DVD of the Week: Pierrot le fou (1965)

I’ve been trying to write out my thoughts about Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) for days, but even after watching the film twice and enjoying all the wonderful extras included with the fantastic new Criterion DVD, I’m finding words inadequate to describe how much I’ve fallen in love with this wonderful movie in so short a time. My love for Pierrot le fou is so fresh, so passionate, so alive and so completely unabashed that I feel a little like a silly schoolgirl with a terrible crush on the cute new boy in class.

I’ve been curious about seeing Pierrot le fou for about 15 years after I came across still shots from the film featuring Jean-Paul Belmondo with his face painted bright blue. I also saw brief clips of the party scene from Pierrot le fou a few years ago in the fascinating Samuel Fuller documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera (Adam Simon; 1996) and became even more intrigued, but for one reason or another I never got around to watching it. I had hoped to attend the theatrical revival of the film last year, but sadly I wasn’t able to. As far as I know Pierrot le fou was never shown in the San Francisco Bay Area last year and the official Janus site seems to confirm this.

Thanks to Criterion’s recent DVD release of Pierrot le fou I was finally able to experience this amazing film for the first time and now I deeply regret not seeing it sooner. Pierrot le fou manages to combine everything I love about my two favorite Godard films (Contempt, 1963 and Week End, 1967) into one brilliant piece of work, while referencing every film the director had made before and predicting many of the more radical films he would make afterward. The basic plot of Pierrot le fou involves an unhappily married man named Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who meets up with an old flame named Marianne (Anna Karina) and the two abandon their old lives and begin a life of violent crime together. Unfortunately their combustible relationship begins to unravel under the stress of life on the run, but between their verbal sparing and love-making the audience is treated to a smart political and social satire with slapstick style comedy and an occasional musical number.

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot le fou borrows elements from classic crime films such as Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948) and Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950), but the film also takes a lot of inspiration from Jean-Luc Godard’s own Breathless (1960). It’s also worth noting that Pierrot le fou pre-dates Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty’s less interesting and more conventional Bonnie and Clyde (1967) by two years. For my money, none of the previously mentioned films come close to matching the offbeat magic conjured up in Pierrot Le fou by Godard and his two incredibly charming stars, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina.

Pierrot le fou combines some of Jean-Luc Godard’s best writing and directing with stunning color photography by Godard’s longtime collaborator Raoul Coutard. The film manages to effortlessly mix comic-book style aesthetics with a painterly eye and the outcome is so wonderfully modern that Pierrot le fou still feels fresh and alive some 45 years after it was made.

Criterion’s magnificent two-disc restored widescreen DVD presentation of Pierrot le fou looks absolutely stunning and it’s loaded with fantastic extras, including a new video interview with actress Anna Karina who’s now 68 years old, and she offers some wonderful insights into the making of the film. The DVD also includes a new video program with audio commentary by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin called A Pierrot Primer, a fascinating fifty-minute French documentary about director Jean-Luc Godard and his personal & working relationship with Anna Karina called Godard, L’Amour, La Poesie, a wonderful archival interview with the young and extremely adorable Jean-Paul Belmondo conducted while he was shooting Pierrot le fou and a brief archival piece about the Venice Film festival in 1965 that features interviews with Godard and Anna Karina. The DVD also contains the original theatrical trailer and a nice booklet with a new essay by critic Richard Brody, a 1969 review by Andrew Sarris and a 1965 interview with Godard. Pierrot le fou retails for $39.95 and it’s currently available from Amazon for $29.95. Criterion has really kicked-started 2008 by releasing some truly wonderful films on NTSC Region 1 DVD in recent weeks and I applaud them for it.

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

If you would like to see more screen shots from the film please see my Pierrot le fou Flickr gallery. I’ve also uploaded the wonderful song Ma ligne de chance that was sung by Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Pierrot le fou for anyone who would like to hear it.

Ma ligne de chance (Anna Karina & Jean-Paul Belmondo)

18 thoughts on “DVD of the Week: Pierrot le fou (1965)

  1. Nice rundown of this film – Belmondo rocks, as usual. One more for the List. This looks like a better transfer than previously available, that’s a big plus. Godard’s most approachable film for me, with great visuals, a good script based a story from Lionel White that was way ahead of its time, and much like real-life crime, nobody gets out alive. I, too always wondered what the blue paint was all about but presumed it was some kind of woad, which it is after all. And it had Belmondo. That was enough.

