“In my other films, when I had a problem, I asked myself what Hitchcock would have done in my place. While making Pierrot, I had the impression that he wouldn’t have known how to answer, other than ‘Work it out for yourself.'” — Godard
As the 1960s became politicized, so did sectors of the French New Wave. The artistic philosophies that once united the directors into a common cause began to collapse. In the wake of the Paris protest riots of 1968, their ideological assertion from ten years prior, that the true aesthetics of film art transcended politics, was quaint and hilariously naïve. Cahiers du Cinema became a platform for extremist Marxism and drew hard, red lines in the sand, questioning the allegiances of all directors and asking what they were doing for the “movement.” Even the magazine’s founding fathers Truffaut and Rohmer were not spared its editorial ire, despite the former’s public stand against colonial French involvement in Algeria. The only director to sometimes get a pass was Jean-Luc Godard, starting with Pierrot le Fou.
At the tangential heart of Pierrot le Fou is a genre that meant much to Godard and the entire French New Wave: the crime story, particularly film noir and the American hardboiled literature that gave rise to that movement. Although on the fringes in their home culture, crime writers such as Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson, and James Cain were nothing short of rock stars in postwar France, whose literati championed their works as existentialist masterpieces, using lowly populist genre fiction to assert broader truths about the human condition. Truffaut’s second film, Shoot the Piano Player, was based on a novel by Philadelphia-born David Goodis, and one could point to Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows as arguably the perfect distilment of noir and street. Godard had, by the time of shooting Pierrot le Fou, mined the crime genre extensively with Breathless, Band of Outsiders, and Alphaville. He now set out to shoot Lionel White’s 1962 novel Obsession. To be fair, Godard was never very kind to the authors whose works he chose to adapt. Even when he stuck extremely close to the source narrative, like in Contempt, he publicly described Alberto Moravia’s novel as a “nice, vulgar one for a train journey, full of old-fashioned sentiments.” As for the affectations of the crime genre, he had always been liberal with his interpretations and unafraid to toss convention aside whenever it bored him. One week before shooting began, he realized that he no longer cared for the story and even less about telling a crime tale. It was his moment of crisis, an inspirational meltdown not unlike Fellini’s preceding the project that would become his own landmark, Otto e mezzo (8 1/2).
Of Pierrot le Fou, Godard has said that he felt as if he were making his first film. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Jean Paul-Belmondo, made an international star by Godard’s first film Breathless, agreed to work on the project for a drastically reduced fee, as a favor to his friend. Anna Karina, his go-to female lead and recently-divorced wife, would play opposite. This was also fitting, as Obsession, the darkly-comic story of a man entering into a doomed relationship with a woman who destroys him, now became, at least in part, Godard’s nihilistic portrait of the relationship that he felt had destroyed his life. By all accounts, his divorce from Karina–and more specifically, what he obsessively perceived as her betrayal–had brought him into an extended psychological crisis from which he was incapable of extricating himself. The shoot was incredibly tense. Belmondo later described their on-set interaction as like “a cobra and a mongoose, always glaring at one another.” Fights and explosions were commonplace. When Karina asked “What should I do?” on one scene due to his cryptic script, Godard supposedly screamed “You have a mouth to talk with, don’t you?!” Entire sections of the film were improvised, with Godard having only the vaguest outline of where he was going with it all. In the end, the film’s caustic world view owes much more to the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline than any hardboiled crime writer; at one point Belmondo’s Ferdinand Griffon (a.k.a. “Pierrot”) even recites from Céline’s London Bridge: Guignol’s Band II.
Apart from the conflicts with Karina, Godard was clearly entering into bold, new political terrain here. If he had reservations in the past about protesting French oppression in colonial Algeria, all such concerns seemed to evaporate with regard to Vietnam. The troop escalation of 1965 cemented his rage against America and their dogged attempts at imposing colonial rule on a nation fighting for unification and independence. The spontaneous “troop performance” sequence with Belmondo and Karina still holds up brilliantly, even more so for it being 1965, several years before mainstream protest started in earnest. I can not think of a single American film from this time period that so ruthlessly lampoons American war culture and its racist stereotypes of Asians. And lest one believe that Godard’s Marxist leanings place him on the side of the Russians, there’s Pierrot’s insightful fable about the Americans and Soviets meeting the man on the moon. Everyone is selling something after all.
Although considered a colossal failure at the time, and not even distributed in the U.S. until 1969, Pierrot le Fou would inspire a generation of underground and indie filmmakers who were drawn to its revolutionary form, its dark humor, and the struggle of its adrift protagonists as they search for some illusory sliver of happiness in an otherwise insane world. Chantal Akerman calls it the determining moment in her artistic life. “I went to see the film because of its intriguing and funny title. When I came out of the theater, I was on my own little cloud. I didn’t try to analyze the how and why of it: I knew I would spend my life making films. Period.”