Skip to content

Pierrot Le Fou Critical Analysis Essay

Pierrot le fou

Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou is a road movie, but one in which the characters move, not through any physical geography, but across the well-traveled terrain of Godard's own cinematic corpus, revisiting key themes and familiar scenarios from the nine feature films that Godard made in the five years preceding Pierrot. The film's pivotal placement at a turning point in Godard's career — after his most successful Nouvelle Vague hits but still before his increasingly radical Maoist period — makes it particularly ripe for analysis in terms of Godard's filmography as a whole. It features two of Godard's finest actors and his most iconic figures, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, the latter appearing in her penultimate role in a Godard film, with their divorce still looming ahead. Godard is also revisiting one of his key concerns from his pre-Maoist period, namely the nature of romance and the adversarial relationships that society sets up between man and woman. Not least of the film's echoes of earlier Godard ventures is the way its plot and denouement mirror the feminine betrayal at the core of Godard's first feature Breathless, in which Belmondo was also led to his death by romance and female duplicity. What's different here, and what may help Godard avoid the charges of misogyny that (often justifiably) have been brought against his films, is the extent to which Pierrot interrogates and examines this archetypal relationship.

At the start of the film, Ferdinand (Belmondo) is a discontented bourgeoisie, married to an heiress and himself unemployed after an unsuccessful career in television. He goes to a party where, in a brilliant parody of both TV advertising and Godard's own earlier commercial work, all the characters speak in lingo apparently stolen from ads, extolling the virtues of cars, naked women, and deodorants with the same antiseptic language. Ferdinand wanders through the party, and as he moves from one room to the next Godard arbitrarily applies garish color filters to delineate one space and set of characters from the next. The arbitrariness of the color-switching underlines the extent to which these people are, despite superficial differences in favored topics, all the same; their language, the language of corporate culture, erases all distinctions. The filters also inevitably bring to mind Godard's one big-budget production, Contempt, in which the producers demanded more nude scenes for star Brigitte Bardot, and Godard famously obliged with a lengthy bedroom scene, during which color filters similarly rotated at random across Bardot's bare butt. The device's recurrence here is a subtle in-joke, a reminder that Godard too had sold out and spoken with the language of commerce — and also a reminder of how a device of commercial necessity had been transformed into art.

In any event, Ferdinand soon leaves the party and returns home, where he encounters the evening's babysitter, Marianne (Karina), who is by chance also his ex-lover. The duo set off on an absurdist road trip that seems ill-fated from the start, triggered as it is by Marianne's never-explained murder of a man in her apartment and their flight from a gang of gun-runners looking for the money and weapons she'd been stashing for them. This sequence plays out with Godard's typical wit and obscurity, the actual visuals reminiscent of a slapstick Keystone Kops routine, with the lovers dashing in circles, grabbing the blatantly fake prop guns, and running in and out of cars. Godard fragments the scene, repeating key moments again and again, destroying the moment-to-moment coherence in favor of a vague sensation of danger, hilarity, and action. The voiceover track, meanwhile, further exacerbates the confusion, as Belmondo and Karina take turns narrating the events, sometimes finishing each other's sentences in a contradictory manner and sometimes looping back to something already said. Repetition is a key component of Godard's aesthetic, and it comes into its own in this film, a central element in the film's deconstruction of the road movie's place-to-place narrative.

Indeed, this film doesn't follow a trajectory from place to place so much as from idea to idea. Places are mentioned, but only rarely as concrete markers of locations. More often places and their names are representative of abstract ideas: America, Vietnam, the Riviera (which, as Godard points out, contains the word vie for "life"), Las Vegas. Oftentimes, when Ferdinand and Marianne are traveling, they seem to be moving from one Godard film to the next. Pierrot is littered with remnants of earlier films, especially Le Petit Soldat (a bathroom torture sequence and constant references to the Algerian War), A Woman is a Woman (a few ragtag musical numbers with Karina at her most charming), and variations on Godard's oft-reused trope of enumerating a lover's body parts to declare one's love, first seen in the previously mentioned opening of Contempt. Pierrot also looks forward in interesting ways to the next half-decade of Godard's work, already containing hints of the apocalyptic road movie vibe of Week-end in the staged car crash where Marianne and Ferdinand fake their deaths. More broadly, the theatrical undercurrent of the film, its brilliant use of color and blatantly manufactured settings, is the first suggestion of the Brechtian agitprop theater that Godard would incorporate into his work more and more with films like Made In U.S.A. and La Chinoise. And if the landscape of Pierrot is a microcosm of Godard's films, it's also a pastiche of world literature and pop culture, as the characters themselves sometimes make explicit. When Marianne gets bored of staying in one place for too long, languishing in a seaside hideaway surrounded by friendly animals, she suggests that they ditch this Jules Verne scene and get back to the gangster novel they'd been living earlier.