  2. I’ve never seen this film, but I’ve wanted to. Your review of it definitely has me inspired to see it. I love the pictures that you posted. They look quite beautiful. It does look like it’s a good transfer of the film.

  3. Dear C.B.
    I hope you get a chance to see it in a theater. It has a powerful effect like taking a hallucinogen. But after reading your review I want to get the DVD. I’m really interested in the working relationship of Godard/Karina, they were so unique and so groundbreaking together.

  4. This is still on my “to see” list. I finally caught up with Contempt this year, and Weekend the year before that. Kind of a “one Godard a year” thing. I loved both Weekend and Contempt so I have high hopes for this as well. I think my purely favorite Godard film is still Band of Outsiders though.

  5. Kimberly: as always, you say it so well. I first saw this film when I programmed it at my film series in 1971. A loooooooooong time ago. I haven’t seen it for at least a decade and I can’t wait to see this DVD presentation. I love the LOOK of this film. The red, white and blue color scheme seems to be Godard’s signal that this will be his deconstruction of American cinema (Nick Ray and Sam Fuller) and the US involvement in Viet Nam at the time. He sees the crime film as a way to make another free form essay on genre and politics. Godard said of this film that he wanted it to be about the spaces between objects and people and that’s what it is to a great degree. Everything is very stylized, the ride out of the city represented by lights on the windshield, the elliptical violence, the musical numbers. I’d like to read the Lionel White novel upon which it is based. Godard’s use of the frame is very similar to Sam Fuller’s in presentation a kind of cubist cut up of events and the reorganization of space into an authorial comment on what is being represented. A kind of double vision.

    Just today I picked the Criterion BAND OF OUTSIDERS and the controversial IN PRAISE OF LOVE DVD. My favorite Godard’s are PIERROT LE FOU, ALPHAVILLE, WEEKEND and NOUVELLE VAGUE.
    Thanks for the thoughtful preview.

  6. Vanwall – Thank you! Belmondo is amazing in this and he’s rarely looked better. Together him and Karina make one of my favorite on-screen couples here. The blue war paint was a nice touch and rather perfect. I wouldn’t exactly consider Pierrot le fou to be Godard’s most approachable film though (far from it actually), but it’s interesting that you think it is. I personally think many of earlier efforts and even some of his much later films would be a lot more accessible to the average film viewer.

    Keith – I think you’d find it interesting. It’s worth a look just for the amazing photography!

    Joe – I hope I do too. Now that you mention it, the film does have a very hallucinogenic effect. It’s very avant-garde at times and I loved that aspect of the film. I think you would find Anna Karina’s interview and the documentary about Godard & Karina very interesting. I know I did, and it was nice hearing Karina talk so fondly about Godard. I only wish Godard would have been interviewed about Karina. I’d like to see how he would respond to questions about his long ago muse.

    Jonathan – I think you’d probably like Pierrot le fou a lot. I enjoyed your comment about “one Godard a year” since I can understand that. I’m the type of film viewer who enjoys watching a film multiple times and really taking my time to savior and enjoy everything it has to offer. It makes blogging tough since I tend to need time in-between posts to sort out my thoughts. I can’t understand film viewers who watch more then 4 or 5 films a week. That would be really hard for me to do. Band of Outsiders is really wonderful, but I personally tend to favor Godard’s color films. I think I’m mesmerized by all the lush eye-candy in them.

  7. Robert – Thanks for the positive feedback! I wish I had seen the film sooner, but I’m really thankful that Criterion has released it on DVD. I absolutely love the look of Pierrot le fou as well. I’d like to see Alphaville again since I haven’t seen it in about 20 years, but as I mentioned above, I love the way Godard played with color in the sixties and Contempt and Pierrot le fou really are two of the most remarkable looking films made during that decade. I haven’t seen In Praise of Love yet myself, but I’ve had mixed reactions to the post 80s Godard films I’ve seen. I’d be curious to read your thoughts about the movie.

  8. Kimberly –

    I guess I’m a little quirkier than most – Godard films in general aren’t usually viewed as accessible, it seems, but I connected well with the bright stylized look, and anti-war sentiments were part and parcel of my formative years, so it’s not a hurdle for me at all. Didn’t someone say we covet what we see? 😉 As this was kind of early for the most serious ‘Nam involvement by the USA – it must’ve been filmed in late ’64 or early ’65, so my guess is the Diem assassination and the first real troop build-ups, plus the general anti-imperialist sentiments, were the actual targets, and the Algerian conflict was certainly a main one for the effects on French viewers. I noticed the release date in the US was ’69 – it must’ve seemed like awfully prescient work by Godard – things were beyond control by then. You nailed it with the comic-book esthetic – this is like one big, bright trip with some pretty wacky people thrown in – altho the criminals are hard-core for sure. I love looking at it.

