Review: Pierrot Le Fou

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Based on a novel by: Lionel White
Producer: Georges De Beauregard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina
Year: 1965
Country: France
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 105 min

After offering up my unwatched DVD list to Row Three last week for suggestions I decided to begin my viewing quest by breaking open my Goddard box-set. This was due to Goddard provoking the most debate and the fact that I’ve had the set for about a year without watching any of them. I’d love to start with titles like Moon and Let The Right One In, but I bought them a couple of weeks ago and it didn’t seem fair to the rest of the titles. So Pierrot Le Fou it was.

I’m ashamed to say it, but I’ve seen very little of Godard’s work. Before now all I’d seen was Sympathy For The Devil, which I didn’t think much to at all. It had some nice shots and some of the scenes of the Rolling Stones in the studio were interesting, but overall I found it tediously repetitive and pretentious. Due to this I was pretty hesitant in popping another Godard film into my player but I’d heard enough praise to give him a second chance, and for the most part I was glad I did.

Pierrot Le Fou is not a film largely concerned with plot, but the story follows Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) as he leaves his bourgeoisie lifestyle and wife behind him to go on the run with ex-lover, Marianne. The couple somehow get involved in murder and arms-dealing along the way as well as spending some time alone on an uninhabited island. Eventually though it all comes crashing down and the road trip ends in disaster.

It’s a film that is often nonsensical and I found myself scratching my head in bemusement at times, but that’s all part of it’s charm. Godard is clearly having a lot of fun, messing with the audience as much as possible. The film jumps from genre to genre including several musical sections and lots of spins on the crime thriller. This was really what drew me into the film, it’s playfulness and total disregard for the standard rules of filmmaking. Unfortunately it also made the film quite frustrating at times, regularly going off on a tangent with little or no explanation, but I gather that’s what Godard likes to do a lot of the time. It feels like a big jumble of ideas, but the fact that it never takes itself too seriously and the charisma of the two stars holds the whole experience together.

On a visual level the film is stunning. I’m glad the DVD had a decent transfer because the colours are incredibly vivid and the proper ratio is adhered to, allowing the beauty of Raoul Coutard’s camerawork to be shine through. There’s a great use of peculiar detail in Godard’s frames too, with a fine example being the dead body in Marianne’s room early on in the film. This is just laid on the bed and is totally unexplained, creating a wonderful sense of confusion, unease and surreal comedy. Speaking of which, the film as whole is still quite amusing after all these years, with the running gag of Marianne constantly referring to Ferdinand as Pierrot keeping me chuckling right through to the end. It’s the shear ballsiness that made me laugh most of all though as the film bobs and weaves around the audience’s expectations.

All that praise aside I still had problems with the film. It sagged a little for me towards the latter third when it all calmed down a bit too much. I think I enjoyed the playfulness more than the content of the film itself and when this was less prevalent I felt a bit bored. My main issue was with some of the dialogue; much of this is made up of Ferdinand spouting poetry, which just grew irritating after a while, slowing down the pace and proving hard to take in effectively through regularly changing subtitles.

I’m still glad I finally gave Godard a second chance though. From reading up on his work I imagine he’s quite a frustrating filmmaker to follow, with many experiments going wrong and his politics taking over in later years. Still, with work this vibrant and enjoyable under his belt I’ll certainly be moving through the rest of my box-set sooner rather than later.

David Brook
RowThree's UK correspondent.