Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film available on streaming. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
As the French New Wave movement continued into the mid-1960s, filmmakers further experimented with the conventions of cinema. One of the most well-known among the group, director Jean-Luc Godard, toyed with elements of other genres such as science fiction and musicals in his movies. While Godard’s first film, 1960’s Breathless, played with expectations associated with crime noir, he soon had grown tired of the limitations of the genre.
After shooting his film Band of Outsiders in 1964, Godard announced his next movie would be based on the crime novel Obsession by American author Lionel White. He announced months later that his wife, popular actress Anna Karina, would star opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo (his fourth time working with Godard.) The filmmaker promised Belmondo that the movie would be vastly different from the book, and it became so in unexpected ways. Before shooting even began in May of 1965, Godard and Karina divorced.
Production began on the film, now titled Pierrot Le Fou, went ahead as scheduled. However, the tone of the movie took a drastic turn. Instead of being a movie centered around obsession and betrayal, it turned into a study on artistic desire and pain. As the American director Samuel Fuller proclaims in a scene, “A film is like a battleground. It has love… hate… action… violence… death… in one word, emotions.” Pierrot Le Fou uses all of these to create a film full of intellectual, emotional, and personal turmoil.
By the time Godard started shooting Pierrot Le Fou, he had admitted his boredom and frustrations with the film noir genre. Stuck in a creative rut, this boredom forced Godard to think outside the box and figure out new ways of telling a story that had been done before in cinema. In the film, Belmondo plays a man who leaves his wife for the babysitter (played by Karina), an ex-girlfriend of his. The pair go on the lam, committing crimes of murder and theft while being chased by a group of mobsters.
While the plot of Pierrot Le Fou is quite simple at its core, Godard’s movie is extraordinary for how it tackles bigger themes and questions. The standard mobster crime elements of the plot are filmed very matter-of-factly, but they are intercut with still images of famous paintings, voice over, and bright colors. Though these elements don’t relate to the plot directly, Godard links them together to suggest that many different types of art can be found in film. The bright pop art colors of the 60s (considered “low art” by some at the time) can mix together with images of paintings by Renoir or references to lofty, intellectual authors such as Balzac and both stand on equal ground with one another.
The movie stands as an early example of postmodernism in cinema. Pop culture is affectionately celebrated by Godard alongside high art. This collage-like structure of mixing narrative with still images and voice over sets out to do just as Fuller declares in the film. Pierrot Le Fou hopes to create an emotional response with audience. What is art? How do we know when we’ve achieved it? Are all forms of art created equal? It’s up to the audience to decide, while Godard attempts to search for these answers in his own cinematic work.
As with many of Godard’s other films, the screenplay for Pierrot Le Fou was allegedly written the night before shooting began on the movie.
The 20th episode of Cowboy Bebop is in fact called “Pierrot Le Fou” and features a character named “the mad Pierrot.”
The movie currently sits at number 43 on the Sight & Sound poll of the 250 greatest films of all-time.
Pierrot Le Fou is currently available to stream on Watch TCM until September 24.
What’s your favorite crime movie? What other classic movies would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.