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PIERROT LE FOU
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina
Director:  Jean-Luc Godard
Audio:  LPCM Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  September 22, 2009

“First there was Greek civilization.  Then there was the Renaissance.  Now we’re entering the Age of the Ass.”

Film ***

In many ways, Pierrot le Fou seems like a natural extension of Breathless, the landmark film from Jean-Luc Godard that changed the way the world thought of the cinema…and not just because it’s the same director and same leading man.  Pierrot takes the concept of restless young criminals in love and expands the canvas, both in visual scope and in philosophy, and delivers a movie that could have only come from the anarchic mind of Godard.

One of my favorite Godard quotes was not said by him, but by the character of Ray Manzarek in Oliver Stone’s film The Doors, as played by Kyle MacLachlan.  He complains of meeting a film producer who wants to see a script.  “I don’t need a script,” Ray assures, “Godard doesn’t use a script.   He improvises with the camera.”

Though Pierrot has not been released by that point in The Doors, Ray might have been referencing it unintentionally.  Though it was based on a popular novel, the word has always been that this was one of the loosest of Godard’s productions; that he indeed had no script and no complete image of the movie in his mind.  Other, including star Anna Karina, have since stated Godard didn’t really work that way, that his planning was meticulous and detailed.

Who knows?  Thinking there was no centralized concept certainly adds to the mystique of a movie like Pierrot, an ambitious offering that contemplates life, art, and love, all while following two charismatic lovers on the run where, like Bonnie and Clyde, bystanders sometimes end up dead.  If it isn’t Breathless, it could at least be called Reckless.

Ferdinand Griffon (Belmondo) is married and obsessed with the arts.  Marianne (Karina) is his family’s babysitter.  One night, after a dry party where everyone seems to be speaking in Madison Avenue catch phrases, the two light out.  They have chemistry and energy, and it’s easy to focus on their appeal rather than wonder why there’s a body in the scene with a pair of scissors imbedded in the neck.

They make their way across country, talking about everything and nothing in a style that would later become the benchmark of Quentin Tarantino.  They hold up for awhile on a run-down island before pursuing an opportunity with a gun-running relative of Marianne’s that can only end one way:  badly.  But maybe not in the exact manner you had in mind.

This is a loose, carefree example of New Wave cinema with a higher-budgeted look.  It doesn’t feel as rough as some of Godard’s earlier or later works, maybe because of the first rate widescreen cinematography and the multiple locations which are like characters themselves.  But the energy and the sense of defiance toward authority is unmistakable.  Characters sometimes acknowledge the audience.  Certain shots are shown in harsh monochrome tones, for…well, whatever reason.  And when Marianne assures Ferdinand, whom she incessantly calls Pierrot, of her devotion, she looks at the camera.  Then, without a break, she speaks the line again, and looks a second time.

Why?  Well, it certainly reminds the audience that they’re watching a film and that their experience as viewers is a part of the entire artistic concept.  It defied convention, it broke rules, it disregarded the most basic of theatrical boundaries…in other words, it was everything that Godard and the young directors of the French New Wave were trying to bring to film in an effort to change the way movie makers and viewers thought of the medium.

It may not please everybody, but you can say that about any New Wave offering.  Pierrot le Fou may or may not have been a project without a plan, but the end result seems a perfect statement about the nature of the movies from a man who spent his career, both in successes and in failures, re-imagining what the art form could be.

BONUS TRIVIA I:  The director Ferdinand talks to near the beginning?  The legendary Samuel Fuller.

BONUS TRIVIA II:  What exactly does the title mean?  Think “Crazy Pete”.

Video ****

Yet again, Criterion’s true colors really shine through on Blu-ray.  They’ve taken another cinematic staple and cleaned it up and delivered it to fans in high definition so that even those who know the film by heart will feel like they’re seeing it for the first time.  The widescreen compositions come through with startling clarity and detail, and the color schemes are absolutely vibrant and beautiful.  There is one or two brief instances of noticeable grain in the darkest scenes (the night sky with fireworks), but given the overall glorious nature of this effort, I can’t fault it for something so trivial.  This is a remarkable offering.

Audio ***

The original stereo soundtrack is here in uncompressed form, thanks to Blu-ray, and it sounds perfectly lively and clean.  The dynamic range is fair, with a couple of bigger “action” scenes (I hesitate to use the word), and spoken words seem as clean and clear as I was able to understand of the French.

Features ***

There isn’t a full length commentary for this movie, but the “Pierrot Primer” showcases about 30 minutes of key scenes with comments from filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin.  There is also a video interview with Anna Karina, a documentary about Godard and Karina, and some archived audio interviews with Godard, Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo, along with the theatrical trailer and a terrific booklet featuring essays and a printed interview with Godard.

Summary:

Jean-Luc Godard may have been the proverbial man without a plan, but whether he was or not, when everything worked, he created pure cinema magic that challenged the rules, authority, and audiences alike.  When it didn’t work, the results were alienating and pretentious.  Pierrot le Fou is an example of one where everything DID work, and believe me when I say, this Blu-ray offering is the most beautiful and lovingly attentive presentation of this film classic ever made available.

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