I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Pierrot le Fou: An Education in color

by Thomas Michalski
Oct. 5, 2011

While 1965’s Pierrot le Fou (“Pierrot Goes Wild” or “Crazy Pete”) is not Jean-Luc Godard’s first color film, a distinction belonging 1961’s Une Femme est une femme (“ A Woman is a Woman”), it is still early enough in his career to find the director eagerly exploring a palette freed from the narrow spectrum of black, white and shades of gray. Godard drapes every surface in washed out primary colors; blues, reds, yellows and white, giving the film the feel of a sun-faded De Stijl painting. But of course, even by this point, such audacious stylization would not have surprised anyone familiar with the French New Wave filmmaker’s idiosyncratic, proto-pop art work. This was, after all, the man who had transformed the jump cut from a jarring flaw into a no less jarring legitimate cinematic technique.

But Godard does more here than saturate the frame with color, he saturates every image, every word of dialogue, every gesture, with meaning and connotation, until it becomes so heavy with thought that the viewer must abandon rational interpretation and simply let the juxtapositions and impressions wash over them. Comic Books, film posters, newsreels, snatches from famous books, music and camera motions cribbed from (or at least inspired by) classic Hollywood, all of them gel to form a heady mixture of ideas and feeling.

This is in part why so many people, then and now, tend to deride Godard for making no sense, or even being some sort of a put on. Of course, it also doesn’t help that the plot is more or less peripheral, merely a rough framework for the actors (Godard regular John-Paul Belmondo and the director’s then-wife Anna Karina)to improvise around. In about as much detail as the film itself provides, Belmondo plays Ferdinand, a bored, frustrated, unemployed father and husband who is reunited with an old flame, Marianne, when his wife unknowingly hires her as a babysitter. It as it this point that Ferdinand, whom Marianne incessantly calls Pierrot for no reason whatsoever, discovers that she is now a gun runner and fugitive from Algerian gangsters (or at least something to that effect). With their passion reignited, or at least their quest for some kind of passion, they set of in a stolen car, headed for nowhere in particular, forced eventually to confront their pursuers and ultimately each other.

But if many people did not understand, there were certainly those who heralded Godard as an innovator and visionary. The film won the critic’s prize at the 1965 Venice Film Festival and was named the number one film of the year by Godard’s old employer, the Cahiers du cinema. Not only was it celebrated by the establishment, he also struck a chord with audiences who, at the time, saw viewing foreign films “a mark of sophistication and urbanity”, as the New York Times Dave Kehr points out, “Any reasonably well-read adult of the late 1960s would have been familiar with the accomplishments of the French New Wave.”

But of course, like much of Godard’s work, the film is not only about the troubled, funny relationship between two people, but is in fact about film itself. Notoriously self-reflexive, Godard packs the film with references to his craft and slyly points out the film’s artifice. Early on, when Ferdinand’s wife complains about him allowing the regular babysitter to skip out to the movies, he replies, “Of course I did, they’re showing Johnny Guitar. Good for her education -- there are too many idiots running around.” Later, he runs into American director Sam Fuller (as himself) at a party, who enlightens him by stating that, “A film is like a battleground. Love, hate, action, violence, death, in one word: emotion.” Even acclaimed cinematographer László Kovács makes an inexplicable appearance, also playing himself. Employing one of his favorite tricks, Godard has Ferdinand break the fourth wall; after speaking directly to the camera, Marianne says, “Who are you talking to?” to which Ferdinand matter-of-factly answers, “The audience”.

Despite the lack of a concrete plot, the film is about something, namely the dehumanization of individuals by governments and war, and the role violence plays in struggling out of that trap. Gladly, though, the film is a few years removed from the era where Godard’s politics seemed to overshadow his artistic skill. There’s not a heavy hand to be found here, only humor and eye-dazzling images, that, who knows, just might even be good for your education.

  1. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19661010/REVIEWS/908240301

  2. http://articles.latimes.com/2007/aug/06/entertainment/et-weekmovies6

  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/26/movies/homevideo/26dvds.html

  4. http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=7548

Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/