  9. I guess I’m a little quirkier than most

    Indeed, but I like quirky! I’m rather quirky myself. 😉

    I was very surprised by all the references the film made to the Vietnam war. Godard was really years ahead of American filmmakers in that regard, and I’m sure the French experience during/after the Algerian conflict probably made him more aware of some things that hadn’t really hit home yet in the U.S. The more I think about Pierrot le fou, the more I’m knocked out by it. It’s such an amazing film!

  10. The screencaps look really fabulous: the last time I saw the film was on a pretty crummy DVD transfer that I almost felt guilty about watching! I need to get the new version into my Netflix queue to erase the bad taste…

  11. Don’t regret not seeing this sooner, dear. The Fox Lorber disc was totally crappy, with burnt in subtitles and non-anamorphic and so forth. Luckily (for me) I was able to sell mine before this new version came out, which was an answer to my prayers. I wrote Criterion begging them to release Pierrot, and they did! What sublime joy! I could watch this movie endlessly and one day, my obsessive insanity permitting, I will. God bless and keep you, in the future.

  12. Pierrot le Fou really deserved the Criterion release. It is so full, not just in terms of the hectic action, fast-pace references and non-stop genre blending, but also in terms of the colors and visual panache. I got to see the movie on film for a class and I remember being disappointed when I checked out the Lorber DVD later. Not that you could sap the energy of the film even in the poorest transfer. I’m not surprised, either, that the DVD extras or packed as well (there is just so much to be said about the film whether you helped make it or are trying to unravel it) and I’m really excited to check them out. Glad to hear all the enthusiasm!

  13. Love Pierrot! I think My Life to Live may be my favorite (or Band of Outsiders, or A Woman is a Woman, or…) but strictly in terms of striking images Pierrot has them all beat, especially (do I have to call spoiler alert?) the dynamite scene… Also love the Fuller scene at the beginning and the filter stuff… Very vague memory of what happens in between (I remember a lot of driving), which is why it never cracked my top 5, I suppose – it seemed lacking in story or emotional appeal (neither of which would have mattered much to JLG, I guess, at least not in the normal sense of the words). Anyway, I’ve gotta see this new transfer – if only to show myself how wrong I was about this movie (it happened with Band of Outsiders – really didn’t like it at first, but after the second time through it became one of my faves).

    Side note: the French were always politically ahead of the Americans on Vietnam, including the occupying and screwing-it-up bits.

  14. Absolutely among my favorite Godard films. I first saw it via a poor quality VHS copy late at night at a friends apartment in the early nineties and it haunted my dreams for years after until I finally got the original Fox-Lorber dvd.
    I haven’t gotten the Criterion yet but will as soon as I can…the screenshots you posted here are stunning.

  15. Gareth – I hope you get a chance to see the new Criterion presentation of Pierrot le fou! It’s really amazing and considering all the comments that mention how bad the previous Fox-Lorber DVD was, I expect you’ll be able to enjoy the film much more now.

    Erich – Thanks for the nice comment! The film is indeed “sublime joy!”

    Film Walrus – Pierrot le fou is really a “full” film and thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. The extras on the new Criterion DVD are really wonderful!

    Toshi -I think you’ll probably be able to enjoy the film more with the new Criterion transfer, but there is a lot of driving in Pierrot le fou. And your so right about the French being “politically ahead” of Americans in many regards. 😉

    Jeremy – I know you’ll love the new Criterion transfer so I hope you get a chance to see it again. I really think it’s one of Godard’s best films from the sixties. I wish I had seen it sooner, but I’m glad I was able to experience it for the first time in all its Technicolor glory.

  16. Actually, Pierrot played the PFA on 2/15/2007, in a spectacular brand new print … the colors, my god, the colors.

    Be sure to check their new calendar, I’m sure there’s some stuff in the “Clash of 68” series, starting end of March, that you’ll want to see … oh, and the Frank Tashlin series …

  17. Wow, your screenshots are crystal clear. You have made me want to see this again, I really liked it when I saw it some 15 years ago.

  18. My favourite Godard, and one of my all time faves. It’s so rich and full of life, unsentimental yet loving, unpretentious yet thought provoking and intelligent. Love your blog ;

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