“Pierrot le fou” (1965)

April 21, 2009 at 11:48 am (Cinema, French New Wave, Reviews & Articles)

This Jean-Luc Godard comedy-romance-thriller from 1965, features the great Jean-Paul Belmondo and the stunningly beautiful Anna Karina. It’s a strange but captivating film. This in-depth review comes from the filmsdefrance website and was written by Dennis Grunes back in 2003…  




Confounding categorical critical responses, Jean-Luc Godard’s tragicomic Pierrot le fou gathers strength from what appears to be its weaknesses. One can be stern, if one wishes, and pronounce the film shallow, too given to providing lighthearted entertainment, and at points incoherent, but as it happens its poignancy – and indeed this is among Godard’s most poignant films – accumulates precisely from its lightness, thinness, restlessness and offhand manner. The most tender and most troubled of love stories, Pierrot le fou shimmers with the beauty of love’s and life’s volatility and transience.


I’m not going to synopsize the scattered, often incomprehensible plot, presumably derived from the novel “Obsession” by Lionel White, the American author of “Clean Break,” on which Stanley Kubrick based The Killing (1956). However, its mainspring is the lead character Ferdinand Griffon’s abandonment of wife, children, job and so forth – in sum, his bourgeois lifestyle – in order to take off with his children’s young babysitter, Marianne Renoir. Early on, Ferdinand and his unnamed wife (how cruel Godard can be!) attend a party so that his father-in-law can introduce him to the right people at Standard Oil, now that he has quit his job as a television executive. Ferdinand passes through a series of monochromatic tableaux, each with a different group of guests engaged in discussion. In each case, the “discussion” consists of dialogue from TV commercials or related comments about commercial products (“My hair has kept its shape all day thanks to Aquanet”). Ferdinand walks through these very funny scenes without noting a word that’s said, but the artificiality of these party moments, and the whole sense of commercial vampirism it implies wherein people’s personalities have been taken over by the bourgeois consumerism of capitalistic society, help motivate Ferdinand’s taking flight. 


What we “see” here – the use of monochrome is a distancing device that nudges us to consider the satirical import rather than simply be amused by the comical parodies – surely, though, represents Godard’s understanding of bourgeois limitations more than it does Ferdinand’s, whose discontent is vague and nagging, and who isn’t thinking about what’s going on around him at the moment. That’s why Godard shows him deep in his own thoughts while merely, almost like a sleepwalker, passing through these scenes. What is Ferdinand thinking about then? He is thinking about the girl, of course! He is thinking about Marianne, whom he pretended to be meeting for the first time when his wife, whom he married for her money, introduced them earlier but with whom, five years earlier, he had had a brief affair of the heart. Ferdinand is in love – madly (hence le fou in the title) and utterly. His isn’t, then, a purely reactive action. Returning home early without his wife, he sets out with Marianne in order to follow his heart.


The context of this deliciously sudden romance certainly contains the element of Ferdinand’s dissatisfaction with his lifestyle and life. He will abandon these for an unsettled life, one on the run in fact, explained generally by Marianne’s capricious nature and more specifically by the fact that they have stolen money from gunrunners whom they are attempting to elude, one of (I guess) whose members, Marianne’s brother, if only they can find him, can set the matter right. (Marianne has also apparently committed a murder.) Two commentaries crisscross for Ferdinand to discover or, more to the point, will or invent his love for Marianne, one prior to the party and another during it. From his bathtub, the centerpiece of the vortex of bourgeois living, the bathroom, Ferdinand discloses a hidden life, an interest in art that the lifestyle he has (it appears) largely married into stifles. More specifically, he is reading aloud, to himself and his little daughter, from a book about Diego Rodríguez de Silva Velázquez. The immediate subject is a radical shift in the seventeenth-century Spanish painter’s life and art: “After he reached the age of fifty, Velázquez no longer painted anything concrete and definite. He hovered around objects with the air, with twilight, catching unawares in his shadows and airy backgrounds the palpitations of color, which formed the invisible core of his symphony of silence.” This strikes a responsive chord in Ferdinand, whose own “drifting” from one tableau of guests to another visually connects the Velázquez account with his own life and predicament. Ferdinand isn’t fifty years old – he is in his early thirties; but dissatisfaction makes him feel fifty. He, too, may be due for a change for which quitting his job has paved the way, and he seizes upon Marianne as the opportunity for that change.


The “commentary” at the party that crystallizes Marianne as this opportunity, this agency for change, comes from an auspicious guest. In full color, interrupting the monochromatic tableaux, Ferdinand pauses by a silent guest who appears all alone. This is Samuel Fuller, the American maverick filmmaker, from whom (through an interpreter) Ferdinand

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