Jean-Luc Godard has been making "final" films ever since he began making films. Not only has he been proclaiming the "death of cinema" for the past fifty years, he has frequently and consciously declared an end to his own cinema, only to reinvent it with each new film.
"Pierrot le fou" (1965) was Godard´s tenth feature film in five years, and the press campaign for the film clearly positions it as the "end of the beginning" for the prolific filmmaker. The film was advertised as the story of a "A little soldier who discovers with contempt that one must live one´s life, that a woman is a woman and that in a new world one must live as an outsider in order not to find oneself breathless." Look up his filmography on IMDB if you don´t understand the references.
"Pierrot" was designed not only as a retrospective of Godard´s early work but, just as importantly, as a retrospective of a relationship that was just ending, or rather of two relationships: that of husband and Godard and wife Anna Karina, that had already ended in divorce the previous year, and that of director Godard and actress Karina, that was about to end. "Pierrot" was Anna Karina´s sixth and penultimate film with Godard, and perhaps her most memorable one.
Karina, as Marianne Renoir, plays the betraying seductress to Jean-Paul Belmondo´s all-too willingly betrayed and seduced Ferdinand, better known as Pierrot, the name Marianne insist on calling him just because of a song she likes. The film opens in a shockingly standard manner; we pick up with Ferdinand in media res as he accompanies his lovely but boring Italian wife to a lovely but boring party. As in a standard Hollywood drama, something happens to disrupt the protagonist´s delicate balance, but Godard launches his opening salvo in the slyest manner. As Ferdinand leaves, he greets the babysitter (Karina) with a handshake. She´s cute, so he flashes her a brief glance which she coyly returns, but otherwise he shows no reaction. When he returns from the party, he finds the babysitter asleep; he wakes her and offers to drive her home. It turns out that Ferdinand (now Pierrot) and Marianne are old flames. The rest of their film traces their adventures as lovers on the run, the l´amour fou that forms part of the film´s title.
It´s a mistake, however, to say that "Pierrot" is simply a film about lovers on the run. Like most of Godard´s films, it hops genres whenever the mood strikes. Twice Karina spontaneously bursts into song mostly because it´s just a pleasure to watch her sing and look pretty while doing it. Even one of the standard elements of the genre, violence, is treated in a circumspect manner. In one early scene, a bloody corpse simply appears in the background with no explanation. Later, Karina appropriates slapstick from Laurel and Hardy to subdue a gas station attendant.
And then there´s the color. As much as anything, "Pierrot" is a film about red and blue, as well as a little bit of yellow and green. Practically every scene in the film showcases bold primary colors. Karina is almost always decked out in red or blue, with Pierrot as a matching or complementary accessory. The couple steals and destroys a number of blue and red cars along the way, and the blue of the sky and the ocean share top billing in the last half of the movie. And who knew you could find so many bright red chairs, lampshades and shutters?
Karina is studied as closely here as in any previous film except "Vivre sa vie" (1962). If the film is a farewell to a lover (or Part One of a farewell, finished in the following year's Made in USA"), it is a tortured one. Marianne is beautiful and mercurial and, like most of Godard´s early heroines, an enigma whose fundamental inability to be faithful leads to her man´s destruction, in this case a very literal destruction. She is, as her last name suggests, as captivating as any work of art. And like a work of art, Karina is the passive object of the viewer, a feature that marks one of the most challenging aspects of Godard´s collaborations with his first wife. Anna Karina is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful women ever filmed and Godard always presents her as someone to be looked at, making her as much a fetish object as a flesh-and-blood woman. This fetishism infused Godard´s next film "Masculin feminin" with serious creepiness when he somehow managed to find a virtual Karina-lookalike in star Chantal Goya. It´s easy to understand why Godard was accused of misogyny in his early days, but it should be noted that in this film, the jilted lover Pierrot is made out to be very much the fool of the title when his righteous rage fizzles into impotence in the film´s final shot.
"Pierrot" is not as formally audacious as "Breathless" or "Alphaville," but it offers its fair share of idiosyncratic touches. Belmondo and Karina are top-billed, but there is little doubt that the main attraction is the director himself. Godard´s films of the 60s were major events, and audiences (yes, even in America) flocked to the theater to find out what the heck Godard was going to do next. This may have made it difficult to tell a classical story in which the viewer is meant to be absorbed into the world of the narrative, but Godard was never interested in doing that anyway.
