Released in the midst of the incredibly prolific beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s career — it was his tenth full-length film in only six years — Pierrot Le Fou is a vibrant, frenetic and extremely personal work that both mirrors and stands in contrast to much of his earlier output. It fits comfortably within the style-redefining French New Wave approach that Godard helped pioneer and popularize, but it’s far less genre-dependent than many of the films he made before it.
Propelled by a smattering of abrupt, intercut images and one of the most vivid color palettes ever committed to celluloid, Pierrot Le Fou is pure cinematic poetry. In many ways, it’s a bookend to Godard’s breakout debut, Breathless, with the plot centering on a couple on the lam, but the striking imagery and less-focused structure reveal Pierrot Le Fou to be a different kind of Godard film.
Jean-Paul Belmondo, who starred as the roguish Michel Poiccard in Breathless, is Ferdinand, a character who might seem to be a domesticated version of the free-spirited thief in that previous filmic incarnation. A philosopher at heart, Ferdinand is discontented with his no-nonsense wife and the bourgeoisie lifestyle he’s slipped into. The two attend a cocktail party, and he can hardly stand the banality of it all, and when he comes home to find the babysitter is his ex-lover Marianne (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife and muse), he takes off with her.
It doesn’t take long for Ferdinand to discover Marianne’s gotten mixed up with the wrong people, including some gangsters. They flee Paris for the French Riviera, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. It’s not exactly the adventure Ferdinand was looking for. Marianne calls him Pierrot, much to his chagrin, and the two find little satisfaction in their lifestyle.
The film is clearly personal for Godard, primarily with the disintegrating and disappointing relationship at the center of the film between Ferdinand and Marianne. Godard and Karina’s marriage was similarly on the rocks, and the two would divorce shortly after the film’s release. Karina, who was starring in her sixth Godard film in five years, was the muse that reflected the state of their relationship on the screen, and the literally explosive ending to Pierrot Le Fou seems to suggest a similar event taking place in real life.
Godard is known for making his films up as he goes along, and Pierrot Le Fou certainly has that unhinged sensibility going for it. No one would suggest Godard to be a conventional storyteller, and Pierrot is probably less narrative-driven than any of his previous work. Its episodic structure provides glimpses into life — exaggerated, even cartoonish at points — but life nonetheless. Despite some of its darker themes, it’s an undeniably romantic and vibrant piece of filmmaking, and it stands tall among a career full of highlights.
The Blu-ray Disc
Pierrot Le Fou is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It’s the first Godard film to be presented in high definition, and it’s a natural choice with its stunning array of primary colors. Pierrot is one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve ever seen, and Criterion’s high def restoration of the picture is a marvel to behold.
Forget that this film was made more than 40 years ago — the picture quality certainly won’t give it away. The primary reds, blues and yellows, seen in everything from face paint to dynamite, leap off the screen, contrasting strongly with the scene around them. Fine detail is constantly present and picture sharpness is superb, but you’ll be hard-pressed to take your eyes of the full-on assault of color.
The transfer was approved by Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard, and looks incredibly clean with nary a speck of dirt or debris to be found. Only a small scratch at the top of the frame in one of the final scenes can be seen, but overall, it’s another wonderful restoration from Criterion.
The audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, and it’s a clean, pristine track with no occurrence of hissing or crackle.
There are some excellent supplements to be found on the disc, the strongest of which is Godard, l’amour, la poésie, a nearly hour-long documentary by Luc Lagier about Godard and Karina’s relationship and the films they made together, tracing them from A Woman is a Woman to Pierrot Le Fou. The piece doesn’t speak about Pierrot much, but it provides much fascinating context to the pair using stills, film clips and interviews from Karina and some of Godard’s closest colleagues.
Also included are archival interviews with Godard, Karina and Belmondo, a fairly recent video interview with Karina and A Pierrot Primer, which offers selected commentary for some of the film from filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin. The theatrical trailer and a booklet containing several essays and a 1965 Cahiers du Cinéma interview with Godard round out the extras.
The Bottom Line
Pierrot Le Fou is essential viewing for fans of Godard and the French New Wave, and it’s Criterion Blu-ray presentation is a revelation.