Bored with his bourgeois lifestyle, Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) leaves his wife and elopes with his babysitter, Marianne (Anna Karina), who infuriatingly nicknames him “Pierrot le fou.” Their freewheeling, crime-fuelled love affair goes awry when a dead body is found in Marianne’s apartment, whereupon the couple flee to the South of France to elude some pursuing gangsters. Hiding out on an island on the Côte d’Azur, Ferdinand is content to read and write poetry, but Marianne grows restless and eventually sets off to find her gun-running brother. Pursuing her, Ferdinand stumbles onto another mysterious dead body, whereupon two violent gangsters arrive on the scene searching for Marianne…
A simple synopsis does not do justice to this magical masterwork by Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most revolutionary, artistically ambitious movies ever made. Based very loosely on “Obsession”, a pulp thriller by novelist Lionel White, Pierrot le fou was originally intended to be a modest low-budget homage to the American gangster film with movie mogul Dino DeLaurentiis on board for international distribution. But the ever restless and innovative Godard cast off even those thin shreds of noir pastiche that marked À bout de souffle (1959), and made most it up on the fly utilising his own fertile imagination and the improvisational skills of the incomparable Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina.
He signals his artistic intentions right off the bat with the opening voiceover that cites the painter Velasquez, whose career progressed away from portraying specific things towards conveying impressions, insights, ideas. As Ferdinand strolls nonchalantly through the chic, yet intellectually stifling dinner party - his one satisfying moment being an encounter with Hollywood director and Nouvelle Vague hero Samuel Fuller (supposedly in town to film Baudelaire’s “Flowers of Evil”), who delivers his famous “film is a battleground” quote - the lush, Techniscope frame is tinted blue, white and red, the French tricoleur. This is alluded to again near the end where Ferdinand presages his climactic act of explosive rebellion by painting his face blue: the colour of freedom. Rather like 8½ (1963), Pierrot le fou is a film about restlessness, about escaping ennui and the banalities of life via anarchy and rebellion, and maybe producing beautiful, life-changing art along the way.
Some interpret the film as being directly allegorical about where Godard’s feelings were at, at the time. Imagine Pierrot/Ferdinand’s Italian wife embodying the constricting commercial filmmaking scene embodied by Dino DeLaurentiis; Anna Karina the anarchic yet artistically fulfilling Nouvelle Vague; Samuel Fuller the voice of pop cultural inspiration; and Belmondo, the restless, conflicted artist with his head in the clouds. Yet the film is more far reaching than that.
What Godard sets out to do is tackle every question he has ever had about cinema, politics, Marxism, literature and pop culture, using his dazzling bricolage editing to punctuate the narrative with images from classical painting, comic books and pop art. Characters spout slogans, quote poetry, philosophy and advertising jingles. His renowned jump-cut technique is taken even further. Now whole scenes go missing and we find ourselves slipped forwards, backwards, sideways in time, until all appears like a dream. Interestingly, where a modern day avant-garde artist would be looking to provoke with repulsive images, aside from a handful of gory murders, Godard keeps the screen awash with beauty. From the painterly images conjured by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, the eye-popping décor and effortlessly chic outfits sported by the stars, to the achingly lovely Anna Karina - an alluring, ethereal femme fatale - less human, more a force of nature.
It is also, given its reputation as such a conceptually dense and intellectually challenging film, incredibly funny. How can you not laugh when the waiflike Karina punches out men twice her size, Belmondo impersonates an old geezer, or the pair re-enact Laurel and Hardy routines and get all their criminal ideas from a children’s book? Dramatic music drops in and out whenever something “thrilling” occurs, Belmondo playfully breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, and there are deliciously absurd lines (“It’s a good thing I don’t like spinach, because if I did, I’d eat it and I can’t stand the stuff”), scene-stealing oddballs (a Lynchian dwarf (Jimmy Karoubi) gabbing away on his oversized walkie-talkie; the man by the port (Raymond Devos) who delivers an hilarious anecdote about a song he once loved but now drives him crazy), and extraordinary diversions. Karina gets two unexpectedly charming musical numbers, Godard interviews extras on his own film and at one point the movie looks poised to jump into the beach party genre when Marianne cavorts beside a gang of gun-toting beach bunny acolytes (loving Karina’s stripy shorts and sea captain’s hat!). Blink and you’ll miss a cameo from Jean-Pierre Leaud at the cinema where Ferdinand also glimpses Jean Seberg onscreen.
As Antoine Duhamel’s simultaneously ominous and seductive score wafts amidst images of clear-blue waters and primal forests wherein the lovers cavort with animals like a latter-day Adam and Eve (in scenes foreshadowing Badlands (1973), the film proves equally sensual as intellectually playful. Nowhere more so than when Karina scandalously beckons: “Baise-moi!” before the beach-lounging lovers emerge naked beneath heaps of sand.
In addition to his usual pot-shots at America’s involvement in the Vietnam war (with Ferdinand and Marianne portraying caricatures of an American gangster and Vietcong guerrilla to infuriate a group of tourists), Godard revisits another favourite theme: the incompatibility of the sexes. Though drawn together by physical attraction and biological need, Ferdinand is an idealist, an intellectual taken with abstract notions. He impulsively burns their stolen loot, figuring perhaps that money ties you down, while Marianne despairs for what they could have done with that cash. For she is of the earth, uneducated, but a sensualist, who lives for what she can see, hear and touch. Although his archetypes bear traces of Sixties sexism, Godard’s outlook is not quite so misogynistic. For as Marianne eloquently observes: “You speak to me of words and I look at you with feelings.” After all, she is Marianne - the woman of liberty, icon of the French Revolution. Radicals since time immemorial have envisioned revolution as a woman, but like the revolution, this woman moves on.
Godard acknowledges Pierrot/Ferdinand’s suicidal rebellion is an absurdly pretentious act (and possibly a homage to Looney Tunes? Check out those cartoon-sized sticks of dynamite…), but implies the pair have transcended their banal fates to become truly existential, disembodied presences. Which underlines how a movie full of murder, betrayal and death, is so weirdly whimsical and life-affirming.