(Jean-Luc Godard, France/Italy, 1965) 110 minutes


Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: Georges de Beauregard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Based on the novel Obsession by Lionel White
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Editor: Francoise Colin
Sound: Rene Levert
Music: Antoine Duhamel
Jean-Paul Belmondo (Ferdinand)
Anna Karina (Marianne)
Dirk Sanders (Frank, Marianne's brother)
Raymond Devos (Man on the pier)
Graziella Galvani (Ferdinand's wife)
Dwarf: Jimmy Karoubi
Samuel Fuller (Himself)
Jean-Pierre Leaud (Young man in cinema)

Reviews and notes

'Put a tiger in my tank' says Belmondo to an outraged Esso pump attendant... and the voyage begins. PIERROT LE FOU was a turning-point in Godard's career, the film in which he tried to do everything (and almost succeeded). It's the tragic tale of a last romantic couple fleeing Paris for the South of France. But then again it's a painting by Velazquez (says Godard); or the story of a bourgeois hubby eloping with the babysitter; a musical under the high-summer pine trees; or a gangster story (with Karina the moll and Belmondo the sucker). She was never more cautious about her love; he was never more drily self-aware; and the film agonises for two hours over a relationship that is equal parts nonsense and despair. In desperation he finally kills her and himself while the camera sweeps out over a majestic Mediterranean sea. And a voice mockingly asks: "Eternity? No, it's just the sun and the sea".
- Chris Auty, Time Out Film Guide.

Twenty-five years on [in 1990], PIERROT LE FOU remains fresh, lively and very poignant; no masterpiece, but a titivating cine-salad of fiction, lyrical-narrative poem, digressions, discursions, and formal fiddle-faddle... The story is a suite of sketches; the ideas range from exquisite to idiotic, but the assemblage achieves something between pop-art tragedy and modernist belles-lettrism, a la Queneau. Its narrative 'fragmentation' is almost as widely understandable as, say, pop lyrics which, well before the Stones and Dylan, subordinated narrative to oblique fragments, lyrical feeling, fantastication (the lovers' indifference to the body on the bed), and zany obscurities. The problem is not form or mode, but the highbrow and wildly variable quality of Godard's ideas. Here the ratio of gems (like Ferdinand's death) to clinkers (like picking 'vie' out of 'Riviera') is about 1:10, high by Godard's standards, rewarding by anybody's; as he rightly said, audiences placidly tolerate dull or dumb bits if a film is generally congenial and intermittently exciting.

PIERROT LE FOU certainly suits some prevalent sentimentalities. The tale itself is Godard's Ur-myth: spiritually orphaned youth touchingly gropes for authenticity and worthwhile purpose against a system in which 90 per cent of people are crass, craven, callous, vile or zombified. As in Breathless, it's slotted into a noir formula (doomed lovers on the run, mutual double-cross, etc.), dear to an art-house public rather younger than say, Bergman's or Resnais'. In PIERROT LE FOU, the ritual unfolds, not in a 40s noir-scape but a 60s one, with anarcho-affluence (it's a Riviera hippiedom-road movie), feminism (Karina as sensual child of nature, like Vadim's - and Simone de Beauvoir's - Bardot), and the rising tide of political moralism.

Breathless was realistic (arguably neo-realistic); PIERROT LE FOU is Romantic. Breathless was morally pessimistic and judgmental, its first and last words being con (for the hero) and degueulasse (for the heroine). PIERROT LE FOU is so tender and indulgent that many critics took it as semi-metaphorical of his marriage. The Belmondo of Breathless asserted his private morality by living an action myth ('Bogey'), while Seberg preferred long-life plans (Faulkner). Here, contrariwise, it's the man who reflects and writes, the woman who's sensual and active. But if Breathless is about morality, PIERROT LE FOU is about knowledge - sensation. Ferdinand seeks to know, to 'comprehend', in one perfect harmony, his mind, the moment, and the woman. Marianne seeks another kind of 'fusion' with the world: involvement, stimulus, as selfish, treacherous, violent as impulse/instinct. He's so perfectionist, she's so fickle. Maybe her 'quest' is as pure, purist, demanding, as his; the synthesis of her action and his reflection would be the Art of Samuel Fuller. They're equally reckless, imprudent idealists, not in the moral sense, but as philosophical sensationalists. Each seeks some fusion of self and world, like blue sea and blue sky melting the horizon line (Scope wonderfully serves this film).

