Godard first makes note of “the condition of modem man, who must escape his fate without the help of the gods. Probably, too, the cinema is particularly suited to record the drama, to make the best not so much of the myth of the death of God” in his review of Hitchcock’s 1959 film Strangers on a Train. Pierrot le fou (1965) is the story of a man who must escape from what has become the tiresome melancholy of daily life and daily wife In Pierrot the main character – who is not in fact named Pierrot runs away from the most maddeningly mundane party and strikes out into the night with his joyously youthful babysitter. Pierrot is a Modern Man – one divided from The Land and his fraternal impulsion of despair. Pierrot and chiefly the characters of Ferdinand and Marianne (for they are alone the only characters of significance in the film) are directly inspired by Hitchcock’s films – especially those of mistaken identity and obsession. The main character, instead of fleeing some government agency or mob boss flees from the stagnation of contemporary life. Emerging from his herringbone chrysalis of domesticity Pierrot takes charge of a world devoid of god or country – a world only governed by his id and his poetry and his books.
It is in Pierrot that Godard most directly mimics Hitchcock in structure – Ferdinand is quite obviously the same “Running Man” character so often used by the master of suspense while Marianne is the dangerously alluring compatriot. His apparent disdain for all that he considers bourgeoisie – Ferdinand is even christened with a new name. Just as the protagonists of Hitchcock’s films are mistakenly christened with the name of some expert spy or international hit man so is Ferdinand. However; this Running Man is free from the false accusations that typically haunt Hitchcock’s leading men. Ferdinand is free to commit all of the crimes for which he has not yet been falsely accused. The Man on the Run is a simple frame that Godard takes and fills with the kaleidoscopic features of the French New Wave. Pierrot was released in 1965, on the tail-end of what has been remembered as Godard’s most prolific and revolutionary period. Pierrot is the first of Godard’s films to bridge the impasse of art and cinema. Godard seems almost overwhelmed with the marks of the established Hollywood picture which he is so often ready to deride. Godard works here with the widescreen of The Ten Commandments, the Technicolor of Gone with the Wind, a Busby Berkeley Musical and his own ever-present gangster plot. Pierrot is the bridge between the Godard that created Breathless (1961), A Woman is a Woman (1961) and Week End (1967), la Chinoise (1967).
Pierrot does not confine its narrative to the world of cinema – the madness of Pierrot cannot be considered as a simple story. Pierrot – and many of Godard’s films are aware of their status as cinema and as divided from anything resembling real life. In Pierrot we see the main characters aware of their situation and ridiculousness of it. “It’s gotta look real” says Marianne, as the couple prepare to fake their own deaths in a car fire, “This isn’t a movie.” Ferdinand reminds us that “All she thinks about is pleasure” and when asked by Marianne who he is talking to simply replies “The audience.” Marianne looks towards the camera with the look of someone noticing you without really caring that you’re there.
Just as Jimmy Stewart observes the world around him with voyeuristic interest in Vertigo Godard commands his actors with the very same relish that drives any voyeur which we as an audience become in observing films with pretension to reality. It is in Pierrot that we see the main characters reference their own place in a film while the Godard references other character’s places in other films. Most obvious are the mentions of specific films – the Laurel and Hardy punch with which Ferdinand steals a car. Then again are other referential scenes that Godard slides in every so often as if to remind the viewer “Yes this is certainly a film that resides in film-dimension with only other films and reality means little” – such as the scene in which the perpetually on the run characters “fake” a car accident in one of the film’s most comedic scenes. The fakery of Pierrot is as purposeful as is the use of widescreen and color film – a first for Godard. By utilizing the modern accoutrements of Hollywood Godard makes it clear that he is paying attention as much as anyone else – and that perhaps he just doesn’t like what he sees.
Fakery is, of course, fine when it is as truly funny as Pierrot le fou is. Godard has a few very obvious targets lined up in Pierrot’s constant assault on convention – both in life and film. Ferdinand reluctantly goes to a party only to be blasted with advertisement-like conversations bathed in monochromatic yellows and reds. The majority of Pierrot’s humor is derived from a realization that even when played straight the man-on-the-run trope is quickly reduced to a mere formality that Hitchcock’s (and now Godard’s) protagonists must work their way through. To be chased by the CIA or OAS – perhaps a gangster or wronged lover – becomes mundane. The dead body in Marianne’s apartment is never mentioned; nor are the automatic weapons littering the floor – no, it is the Renoir clippings on the wall that warrant mention. The Organisation de l’armée secrete – the antagonist of the film and the reason that Ferdinand and Marianne are on the run is only mentioned in the scene, “mentioned” would perhaps be too strong a word – more like “alluded to”. The letters OAS are seen written only briefly while incorporated into the word oasis. It may be shallow to describe Pierrot as “lampooning” traditional genre conventions, but it may be partially correct.
In a genre defined by gritty realism Pierrot plays with comic book imagery and playfully laughable fight scenes. The grim black and white grime of city streets is replaced with the rolling hills and greenery of the French countryside – even when urban areas are portrayed Godard utilizes garish primary color filters, even the car journey that signifies the new couple’s exodus from the mundane city is lit by neon lights that run a repetitious and totally unrealistic pattern against the windshield of the car. The film is full of these purposefully absurd moments that only seem to highlight the fact that Pierrot is a world apart from both the American movies that it is so clearly indebted to and the New Wave to which it so resolutely belongs. Even the torture scene is slightly absurd, with the silly looking OAS strongman accompanied by an odd-looking small person – of course the mood of the scene is certainly not helped any by the very next image in which Jean-Paul Belmondo (already the very picture of the Gallic rooster) is seated in front of a tricolor on a Riviera with what could only be described as an enormous wheel of cheese.
Godard may indeed feel a certain need to distance himself from the source material that he very blatantly draws from. Godard would be apprehensive to admit to an appreciation for some of America’s more crude B-movies, but can readily admit to loving Hitchcock, who was responsible for elevating many of his admittedly B plotlines with masterful direction. Godard purposefully off-puts his film as a subversive admittance of indebtedness to those B-movies while glorifying the director-as-god that would give rise to the auteur director as the driving force in cinema.