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‘Pierrot le Fou’ and the Feel Good Waterboarding Scene of the Summer

In 2014, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs used the Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the “best movies of all time,” including this one by Jean-Luc Godard.
Pierrot Le Fou
Criterion Collection
By  · Published on January 29th, 2014

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before, and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course, it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers. This week, they leave their old lives behind to go on the run with a beautiful woman who can literally drive a man insane to talk about Pierrot le Fou.

In the #41 (tied) movie on the list, Jean-Luc Godard delivers a fancy-free story involving crime, waterboarding, and a whirlwind romance that comes with a bomb strapped to itself. But why is Pierrot le Fou one of the best movies of all time?

Landon: So there’s a lot to potentially unpack with this film, but I want to start with two adjectives that come to mind every time I see it. Let me know if you would agree or not with these.

Scott: Sure.

Landon: Irreverent and Stylish.

Scott: There probably aren’t better adjectives for this movie than those.

Landon: I don’t know about you, but this is easily my favorite of Godard’s films to watch. He’s perhaps made more important films, but this is the most inviting revisit. I think it perfectly balances his sense of anarchism with a playful visual style and fourth-wall-breaking storytelling that he made his name with during the ‘60s.

Scott: Definitely the most easily re-watchable, on any kind of random afternoon. Although I kept expecting Benny Hill to crash the party with a troupe of lingerie-clad ladies and a record stuck on “Yakety Sax.”

Landon: I won’t say whether or not I’ve played Benny Hill music over the Vietnam sequence.

Scott: We all have. That’s something the internet needs to provide.

Landon: One thing that’s continually striking is how well it’s aged. Breathless still has its manic energy, but it also feels like an archival piece of early 60s French filmmaking – it feels like a decisive intervention in what came before, which gives it the aura of a historically contextualized piece. References to Vietnam and the National Liberation Front aside, Pierrot le fou does not look or feel like any film that’s 49 years old.

Scott: Crazy you say that because I was going to suggest that it would have been a hit today – particularly because of how popular Don Draper and Walter White (and other alliterative anti-heroes) have become. People (read: men) who leave their boring normal lives behind for Robert Louis Stevenson-esque adventure.

Landon: Wow. Jean-Paul Belmondo as the archetype for the Difficult Male of quality TV. This makes even more sense than comparing it to contemporaneous stuff like Bonnie and Clyde (which, btw, Warren Beatty wanted to be directed by Truffaut or Godard).

Scott: Ah, really? That makes a lot of sense. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were obviously spirit animals for both of them.

But, yes, I kept imagining Pierrot in tightie-whities driving a Winnebago like a mad man.

Landon: Godard’s work here was built more on American noir, films like Gun Crazy and Pickup on South Street (one reason for the Sam Fuller cameo), and it’s easy to see how this then circled back and influenced New Hollywood.

But some quick history that I find interesting: Pierrot didn’t begin showing in the United States until 1969, when Godard’s work had spun out in a much more challenging and uncompromising direction, more political and more critical of Hollywood. Pierrot was badly received, and people didn’t quite know what to do with it. This is a film that, like many on this list, has gained love over time.

Scott: Hope for mediocre receptions of all kinds.

Landon: It always portends well for the future… And I think a lot of that has to do with love for it that comes into relief in retrospect: it fits as an influential node between the New wave and the American New Hollywood, it’s the perfect mid-60s breaking point between Godard’s joyful subversion of Hollywood and his turn to more didactic political filmmaking, and its styles (precisely because the film has aged to well) have made for a nostalgic celebration of the past – even one filled with racist war reenactments and dynamite suicides. That’s why it’s so fitting for a film as nostalgic as Moonrise Kingdom to use this as its 1965 frame of reference.

It’s a film that becomes richer, makes more sense when you’re looking backward on it.

Scott: Weird to think of a movie as light-feeling as this as “ahead of its time.” Did you find it funny?

Landon: Yes, I lolled quite a bit. Yourself?

Scott: More than a few times, but I’m easy. Watching a car hood land on a dude’s back hits me every time.

But I’ll bring up the connection to Breaking Bad once again — the joy of bringing true comedy to dark dealings. Although Pierrot earns even more respect because it’s dealing mostly with a kind of elemental comedy in slapstick and silliness. Breaking Bad finds irony, Pierrot laughs at the logic of all kinds.

Landon: When it’s irreverent, it’s a masterwork of irreverence. It’s not that some of these situations aren’t serious – there’s a waterboarding scene for chrissakes — but that the film maintains a pitch-perfect fuck-off feeling about it all.

