), it’s basic motor is not suspense – what’s going to happen next? – but rather desire for reflection, arrest – can we just stay a little longer on this shot of the seaside, please?
If Godard required a philosophical or sociological alibi for this exercise de style, he gets it with a key line early on: “A person should feel like he’s one individual.” Economically evoking themes of atomization and alienation Godard would explore more substantively in later films, this phrase sets up a story of two lost people trying on fictional identities in a more or less meaningless world. As a commentary on modernité this is no great shakes, borrowed from Durkheim via Antonioni, but at least it gets things moving. The ostensible catalyst for the action is Godard-surrogate Belmondo leaving his wife and kids for Karina-surrogate Karina; this eventually leads to lots of sex, violence and intrigue. But I doubt you really need to know any of this, or evaluate it dramatically, in order to enjoy or “understand” the movie: it’s just the little kick that gets the boat out on the water. The truth is that Pierrot, despite its identity-quest armature, is one of Godard’s least character-oriented movies. Like Ferdinand, it’s not interested in people so much as “what lies between people: space, sound and color.”
Which is what you’re getting when you purchase this package: space, sound and color, plus context. It seems a little pointless to write a piece of criticism on a product that is so thoroughly self-criticizing—and not just in the time-honored deconstructive sense. Again I refer you to the DVD package, particularly the second disc, fully loaded with supplements. These include a brief interview with the present-day Anna Karina; Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin’s 35-minute “Pierrot” Primer; interesting publicity clips of Godard, Belmondo and Karina; and a 53-minute documentary about Godard and Karina’s stormy relationship made in 2007.2 In addition, the DVD booklet reprints essays by Andrew Sarris and Richard Brody, as well as a vintage Cahiers du Cinéma interview with Godard. Like many Criterion DVDs, this one is put together with an eye toward the film scholar, but it’s a particularly cocky presentation of the relevant material, as befits a filmic text so assured in its canonicity and ostentatious in its flashing of cultural credentials. The film, like most of Godard’s, is well stocked with literary references, both American (Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, Poe’s “William Wilson,” Conrad, Faulkner) and French (Balzac, Proust, Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil).3 It also bears the mark of history, with frequent mentions of the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, et cetera—inclusions that got Godard accused of dilettantism at the time, but seem like crucial aesthetic selling-points now.
To be honest, none of these highflown allusions add up to too much: they say more about Godard’s leisure activities and intellectual pretensions circa 1965 than his art or even his “thinking,” and they mostly fail to galvanize his technique the way the classical allusions in Contempt or the radical Marxism in films like La Chinoise and Week-End do. But the Criterion package is true to the film’s spirit, larding itself with impeccable displays of culture; the only difference is that the honored work in question is now Pierrot le Fou itself. It’s hard to imagine a DVD presentation more in keeping with its content; even the menus contain clever if pointless Godardian jokes, like the link back to the MAIN screen that’s placed just below the French word “mort” (mortmain being a legal term relating to the preservation of property over time). This was really all that was missing from the original film, it turns out: for its frame-happy aesthetic to make complete sense on its own terms, it needed to be put in a box itself. All along, it has been patiently awaiting its moment of consecration. I’m sure this is going to sound like sacrilege, but it strikes me that Pierrot is probably better on DVD than it ever was in the movie-house: better when you can freeze-frame on a particular cherished image, or scurry off to Wikipedia to validate a stray reference, or compare a frame to some other Criterion Collection-sanctioned classic. The qualities that films typically lose on television – drama, grandeur, emotional impact – Pierrot never had in the first place; what it gains – scholarly context, critical approval, cultural prestige – only amplify what Godard puts there on the screen.
1 The title is borrowed from the nickname of infamous French gangster Pierre Loutrel, who was apparently much in the news just prior to the film’s production. But this is scarcely referred to in the film, and “Pierrot” is also, significantly, the name of a stock commedia del’arte character, the archetype of the French mime or sad clown. Belmondo (who Karina keeps calling “Pierrot,” despite being properly named “Ferdinand”) is thus cast explicitly as a fool, rather than as the mock-hero he portrayed in Breathless. The extra distance is everything. If Breathless is, despite its irreverent tendencies, still sort of a gangster movie and a love story, Pierrot is a joke through and through. ↩
2 The couple’s marriage ended during the filming of Pierrot le Fou, a fact some critics have seen as the key to the movie but which to these eyes barely registers onscreen. ↩
3 This last is, improbably, being made into a film by hard-boiled director Samuel Fuller. On hearing this, Belmondo comments, “Baudelaire. That’s great”—a pretty perfect summation of the casual rapport between Hollywood professionalism and French cultural nobility that Godard alternately engages, critiques and represents. ↩