A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)


Roger Ebert did something critics seldom do: He changed his opinion of a movie. (Think about it: How many of us would like to be held to our original opinions of some films that were fun to watch the first time but haven't held up -- like, say, Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995) or Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)?) Ebert gave Pierrot le Fou three and a half stars when he reviewed it in 1966, lauding Godard's "virtuoso display of his mastery of Hollywood genres." But in 2007, reviewing a re-release of the film, he reduced the assessment to two and a half stars: "I now see it," he wrote, "as the story of silly characters who have seen too many Hollywood movies." I think my opinion of the film might have been the reverse of Ebert's: If I had seen it 20 or 30 years ago, I might have dismissed it as a pretentious and arty example of the French New Wave at its worst, mixing silly antics with facile social and political satire. Instead, it now strikes me as a brilliant deconstruction of Hollywood film noir, gangster movies, and romantic adventure, almost perverse in its opening up of the traditional claustrophobic black-and-white atmosphere of noir with its bright wide-screen Eastmancolor images. And without Pierrot le Fou, or other Godard films like Breathless (1960) or Bande à Part (1964), would Hollywood have had the inspiration or the nerve to make movies like Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)? Yes, the characters played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina are silly, but Godard makes us see through their eyes the absurdity of the commerce-ridden milieu in which they exist. There is no core to their lives, no matter how much Ferdinand (Belmondo) and Marianne (Karina) may try to establish one with art and literature on his part or with a pursuit of fun on hers. The French have always loved to épater le bourgeoisie, and Godard plants himself firmly in that tradition, but the absurdity of Ferdinand's self-immolation (or -detonation), painting his face blue and wrapping his head in explosives, suggests that there is a price to be paid for shaking up the squares. But until we reach that point, Allons-y, Alonso!