"Pierrot" marks the beginning of a transitional phase that would continue with "Made in USA" and "2 or 3 Things I Know about Her." The use of cars in the film prefigures the outrageous traffic jams and accidents that punctuate "Weekend" (1967). Likewise, Marianne and Pierrot´s impromptu stage play about Vietnam, performed for the benefit of American sailors, leads directly into Godard´s more politically charged films like "La Chinoise" (1967), "Weekend" and the films of the Dziga Vertov Group.
"Pierrot le fou" seldom finds its way onto college syllabi like "Breathless," "Alphaville," and "Weekend" often do, but it is still one of Godard´s greatest films.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio.
Since the film features primary colors so prominently, color saturation is the most important element of any transfer. Last year's SD transfer did the film's color justice, but the Blu-Ray version is, as you would expect, even more spectacular. All I can say is "Wow, look at the colors." That's the bluest blue I've ever seen at home. The image resolution is, of course, much sharper than the already laudable SD.
The Blu-Ray is presented in PCM 1.0 (uncompressed). As I've admitted before, I'm anything but an audiophile and I find it hard to compare two different soundtracks when I have to pop one disc out and put it another. I don't have any "sound memory" I suppose. With that in mind, I think this lossless track sounds a little sharper than the SD version, but I can't really be any more specific than that. It sounds great. So does the SD. You won't have any complaints. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
The Blu-Ray offers all of the same extras from the SD release of 2008. As is usual with Criterion Blu-Rays, the extras are presented in HD.
"A Pierrot Primer" (36 min) is a video commentary piece by former Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin. It seems like Criterion is experimenting with offering these analytical pieces instead of full-length commentary tracks. I like the idea quite a bit. Gorin is able to offer substantive analysis without having to fill every free second of a feature-length track. Viewers are also a lot more likely to watch a separate extra which mixes audio with video clips from the film than they are to watch a film a second time simply to listen to the commentary. Or at least I am.
"Godard, l´amour, la poésie" (2007, 53 min). Directed by Luc Lagier, this documentary traces the relationship of Godard and Karina both in their lives and in their films. It´s interesting but, to my taste, a bit too superficial. Expect a big dollop of French romanticism.
A new Anna Karina interview (15 min.) allows viewers a chance to catch up with the charming actress. Though Karina is identified almost exclusively with Godard, she continued to work in film long after their marriage and their collaboration ended. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), Karina has nothing but kind words for Godard.
"Belmondo in the Wind" (9 min) contains excerpts from a TV episode "Panorama" which originally aired on June 18, 1965. Interviews with Godard, Karina and Belmondo are included.
The disc also offers a few brief interviews (4 min. total) conducted at the Venice Film Festival in 1965 by Maurice Seveno and Christian Durieux for a TV news segment.
The colorful insert booklet includes an essay by Richard Brody, a 1969 review by Andrew Sarris, and an interview with Godard originally published in the October 1965 issue of "Cahiers du cinéma." It is the same booklet that was included with the SD release except, of course, it's a little smaller because of the BR packaging.
"Pierrot" produces as many pleasures as any of Godard´s early works, starting with the opening credits. The letters of the opening title card appear in alphabetical order, with all of the "A"s first on through the "J" in Jean to the "U" in "Luc." Then all but the two "O"s in "Pierrot le Fou" disappear so that we´re left with two eyes watching us as we prepare to watch the image that follows. Why? Because it looks cool. Godard´s constant experiments with new relationships between sound and image aren´t just academic experiments, but are conducted in a spirit of fun, the sheer exhilarating joy of creating a new cinematic language. "Pierrot le Fou" is as exhilarating as anything in Godard´s oeuvre.
Is the Blu-Ray upgrade worth it? The SD and BR are currently selling at the same retail price and the BR is currently (as of Sep 7, 2009) being offered at a significantly lower price at Amazon. If you want to check it out, please use the link in the last sentence when you're ready to buy. Obviously if you don't own "Pierrot" yet, the BR is the no-brainer option. If you already own the SD, I'll just say that it is a substantial improvement over a release that was already excellent. After the recent BR release of "Last Year at Marienbad," this may be the sharpest Criterion Blu-Ray yet.