Blu-ray Review: Pierrot le fou (Criterion Collection)

In 1966 Roger Ebert reviewed Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou and gave it a 3 1/2 star review, 41 years later he reviewed it again and gave it only 2 1/2 stars quoting his earlier review calling the film “Godard’s most virtuoso display of his mastery of Hollywood genres,” only to now say he sees “it more as the story of silly characters who have seen too many Hollywood movies.” Strangely enough, I have to wonder if Pierrot le fou is really about characters at all. It stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina as Ferdinand and Marianne, but does their “road trip” really serve as anything more than a medium for Godard to lovingly fawn over his then-wife while at the same time speak ill of American culture and the Vietnam War?

I recently reviewed Criterion’s release of Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, a film made two years after Pierrot le fou and a film with even less linear direction than Pierrot. However, it’s a film that would fit in-between the lines of Pierrot le fou. While jumping from one scene to the next in Pierrot a scene or two from 2 or 3 Things could spell out its message and I don’t think the audience would be any the wiser or suspicious. However, one thing to say about Pierrot is that it is a far more accessible feature than was 2 or 3 Things as it includes death, romance and a pair of criminals on the lam and running from the law. Running to what? That’s a little hazy too, but it can be fun once you realize Godard hasn’t made a sewn together narrative as much as he’s made what he sees as a patchwork of moving art.

The film’s one consistency is its characters as Ferdinand ditches his wife and kids and takes off with Marianne, a past love and a would-be babysitter. Marianne appears to have killed a man, her brother is an arms dealer, Ferdinand seems to love her while she remains conflicted and insists on calling him Pierrot just to piss him off. They steal gas, they steal cars and the bodies don’t stop piling up until the end. The story of Ferdinand and Marianne follows a straight line, but Godard has broken it up forcing you to fill in the blanks, or not, it’s up to you and it really doesn’t matter one way or the other. While the film itself isn’t telling an overtly cohesive story, each scene is and whether the actors are speaking directly to the audience or it would seem Godard uses the voice over narration to speak directly to his actors, you can view this film as a series of short stories and make of the film what you will.

Criterion’s supplemental material assists in putting the complete puzzle together through a series of interviews and documentaries with Godard, Belmondo, Karina and others. Most helpful in one piece is when the narrator says it was like lightning striking when Godard considered making films without a specific subject followed by a short interview piece with the director at the Venice Film Festival when he refers to the film as a painting. Such a statement requires the viewer to stop looking at the film in search of a story and begin looking at it for its technique. Such a bold approach is sure to turn off 95% of movie audiences who would be frustrated by such a conceit. Ebert addresses this in his 2007 review when referring to a scene that bounces from one monochrome color to the next before sticking to a full color scene with director Samuel Fuller playing himself. Ebert writes, “What does that mean? It means that we notice it and wonder what it means, which can be said for a lot of Godard’s shots.” How frustrating! Or is it?

One thing I would never say of this film is that it is a great film and a definite must buy. However, I would say it is a must watch for anyone that wants to begin looking at movies as more than just the two-dimensional features they appear to be. Pierrot le fou asks audiences to forget about looking at films as simple tools for entertainment and requires you look deeper.

I think it would be easy to call Godard a pretentious filmmaker needlessly doing “this” or “that” in an effort to confuse audiences and seem smarter than the rest of us. It’s easy to say this because I think it’s for the most part true based on what I have read and the documentaries I have watched (although I’m not sure I would say his ego was so large to say he thought he was smarter than everyone else). However, I don’t look at this as a negative. I have written in the past that I believe the best directors are ego maniacs, but at the same time I believe they have to be. How else can you make a masterpiece if you don’t have full confidence in yourself and your vision?

It’s often said how filmmakers are artists too, and while I am not an art aficionado I would say watching a film such as Pierrot le fou turns moviegoers into art gallery patrons with each scene painted on a new canvas and Godard using the camera as his brush, guiding viewers this way and that and also guiding his actors. Primary colors dominate each scene and occasional splashes of pastels disturb the flow. Much like Band of Outsiders these is an emphasis on books. Does Godard expect you to know the meaning for the placement of each? No, but I suspect he wants you to want to know the meaning. Just like art lovers take in every inch of a painting, Godard asks his audience to do that with this film. The process takes time and is one I don’t plan on dedicating my life to, but he smartly made Pierrot into more than just a message movie by adding murderous intrigue, which will keep people coming back for more and opening their eyes to something new each time.

As for this Criterion Blu-ray release, the image is superb. As I mentioned, Godard loves to use a lot of solid primary colors and they come across spotless. There is a minimal amount of noticeable film grain and the French mono audio track sounds great. My only complaint would have to be the subtitles, which are presented as white letters with a slim black outline. This film is very bright and often has light backgrounds in which the subtitles get lost making them very hard to read at times. A better option would have been to include the subtitles in the negative space beneath the 2.35:1 picture.

A healthy dose of special features carried over from the previously released DVD edition are excellent additions, all except for the trimmed down 36-minute audio commentary by filmmaker and educator Jean-Pierre Gorin that just seemed to reek of pretention to the point I just didn’t care about anything he was saying. However, this is one of the first times I can remember even the shorter vintage featurettes, such as the previously mentioned Venice Film Festival interview, actually carry some weight and offer at least one or two nuggets of information to help you decipher what is most definitely an experimental film, but a solid one at that.

As for a recommendation, it really depends on your dedication to film in my opinion. If you are interested in perhaps interpreting films on a whole other level I think this is an excellent place to start as Godard has fashioned a story with elements found in all your typical gangster tales, but seems to have merely included them in order to get you to spend your time focusing on anything but those elements. Shot without a script and released at the turning point of the famed Gallic director’s career I think this film serves as invaluable to students of film.

Godard directed the fantastic Breathless, which also starred Belmondo and is referenced more than once in this film, but has since not been able to move me the way he did that first time. I still enjoyed Band of Outsiders and Alphaville, but other films of his often seemed so detached that I just couldn’t wrap my head around them. Watching Pierrot le fou has opened my eyes a little, but I think it is challenging as much as it is frustrating. It is human nature to want to fully understand something. So what do we do when we can’t? I have said this film is comparable to that of a painting, but the only difference is this is a series of several paintings in 110 minutes while at an art gallery we can be more selective and not worry about when one image will disappear before we have to decipher the next. Godard is a director that asks a lot of his audience and it’s simply a question of whether or not you are up for answering the call.

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