Pierrot le fou: Criterion Collection
February 29, 2008
Based on Lionel White’s crime novel, Obsession, Pierrot le fou (1965) was originally going to star Richard Burton as a man who leaves his family to hook up with a younger girl to be played pop singer Sylvie Vartan. However, both were unavailable, so the film’s director, Jean-Luc Godard, asked his then wife, Anna Karina to play the girl and Jean-Paul Belmondo to play the man. With this film, Godard began moving away from the trappings of film noir, which he had relied on in the past, and his theoretical references, and became influenced by the politics of the day – specifically his anger towards the Vietnam War. He was a filmmaker in flux. To complicate matters, during filming Godard and Karina were divorced and this also influenced the final product.
In the first ten minutes Ferdinand Griffon (Belmondo) reads a passage from The History of Art by critic Elie Faure to his daughter from the bathtub and meets filmmaker Sam Fuller at a party. He asks the director to define cinema to which Fuller replies, “A film is like a battleground.” This sets a self-reflexive tone for the rest of the film as characters break into song and dance and Godard says good-bye traditional narrative cinema – not that he had much interest in it in the first place. Ferdinand leaves his family and shacks up with the family babysitter, Marianne Renoir (Karina). They become fugitives when she kills a man in her apartment and they leave Paris for the countryside.
Richard Brody argues in the DVD’s liner notes that “Godard was at war with himself,” and this is reflected in the conflicted nature of Pierrot le fou – a reflection of the turbulent times which spawned it. Ferdinand and Marianne refer to themselves and their exploits in the third person, narrating their own story. There are numerous references to the Vietnam War which was raging at the time. Godard also inserts random shots from comic books and fine art. He even playfully references Laurel and Hardy and himself with a clip from Le grad escroc (1963).
Pierrot le fou was booed when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 1965 but it did very well when it opened later in France. Looking at it now, the film is a radical critique and deconstruction of the lovers-on-the-run genre anticipating Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Both films are products of their time referencing other media and utilizing exaggerated stylistic techniques to draw attention to itself in order to make us aware that we are watching a film. However, Godard’s film is important in that it signaled a break from the first phase of his career into a whole new one that continued to further pushed the boundaries of filmmaking in new directions.
There is a recent interview with Anna Karina where she speaks about working with Godard and praises the variety of roles she portrayed in his films. Naturally, she talks about Pierrot le fou and the challenge of working without a screenplay. Karina tells several amusing anecdotes about filming.
“A Pierrot Primer” features filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin providing a commentary for a video essay that attempts to decipher the film. He analyzes the film’s style and how it applies to the film’s meaning. Gorin is a very astute observer and does a good job of breaking the film down.
“Belmondo in the Wind” features an excerpt from a program about the actor and features interviews with him, Godard and Karina recorded during the film’s production. Belmondo comes across as charming and relaxed as he gamely answers questions about his working methods. Included is fascinating footage of the film being made.
“Venice Film Festival, 1965” features excerpts of interviews with Godard and Karina during the film’s debut. Godard downplays the provocative nature of his films while Karina speaks eloquently of her work with Godard and comes across as engagingly humble.
“Godard, L’amour, La poesie” is a 53-minute documentary that examines the marriage between Godard and Karina and the films they made together. It traces the arc of his career before Karina, during and afterwards in excellent detail.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.