It's typical of Godard's concern with language that he has taken the tenuous relationship between words and things to its extreme, ignoring the "thing" altogether in favor of the word and the meanings it has taken on. Marianne and Ferdinand both distrust language, but nevertheless acknowledge that it is the only way to communicate, even imperfectly, and so they continuously attempt to understand each other despite the seeming impossibility of it. In fact, for perhaps the first time in these earlier films, Godard seems to be actually interested in teasing out the why of male/female relationships, rather than simply presenting their tortured façades. He occasionally seems to be falling into typically sexist dichotomies — Marianne speaks in terms of feelings, Ferdinand of ideas and art — but here he does so primarily to disrupt and question such bipolar divisions. In one key exchange, Ferdinand and Marianne position themselves along the emotion/thinking divide as they discuss what they like in life, but the actual words they use to describe their supposedly different outlooks turn out to be quite similar. This seeming verbal agreement of course doesn't stop them from reiterating their incompatibility and lack of understanding, but the question has nevertheless been broached. Are male/female disjunctions primarily a result of social strictures that enforce such separateness? Does language help or hinder attempts to eradicate these divisions? Why don't Marianne and Ferdinand understand each other if they seem to be speaking similar words? As usual, Godard doesn't answer any of these questions, he simply leaves them hanging in the air as just one element in this sprawling film.

Ultimately, what all this adds up to is the same thing that nearly every other Godard film adds up to: a dense knot of questions, inquiries, and ideas, tied around a much looser core of plot points and character sketches. It's the perfect summation for his early 60s oeuvre, not only because it draws so many of those earlier films into its orbit, but because it is the epitome of his filmmaking at that time. It's clear, in the sure, sharp aesthetic of the film — its jaw-dropping widescreen vistas, its crisp primary colors — that Godard's filmmaking had reached a new pinnacle and a new stage. Here, he trades in the ragged and jumpy aesthetic of the earlier films, with their endearingly stitched-together quality, and on his first color feature since Contempt, proves himself a master not only of the use of color but of the widescreen frame. In one particularly brilliant shot, he maintains a long view of Ferdinand frantically running along a beach, quickly panning back to accentuate the urgency and then, as though to undermine this atmosphere, executes a leisurely pan to the left, meandering away in the opposite direction from Ferdinand's racing form. As the camera pans up and left across the fluffy clouds and pale blue sky, it eventually reveals Marianne standing on a balcony, held at gunpoint, thereby further accentuating the urgency of the shot and linking the lovers across the expanse of sky. The way in which Godard toys with emotions and meanings in this shot, simply through the movement of the camera, is carried out throughout the film. Despite his continuing (and sometimes overriding) interest in words and ideas, Godard is also among the most visual and sensual of filmmakers, and it is this dichotomy of ideas and sensations that exists at the core of Godard's filmmaking.

“A film is like a battleground. It has love… hate… action… violence… death… in one word, emotions.”

True, that is what Samuel Fuller famously declares early on in Pierrot le Fou as his definition of cinema. But while Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 feature certainly has those first five components contained within its wildly free-form structure, emotions aren’t exactly in abundance here. Or, to put it more accurately, there are emotions, but those emotions are deconstructed and examined to the point that standard reactions to such moments no longer apply. How you are supposed to feel about the plot and the characters in the film remains frustratingly elusive—and perhaps, in the end, irrelevant. Pierrot le Fou is quite possibly the “movie-about-movies” par excellence, because by the end of it those moments of love, hate, action, violence and death don’t matter so much as one’s own unsettled awareness of just how familiar and concrete movie emotions—especially those within the kinds of genre films often adored by Godard and his Cahiers du cinéma peers—often seem compared to the messier and more complex emotions one encounters in real life.

Thus, the heart of this seminal Godard work lies not so much in its “last romantic couple,” not in Raoul Coutard’s eye-popping color cinematography (capturing both privilege and freedom in lush comic-book colors), not even in its many plot twists and tonal and genre shifts. All of these are certainly important to the film’s being, of course, but its real heart and soul lies in its middle section: that lengthy passage set at the edge of civilization, in the south of France, as Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo)—now liberated from the alienating clutches of his privileged life—strives to live out his dream of intellectual freedom, while the less introspectively inclined Marianne (Anna Karina) yearns to “go back to our detective novel, with fast cars and guns and nightclubs.” This passage is perhaps the most personal and resonant in Pierrot le Fou: no longer shackled by the chains of narrative and genre expectations (which of course Godard tries to undermine in his usual postmodern way), Godard himself, ever the intellectually searching mind, is free to give full rein to all the philosophical and political inquiries that are weighing on him.

What exactly is on his mind, then?