By story and rumination, PIERROT LE FOU links 'sensationalism' with modern worries about the "space between people" (a recurrent phrase), 'space' within consciousness (reflection/feeling/action), and the 'space' between l'amour fou and horse-sense. A sense of 'space between' links the opening talk about Velazquez and the parting benediction by Rimbaud. There's a chain of minds in Ferdinand's infant daughter listening to Faure's interpretation of Velazquez's depiction of a political-paranoid space, which the painter's mind, by beauty, transforms and transcends. Rimbaud turned from writing (Ferdinand's hobby) to gun-running (Marianne's game). His poetry was Symbolist, i.e., devoted to mental sensations, which - however elusive, exquisite, transcendental - were felt to contain, to subsume, the world; so that reality was only aesthetic and aesthetics was the deepest reality.

Ferdinand and Marianne seek, not thus to subsume (supersede) the external world, but to comprehend it, that is, they retain a sense of reality. But the film's panoply of quotations, allusions, parodies, etc., aestheticises reality out of itself, into reality in quotes. It's a short slide from the Symbolist replacement of 'reality' by private mental sensations, to the Structuralist demotion of 'reality' by public textuality. In PIERROT LE FOU, Godard stands on the slippery slope between. He settles for an aestheticisation of reality (abandoning his, always desultory, flirtations with the human sciences); he loathes consumerist aestheticisation (Ferdinand's wife's invisible panty-girdle); he hasn't yet adopted the politicisation whereby all reality, internal and external, is ideologically prescribed.

PIERROT LE FOU's undermining, or 'over-writing', of its realist aspects involves paintings, allusions, anecdotes, close-ups of writing, chronological jump-abouts, a narrative so abstract, arbitrary and genre-prescribed that its mechanics are just scribbled or junked. Marianne's surname; the book Ferdinand totes everywhere (the 1908 Pieds Nickeles comic-strip, in coffee-table reprint); cinema-verite-formats, always framing untrustworthy or whimsical things; Demy's Lola-type coincidences-around-the-globe; the pet fox and parrot evoking Bardot's animal apanages; and two friendly tilts at Truffaut: Karina's presumably parodic rendition of a Moreau song from Jules et Jim, and Raymond Devos' 'turn', taking off the sensible bourgeois passer-by in Tirez sur le pianiste. The clip of Seberg with cine-camera comes from Le Grand Escroc. Thanks to Picasso's blue-period clowns ('Pierrots'), Ferdinand painting his face blue expresses his demoralised assent to Marianne's nickname for him. (Their tussle over her, affectionate-or-destructive name, is a nice case of labelling theory; she 'texualises' him).

With so many 'inserts', the film resembles what Eisenstein called a "montage of attractions" - a variety programme of 'turns' whose diversely stylised modes and tones collide with each other. The main story oscillates between a sort of Modesty Blaise mode - a film meant to look as playfully unreal as a comic-strip, while duly critical of its heroes - and Godard's derisive mode, a compost of homage, satire, loathing, Tati-esque comedy, 'straight' ideas executed badly (not always through lack of interest), and crashing banalities. In which context some rather academic shots (blue sea, windscreen-reflections, neon) ring out like suddenly discovered beauty. The main story lives only by courtesy of its stars. Karina is as bonily sad as a Dreyer but vogueish-perfidious with it. Belmondo's pug face, saucer eyes and gangling limbs bristle with tender-insolent fatalism.

