Pierrot le Fou and the appeal of arthouse

the foolArthouse is a genre of film that is made to circumvent the traditional style of filmmaking omnipresent within the current scope of contemporary cinema. They are meant to be an experimental and serious artistic work not aimed at a commercial audience. They are often very confusing, strange, yet simultaneously charming films that transcend and challenge the tedious approach many of us take to the theater regular basis. The biggest appeal of arthouse to me is that you really feel like you’re watching a film made by real people. People who want you to accurately see their vision. People who want to communicate a complex story and present you with something you’ve never considered before.

If you want something different. If you want something engaging. If you want something that isn’t boring. If you want to truly be entertained, then I cannot recommend arthouse films enough.

The film I’m talking about today is undoubtedly arthouse but was also apart of the new wave movement. New wave refers to a period in cinema that stretched from the late 50’s to the late 60’s localized entirely in France where some of the best and most influential films were released. Pierrot le Fou is unmistakably no different.

The film follows the misadventures of disgruntled Ferdinand “Pierrot” Griffon and Marianne Renoir, portrayed by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina respectively, as they run away to take on a life of crime together. It’s a rather meager backdrop to compliment the true meaning behind the enigmatic narrative and themes present throughout the film.

At the beginning of the film, Ferdinand, who I’ll be referring to as Pierrot from now on, speaks to an American Film director at a dull party and meekly says, “I’ve always wanted to know exactly what cinema is.” The response he gets from the man, who is an actual American director; Samuel Fuller is the best starting point for this article and is the simplest way I can explain the film as far as motifs are concerned.

A film is like a battleground. There’s love, hate, action, violence, death…in one word: emotions.

Pierrot le Fou is all of these things condensed into 110 minutes and it’s exhibited in such an enthralling style it’s hard to even catch all of it unless you force yourself to examine it thoroughly, which I did. There’s love in the way Pierrot and Marianne are unable to understand it. There’s hate in the way that Jean-Luc Godard decided to depict Anna’s character because they were going through a divorce, which I’ll get into later. There’s action and death following Pierrot everywhere he goes because Marianne craves it. Putting it in its most straightforward form; it’s all just emotions. The emotions of Godard told cinematically. They say to write what you know and Godard certainly did; when he decided to adapt the 1962 novel Obsession into a film.

Love is an elusive topic explored often by many artists but something I really enjoy about Pierrot le Fou is how its weaved between the narrative and its other themes. The two leads are supposedly in love and yet have no idea what it is or what they’re even talking about. They ruthlessly jump into compulsive situations without considering the bigger picture and call it love. Their tender moments are always colored with a lack of sincerity that makes them seem so ingenuine. As their perception of love changes so does their clothes to reflect the period of time they’re in. In the middle of the film when they settle on the French Riviera Marianne grows bored of the mundanity and exclaims “I’m tired of wearing the same dress every day!” This reflects the side of her that so desperately wants to “live.” Yet Pierrot had already considered that living.

Both of them see living as completely different things and the audience gets to see how they clash. Sometimes quite humorously as they both break the fourth wall several times, further engrossing the audience into their chaotic ventures. Its a rather risky move to break the fourth wall in a film such as this but I believe it creates a more immersive experience. During Marianne’s speech to Pierrot where she tells him she want’s to go dancing she stares directly into the camera and repeats “I just want to live.” Marianne is trying to gain sympathy from the audience here, but the manner in which she delivers her words and her cold stare into the camera ends up having the opposite effect.

Godard continues to deconstruct the unhealthy relationship between the two characters by portraying their relationship as a criminal partnership. I think that’s the most salient motif displayed in the film. Pierrot leaves behind his stable life with a wealthy Italian woman to go into the great unknown with someone he hasn’t seen in years. Perhaps that’s the reason why the film title translates to “Crazy Pete.” In all the confusion he changes his perception of love to coincide with Marianne except she was never in love in the first place.

Godard is attempting to piece together his feelings within the film and show the audience the true grandeur of his emotions while also creating this cinematic marvel. The film is a portrait. A portrait of himself and if that isn’t something special that adds a layer of depth to this already profound from then I don’t know what will. In a way, it’s saddening to see Godard unravel himself in front of the audience because it means throughout this film he was entirely vulnerable.

The cuts are sometimes jarring, the music begins and then ends abruptly at seemingly random times, but the cinematography is beautiful and the language is pretty. It’s all reminiscent of someone who is in bewildered anguish, desperately trying to decipher their own emotions they have no hope of ever comprehending. It’s even more tragic when you see the fate of our hero Pierrot. A fate I won’t spoil in this article because its one thing to read about it, but it’s another to see and feel it. Life is so different from novels.

To experience Pierrot le Fou is to experience something truly remarkable. It’s opened my eyes to a boundless ocean of new possibilities in film I hadn’t yet explored. I know I call it an arthouse piece but in all honesty, this is a film that excels that simple label. It’s an amalgamation of so many ideas and themes its hard to confine it to one description, but perhaps that’s the essence of art house cinema. It houses all the “weird” things deemed unacceptable for a general commercial audience. You cant market arthouse films they aren’t meant to be just a film. Its vitality comes from the fact it’s the most authentic version of art there is.

I would say that the appeal of arthouse is whatever you get out of it. I certainly gained a lot out of Pierrot le Fou. Go watch it if you’re not afraid to read subtitles and even if you are I still recommend you do anyway. There’s a lot I didn’t talk about in this feeble little article I’m sure you can find out for yourself and if you don’t want to, oh well c’est la vie!

Additional Reading:

Breaking The Rules – The French New Wave

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