Pierrot le Fou, of course, abounds in a wide variety of artistic references ( critic Glenn Kenny recently compiled an ambitious three-part bibliography explaining Godard’s literary references here, here and here), but one work that he doesn’t reference explicitly is Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, in which the controversial 19th-century German philosopher famously suggested that art—Greek tragedy and music, specifically—was, at its height, an intertwining of Apollo and Dionysus: the former signifying “plastic” truth, the latter representing intoxication and madness. Thus, great art, Nietzsche believed, was a juncture between those two poles—the Apollonian supported by the Dionysian, or (to risk oversimplifying Nietzsche’s argument) intellectual awareness propped up by emotion and feeling. We buy into the artistic illusion because the Dionysian elements rope us into accepting and becoming lost in it.

In Nietzsche’s own words (from the Francis Golffing translation):

“At the point that matters most the Apollonian illusion has been broken through and destroyed. This drama which deploys before us, having all its movements and characters illumined from within by the aid of music—as though we witnessed the coming and going of the shuttle as it weaves the tissue—this drama achieves a total effect quite beyond the scope of any Apollonian artifice. In the final effect of tragedy the Dionysiac element triumphs once again: its closing sounds are such as were never heard in the Apollonian realm. The Apollonian illusion reveals its identity as the veil thrown over the Dionysiac meanings for the duration of the play, and yet the illusion is so potent that at its close the Apollonian drama is projected into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysiac wisdom, thereby denying itself and its Apollonian concreteness. The difficult relations between the two elements in tragedy may be symbolized by a fraternal union between the two deities: Dionysus speaks the language of Apollo, but Apollo, finally, the language of Dionysus; thereby the highest goal of tragedy and of art in general is reached.”

As far as I know, Godard hasn’t been connected much with Nietzsche, and for good reason. Even when his films—specifically his early-’60s works—still relied somewhat on story and character, Godard was rarely interested in maintaining any kind of façade: he was more often than not tearing down the fourth wall, reminding us of the precariousness of the cinematic artifice, and analyzing the mechanisms underneath (fiddling around with the soundtrack, jolting us from classical Hollywood complacency with “shocking” jump cuts, etc).

Because of this, many have tagged him as a Brechtian, carrying on elements of the German playwright’s “epic theatre” tradition, which, through alienation techniques, attempted to bring the spectator closer to a drama’s content without the distraction of emotional involvement—in a way, zapping the Dionysian right out of art. And yet much of Godard’s early-’60s films, true to Nietzschean form, balance intellectual provocation with feeling and vitality. Witness, for instance, the depth of feeling bridging the emotional distance of Contempt, the effervescence underlying the musical-comedy genre analysis of A Woman is a Woman, or the fondness for his low-down characters in Band of Outsiders.

Pierrot le Fou, however, represented a turning point in Godard’s artistic development. Looking at it in the context of the films that came before and after it, one can view it as a synthesis work, one that summarizes his thematic and sensual fascinations while anticipating the more distinctly Brechtian cinematic essays that would populate his late-’60s output, when characters didn’t matter so much to him as political ideas and detached examination of youth, French society, the world around us. The Hollywood genres he loved so much could no longer contain his intellectual enthusiasms, and Pierrot le Fou burst the boundaries completely—filled to the gills with B-movie thriller conventions, quicksilver changes in tone and style, social satire, pointed political commentary, and eye-popping primary colors—in an attempt to reinvigorate his own energy for filmmaking and point the way toward future, more radical artistic directions.

But Pierrot le Fou isn’t just a sensual celebration of one movie-obsessed director giving free rein to all of his impulses. Ever the questioning and engaged cinephile, Godard applies a distanced contemplation of that aforementioned Nietzschean artistic dichotomy of intellect and emotion, of Apollo and Dionysus. This clash between two human extremes of feeling goes all the way down to its form and style: there is a method to his surface madness. On a stylistic level, he accomplishes this as he has almost always done: he takes an interested but cool attitude toward his characters while indulging in his own passions for Pop Art imagery; film, literary and artistic references; and dexterous genre and formal play—with the effect that all those Hollywood-inspired genre elements are defamiliarized, put in quotation marks, made self-aware.

Right at the center of Pierrot le Fou, however, are the two characters, Ferdinand and Marianne, representing the two sides of the Nietzschean coin. They both escape from the endless drone of bourgeois existence, epitomized by a party scene in which most of the partygoers speak in the language of magazine ads (“To combat underarm perspiration,” says one woman without a trace of irony, “I use Printil after my bath for all-day protection”). However, once they drive their car into the Mediterranean Sea and Ferdinand decides to start a new life—one in which he can read, write, and concentrate on his own artistic development—a rift between the two develops. For Ferdinand, this kind of Jules Verne-like existence represents the height of freedom; for Marianne, his secluded-artist lifestyle is just as stifling as her previous life back in Paris. Marianne is the one who acts on her emotional impulses: she breaks out into song and dance at two memorably random moments; she instigates the rekindling of their love affair (when she passionately says “I’m putting my hand on your knee,” Ferdinand disinterestedly responds “Me too, Marianne”); she’s the one who would rather listen to the latest pop single instead of reading (“Music after literature,” Ferdinand implores). She’s all sensual pleasure, while he’s all hardcore intellectualism—she’s Dionysus, he’s Apollo.

