Made in 1965, but not appearing on U.S. screens till 1969, Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou is a film that’s as maddening as you want to make it. If you insist on viewing Godard’s film as a serious work filled with deep significance, you have fun with that. This is one of the few films I’ve ever seen Roger Ebert publicly backtrack on. His original 1969 review makes the film out to be the last word in profound cinema. His 2007 reassessment is something else again—that something else being more than a little suggestive of a cinematic con game. He asks of a shot where Jean-Paul Belmondo meets film director Sam Fuller at a party, “What does it mean? It means that we notice it and wonder what it means, which can be said for a lot of Godard’s shots.” I can’t say he’s wrong—though he describes the shot inaccurately in both reviews, since Fuller, like everyone else in the shot, is bathed in an inexplicable green light and not in full color. I do, however, think he’s wanting what is essentially a fairly trivial, playful movie to have a depth it never possessed.
One way and another, Pierrot le Fou is a put-on, and it’s wildly enjoyable—sometimes brilliant—if approached on the level of an idiosyncratic work by a filmmaker trotting out his obsessions of the moment and committing them to film without much regard for actual meaning. At its most significant, it’s little more than a reflection of Godard’s love/hate affair with American film and American pop culture—and its impact on French culture and his own films. It’s not so much that the party where Belmondo encounters Fuller is pieced together out of shots that are lit with various colored gels over the lights (in some cases without them). It’s more that everyone chatters away as if they were in a TV commercial endorsing this car or that hair conditioner. It’s that Fuller says he’s in France to make an action picture called Flowers of Evil—and no questions are asked about an action picture based on a volume of poetry by Baudelaire. Well, with everything so Hollywoodized and casually surreal, why would they?
Godard has crafted the film as a crime story, but it’s a crime story that matters very little and makes marginal narrative sense. It’s only function is to make Belmondo and a former girlfriend (Anna Karina) into a young couple on the run—and to up the ante. These two are on the run from his marriage, her possible lover, a vaguely explained murder, and some thugs who are after some money she or he or they have stolen—all of which may have something to do with Algeria or maybe not. It only matters that they’re on the run and that the circumstances are dire. As with most of their actions in their flight, it’s a story pieced together from dozens of Hollywood movies. Both the characters and the narrative are nothing more than a patchwork. The meaning of all this—to the degree that there’s anything more going on than Godard playing with movies—seems to be the filmmaker’s growing disaffection for these very things. References to Godard’s growing interest in the Vietnam war and Maoism support this. But that doesn’t mean the filmmaker isn’t going to have fun while suggesting that he and the world have outgrown silly crime thrillers.
I’d hesitate to call Pierrot le Fou a great movie. It’s a lot of fun as a wild ride to nowhere, and it’s probably essential to understanding where Godard was as a filmmaker in the mid-1960s, but beyond that its value is probably negligible. But then again, can’t that be said of so many of the Hollywood films it draws from—films that are often loosely termed “classics?” And maybe that’s the whole point.