Velazquez space is verbally described within the, quite different, bathroom space: at once open-transgressive (daddy nude) yet as opulent-stifling as the wife's screen-blocking red skirt. The 'formalist' passages, like the title card whose letters fade up in alphabetical - not text - order, and the bursts of cut-ins, generate a sense of ominous arbitrariness, like destiny/fate; they're not alienation effects, they're Greek chorus effects. Beautiful, too, some bursts of 'antiphonal narration', with the lovers' voices splitting sentences, to narrate their own tale in the third person. It chimes in with consciousness being isolated, sundered, yet yearning for 'non-logical' union. Several voice-overs set words drifting, as if between three dots, i.e., conjoined and de-syntaxed. The formalism turns to the Symbolist pole (Rimbaud/ Mallarme), not the formalist (Barthes), in the sense that the form proposes a new, uncoded 'sensation/meaning'; it's not about the negation of some old code, or the subversion/transgression of a dubious entity labelled 'bourgeois ideology', or some new, ideology-free, language.

Story-wise, PIERROT LE FOU is clearly shot 'running on empty', though shored up by the enormous clippings file in Godard's head, and reconstructed in the editing room. Its popularity encouraged the freer association-cum-collage-cum-cut-up methods that had moved in from the avant-garde film to the big-star art movie. Useful aids to thought, they can badly mislead, for they generate 99 banal or cliche-reshuffling ideas for every poetic one, or keep paraphrasing the same rigid patterns ('free' association is useful to psychoanalysts because it's so tightly tied to obsessions otherwise meaningless). PIERROT LE FOU's (Decadent) Modernism sinks to long passages worthy of Edward D. Wood Jnr. and vapid diatribes about the modern world's lack of moral fibre, and though it helps develop modernism in movies it also degrades it, away from the tightly sensitive 'free form' of, say, Varda's Opera-Mouffe (1958) and Cleo de 5 a 7 (1963).

Albeit PIERROT LE FOU suggests a 'montage of attractions', a myth-cut-myth dialectic, it's actually only a scrapbook. Intriguing collisions abound, but mostly they're 'exquisite', like the lettrist spots, or restricted to literary-rhetorical topics. In particular, the lovers-on-the-run myth, the Edenic love idyll, are pseudo-myths, that is, ideas we can feel pleasantly sad about because we don't believe them. To that extent, it doesn't matter what genre myth you start from, it's where you go with it. Godard stalls, by his grasshopper-mind tendencies, his impatient bluffs and, that most grievous of radica1 sins, heavy pre-manipulation, averting sophisticated contradiction, Who wouldn't prefer beautiful and stylish Karina's twinges of politically correct compassion to these brutishly chortling Americans? Who wouldn't agree with her killing a nasty law-breaking midget who's threatened to torture her? It's sheer melodrama; what collision between real myths, between 'seriously serious' ideas, is there?

PIERROT LE FOU's second-hand reality authentically reproduces some perennial features of thought, which 60s culture intensified, as its education and media explosions promised to eclipse, to smother, direct experience under experience impoverished by texts. For example: Marianne leaves a trail of corpses without smudging her eyeliner, but inveighs against the crass masses for seeing pictures of Vietnam victims without 'reading' them as real people, who are capable of real choices like, she says, whether to go to the pictures. As a double-edged irony it's vintage Godard, and presumably he spotted it. PIERROT LE FOU works on a major aspect of 60s culture shock: the information explosion giving a whole generation unprecedentedly excellent and wide-spread education in both art and atrocity, in philosophical sensationalism and schizo-indifference. So if PIERROT LE FOU, on major issues, is only a scrapbook, juxtaposition without much montage between truths, it achieves a potent atmospheric. And if it's a curate's egg - 'excellent in parts' - that's still a petit maitrise.
- Raymond Durgnat, Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1990.

Weblink: Review by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, October 10, 1966

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