Describing Jean-Luc Godard’s output in the 1960s as prolific would be an understatement. From his 1960 debut feature film A Bout De Souffle, he produced a wealth of experimental, groundbreaking and kitsch films often highlighting political stances and reveling in absurd visual eccentricities. One of the many highlights from this creative storm is his one of his many crime films; 1965’s Pierrot Le Fou. Though crime was often a common subject matter for the director, he often looked at it as a means to an end, allowing relatively straightforward stories to be launching pads for deconstructing the genre, paying homage to his film noir heroes and even questioning the very nature of cinema itself.
Pierrot Le Fou does all of this and much more. A simple story of a man who runs away with an old flame to find that she’s on the run from gangsters is turned completely on its head to attack everything from the bourgeoisie lifestyle to the Vietnam War. Pierrot is stuck in an easy lifestyle having married a rich Italian woman. His life is the epitome of everything he despises and the banality of it all manifests itself at a party where he’s pushed over the edge and leaves for home.
Even something as simple as a party is given a multitude of messages and extra meaning. More than most films, Pierrot Le Fou uses colour to say as much about the ethos of the film as the dialogue. While at the party, different moods are hinted at and re-enforced by colour filters on different scenes which change with fast jump cuts to dizzying effects. The babysitter for the night is girl from his past called Marianne Renoir who is on the run from a group of gun runners. Running away with her he turns to a surreal life of crime.
The film has the feel of Bonnie and Clyde, yet its visual experimentation heightens it and lifts it far higher than just from just another gangster film. Godard is using it a vehicle to destroy the typical narrative functions of film and replace with a more free form approach. Pierrot and Marianne resort to a life of crime to get by and soon after they run away, the viewer is introduced to a flat where they’re staying. However this flat is not only filled with guns but is also occupied by a dead man who has been stabbed to death with scissors. What could be a dark scene is juxtaposed by the film turning out a musical number where the characters sing their conversation rather than simply speak it. This is something that happens several times throughout the film, each time more surreal than the last.
Double crossings start to occur and characters betray each other but it really is secondary to the visual rhythms of the film. A hostile situation is shot with a point of view angle giving the scene a dream like quality, while the violence seems more cartoon than realistic. The cartoon element is further emphasised by the colour palette which is bright and constantly changing depending on where the couple is geographically.
The film builds more and more on its surreal elements until it’s not really clear where it’s going. A retreat to the sunny countryside is interrupted by Marianne being bored but they instead decide to put on a play for some American soldiers and make some money re-enacting the Vietnam War in a two man play. Later on Pierrot randomly sits on a train track as a train hurtles towards him for no specific reason other than to by an annoyance.
Like its use of colour, the film plays around with music too so it becomes more than just a soundtrack. Music cuts out and in, making it extremely hard to define whether the characters are hearing what we are or not. Music that is mixed as a normal soundtrack is, cuts out when Pierrot gets out of his car implying that he was listening to it too even though it didn’t fit in with the aural landscape making it seem constantly evolving and unpredictable.
Ignoring its unintentionally comic ending, Pierrot Le Fou is one of Godard’s strongest works. Its balance between homage, narrative and surrealism allow it to project its political and artistic messages clearly without the burden of having to stick to the rules of a rigid and solidified reality.