The scene that best summarizes this contradiction begins with Marianne walking along the Mediterranean shore, frustratingly crying out “What am I to do? I don’t know what to do!” Ferdinand, of course, is reading while soaking in the sun (with a parrot on his lap). When he asks Marianne why she looks so sad, she responds, “Because you speak to me in words, and I look at you in feelings.” When they both try to have a real conversation, they name things that immediately come to their mind. Marianne comes up with “flowers… animals… the blue of the sky… music… I don’t know, everything.” Ferdinand responds with, “ambition… hope… the way things move… accidents… What else? Well, everything.” Note that: everything. They’re both thinking about the world, it seems, but through totally antithetical perspectives—one attuned to the sensual beauties of the world, the other approaching it from an abstracted, dispassionate distance.

This entire middle section—which mixes in such philosophical ruminations with anti-American (read: anti-Vietnam) political commentary, documentary-style interviews and loads of primal nature images—represents the fulcrum of the film, because not only does it detail the developing rift between the two characters, it also creates a rift in the film itself. Once Ferdinand gets dragged back into Marianne’s “detective novel” in the film’s final third, the film itself seems to drag its feet, piling on plot twist after plot twist past the point that they actually matter to the characters, to Godard, or even to us. (Sure, there are moments of playful Godardian digression here and there—a piece of pop philosophy from Marianne explaining why, simply in numerical terms, no one really, truly knows one another; and of course the comic monologue from French humorist Raymond Devos about the piece of music he keeps hearing that leads him to romantic misadventures, marriage and some kind of psychosis—but such moments appropriately become few and far between.)

By the end—as Ferdinand, seeing his lover die in front of him, and seeing his intellectual Utopia permanently dashed, decides to give himself an absurd “glorious death” by painting his face blue and wrapping dynamite around his head—all that is left is, well, some kind of higher plane of existence, as exemplified by a slow pan right to the enveloping blue sky and the shiny ocean underneath after Ferdinand explodes in the distance. Even in Heaven, however, Ferdinand and Marianne are still carrying on their Apollonian/Dionysian dispute:

Marianne: It’s ours again.
Ferdinand: What is?
Marianne: Eternity.
Ferdinand: That’s just the sea, gone…
Marianne: With the sun.

Marianne sees the poetry in Godard’s image, while Ferdinand merely notices the prose. The argument between sensuality and intellectualism continues beyond the final frames of Pierrot le Fou, and that reverberating argument, I submit—even more than its still-dazzling embrace of everything cinematic, political and intellectual in one arguably overstuffed work—is the source of the film’s continued fascination and relevance today.

Image/Sound/Extras: Having caught Pierrot le Fou at its Brooklyn Academy of Music revival last year, I can attest that the Criterion Collection’s high-definition digital transfer is as amazingly bright, colorful and impeccable as seeing Janus Films’ newly restored print on a big screen—maybe a bit more so, since even the print I saw at BAM had its share of flaws, little of which I noticed on the DVD when watching it on my widescreen LCD monitor. The soundtrack is probably as good as mono soundtracks get; Pierrot may be large in scale and ambition, but it was still a relatively low-budget feature after all.

All of the significant extras reside on the second disc, and while it isn’t the most loaded package of supplements I’ve seen from Criterion, there are some interesting things to be found. In lieu of a commentary track, former Dziga Vertov collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin dissects the film’s first 20 minutes or so, making a fascinating case that this introductory section lays out the film’s geography and thematic concerns economically and precisely—classical exposition that isn’t applied to characters as it is to style and theme. Other than a trailer, an interview with Anna Karina—in which she focuses mostly on the experience of making the film, making no mention of the supposed rift between her and Godard at the time—and an archival interview with Jean-Paul Belmondo, the only other supplement of possible interest is Godard, l’amour, la poésie, a 50-minute documentary that surveys Godard’s body of work up until Pierrot, especially his features with Karina. For smitten Anna Karina fans, it might be worth seeing just to see the soap commercial that first attracted Godard’s eye to the Danish-born French New Wave icon.

Finally, there’s Criterion’s usual, and typically thoughtful, accompanying booklet, featuring an essay from Richard Brody which suggests that Pierrot le Fou is, in some ways, an impassioned hate letter to Karina that blamed her for interrupting his own dreams of deep artistic exploration. Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it…