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Pierrot le fou

(1965) *** 1/2 Unrated
110 min. Janus Films. Director: Jean-Luc Godard. Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Dirk Sanders (II), Raymond Devos, Graziella Galvani.

/content/films/3579/1.jpg"This isn't a movie," says Marianne, one of Pierrot Le fou's two lovers on the run. But that doesn't stop her from successfully employing, in a fight, a trick learned from Laurel and Hardy, and it doesn't stop her man Ferdinand from acknowledging the audience and talking to the camera. The runaways are the trapped light of cinema, brushstrokes in a painting, words in a poem or novel, and their awareness of life as art is a hopeful response, a rebel yell, in a superficial society and an uncaring world at war. Theirs is, in their own words, "A story," "All mixed up," and their self-construction mimics that of their true Creator, the ever-experimental auteur Jean-Luc Godard.

Godard explained of Pierrot le fou , "My original intention was like that of a painter." In the film's first scene, when Ferdinand Griffon (a.k.a. the crazy Pierrot) reads Elie Faure's take on Velasquez, we immediately understand that Velasquez's concerns are Ferdinand's concerns and Godard's: living in and expressing "what lies between people--space, sound and color." "Space reigns supreme," we're told, but Ferdinand has none of it from within the confines of his polite, stupid bourgeois life. When his wife admires a butt-hugging girdle, Ferdinand replies, "First there was Greek civilization. Then there was the Renaissance. Now we're entering The Age of the Ass." Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) allows himself to be dragged to a party while the conspicuously named Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina) babysits his kids. At the party (which Godard impishly washes with a variety of monochromes), the only conversation of interest comes from American director Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street). Fuller, apparently playing himself, explains, "Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word: Emotions."

Godard's own emotions while embarking on Pierrot le fou were explosive: panic that he had no idea what he was doing, and the residual pain and anger of his recently failed marriage to Karina. So when Ferdinand returns home from the party early and alone and offers his one-time lover Marianne a ride home, we're not too surprised when the film becomes an absurdist road movie, a journey of self-creation and self-destruction. As an unemployed TV industry hack, Ferdinand hungers to write something of significance, and his crazy love for Marianne inspires him to dive into journal writing that yields philosophical and poetic results. For her part, Marianne is an adventure junkie, little bothered by the murder she commits and the mortal threat of the mobsters to whom she is mysteriously tied. For Pierrot le fou is, at its most basic narrative level, a crime story. Godard took as his starting point the crime novel Obsession by American writer Lionel White. Its Lolita-esque tale of an older man obsessed by his babysitter and pulled into a life of crime ultimately becomes only the skeletal framework for the filmmaker to go on an existential meander that is pure Godard.

Godard is ineluctably heady, his searching intellect gathering in artful illusions and giving voice to warring philosophies in a running debate on existence. Godard is equally instinctive: despite his professed love of the obsessively prepared Hitchcock, Godard preferred to gather the elements he needed (locations, sets, costumes) and then work as spontaneously as possible, providing actors with script pages he had written the previous night. One can feel Godard's restless creativity in every scene. Take the nighttime driving scene with its figure-eight of primary colored streetlights providing the illusion of movement, and the conspicuous technique of playing much of the "getting to know you" conversation in reaction shots instead of focusing on whomever is speaking. (The brilliant photography owes to cinematographer Raoul Coutard.) Without question, Godard's films—Pierrot le fou included—can be maddening and messy, but no one can deny they are pure expressions of the director's blazing intelligence, resourcefulness and artistry. One can't call Godard pretentious, as he never pretends: he's the real deal, his cinematic arguments echoing in the mind long after their ends.

Godard's 1965 film anticipates Bonnie and Clyde, a beneficiary of the French New Wave's first-wave artistic incursions. But Godard hopefully mocks the world's violence, standing aloof from it instead of allowing it its power. Enraged by the war, Godard has Ferdinand and Marianne perform for tourists vaudevilles on the violence of Vietnam, and its anonymous deaths tallied in the name of imperialism (such political statements come, of course, from casual urban murderers). Godard's extreme frustration at war, the death by a thousand cuts of bourgeois society, and man's inhumanity to man (and, more bitterly, Godard's perception of woman's inhumanity to man) arrives at an inescapable destination: the self. Though society has divided him ("A person should feel like he's one individual. I feel like I'm many different people"), Pierrot eventually concludes, "We have come to the age of man and his double. We no longer need mirrors to talk to ourselves." Poe's tale of man and his double, "William Wilson," concludes with the line "In me didst thou exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself." In the self-portrait that is Pierrot le fou, Godard does the same, blowing up his cinema and forcing himself to start anew.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: French LPCM Mono

Street date: 9/22/2009

Distributor: Criterion Collection

Criterion gives Pierrot le fou its Blu-ray debut (and a concurrent DVD reissue) in a beautiful new hi-def transfer approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. The original 35mm negative is the source, cleaned up and color-corrected to preserve the film's original brilliance. The spotless and fantastically detailed result retains a film-like appearance while banishing any distracting digital artifacts. It's impossible to imagine a better image than this one, which easily trumps any previous issue on home video. Sound is LPCM 2.0 Mono, a faithful and pleasing presentation that also derives from a painstakingly cleaned-up source: as such, dialogue and music come through with excellent clarity.

Criterion's always fascinating collection of special features here begins with "Anna Karina" (14:55, HD), a 2007 interview in which the actress recalls working with Godard, and Pierrot le fou in particular.

Those baffled by the film will enjoy the provocative challenges laid down by filmmaker and educator Jean-Pierre Gorin (Tout va bien) in "A Pierrot Primer" (36:00, HD), his analytical commentary on Godard's film. Gorin plays and pauses scenes as he delivers his informal and thoughtful lecture.

An excerpt from a 1965 episode of the TV program Panorama, "Belmondo in the Wind" (9:21, HD) features interviews with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Luc Godard, and Karina, conducted during production of Pierrot le fou.

"Venice Film Festival, 1965" (3:59, HD) is a 1965 French TV news segment featuring interviews with Godard and Karina at the Venice Film Festival.

Godard, L'Amour, La Poésie (52:59, HD) explores Godard and Karina's collaboration in marriage and cinema. A history liberally illustrated with still images and location photography, Luc Lagier's film also includes interviews with Godard and Karina collaborators Charles Bitsch, Raoul Coutard, Jean Douchet and Jean-Paul Savignac.

Last up is the film's "Trailer" (2:07, HD).

A 48-page booklet accompanying the disc offers an essay by critic William Brody, Andrew Sarris' 1969 review of the film, and an invaluable 1965 Cahiers du cinéma interview with Godard.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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