Scott: “The feel-good waterboarding scene of the summer!”

Landon: That scene at the Total gas station is like a ballet of slapstick. And tiny French cars are inherently hilarious.

Scott: Clowns are constantly trying to shove themselves inside of them. There’s a lot of hilarity ensuing in this movie, but it’s also that rare example of an impossible tone. Call it wacky morbidity. Very, very, very few films can successfully pull it off, because one inch in either direction either lets the audience laugh too easily or reminds them too clearly of how terrible they are for wanting to laugh.

Landon: Exactly. I can’t imagine any movie star today that can kill themselves in such an absurd way at the end of the movie and make it so darkly comic.

Scott: Maybe Joaquin Phoenix? Jim Carey a decade ago?

Landon: That’s getting there, but the former is further on the dark end, the latter on the wacky. The fact that Jean-Paul Belmondo is a handsome man who just so happens to look like a cartoon character goes a long way in this film. Maybe William Hurt in A History of Violence or Jonah Hill in Wolf of Wall Street could do that.

Scott: Do you think it helps that he’s French instead of American on that front? Like we were protected from his stardom by his exoticism?

Landon: Godard’s films are so Brechtian, so thoroughly distancing the audience from immersing themselves in the world of the movie, that I think it’s perhaps Godard’s use of Belmondo to credit here (we open, after all, with a few minutes of hearing him read before actually seeing him speak, and then he’s in a bathtub). But not knowing the language adds that layer of distance.

You feel like Sam Fuller at that party.

Scott: Which is why we may be close to seeing a giant movie star who is able to take on a modern role like this. Maybe not Brad Pitt, but Leonardo DiCaprio going full Belmondo.

My point is: this is a thing I want. Along with a Benny Hill version of the Vietnam sequence.

Landon: Yes, Wolf of Wall Street is definitely striking me more and more as an American movie that approaches this tone; they’re further mirrored by the fact that they’re both critiques of class and different kinds of American imperialism.

Scott: Steroidal bourgeoisie.

Landon: Serious subject matter given the Laurel and Hardy treatment; and that’s exactly why WoWS gets the reaction it does. Perhaps Pierrot is considerably less controversial (a movie that features yellowface) in part because we look at it as an object of the past (not to mention that Godard’s own politics are never ambiguous as people have accused Scorsese’s of being). I wonder if the politics addressed in Pierrot risk becoming “cute” as a result.

Scott: That’s the danger with all works of satire and with whatever category this falls into. Believability, severity, and resonance become gray areas when walking that tonal tightrope. You know that someone out there is appalled beyond belief, sitting arms crossed, refusing to laugh at Pierrot le Fou.

Landon: Car hood injuries are no laughing matter.

Scott: It’s like being waterboarded with metal.

Landon: So we’ve talked about style, tone, and the film’s legacy. What about character? What was your take on Ferdinand/Pierrot and Marianne throughout?

Scott: Complete disbelief. The kind stretched far enough to be entertaining. I’d love to hang out with them (most of the time), and I appreciated how influenced by pop culture they were. Oftentimes it feels like movies exist in an alternative universe where other movies (and books, and music) don’t exist.

Landon: Starting off with the “Age of the Ass” bit in regards to advertising and moving on to comic interstitials makes this film kind of pop art all its own (and a beautiful one at that), feeling no reservations about switching between topical politics and what was considered at the time the most expendable of pop culture. Apparently during production Godard would just have Belmondo read whatever he was reading at the time.

Scott: Not a bad way to embed your story into the time. Kind of strange, then, that it feels timeless (or at least young for its age).

Landon: Its timelessness comes paradoxically from the fact that it’s been better received as a film since 1965 than it was in 1965. So I guess I’ve been trying to figure out how it’s both timeless and opportune for nostalgic readings. It’s a film that is light and enjoyable but also rich; I think the perfect film to show a friend skeptical about stuffy French filmmaking. But yet at the same time, there’s so much to unpack – not just the politics, but so many great little details I forget about until I revisit it again, like Belmondo and Karina suddenly emerging from the sand.

This is a film that’s overflowing with moving parts that makes it so rewarding to go back and see how they do and decidedly don’t fit together.

Scott: You know, I was about to head into this re-watch/conversation complaining how much damned New Wave was on the S&S list. That it felt limiting and comfortable in its stereotype. But then I re-watched Pierrot for the first time in a long time, and I had so much fun that I forgot all about any residual self-importance. It’s not often that you think a French New Wave movie will make a great double feature with The Beatles running around in Help!, and it’s nice to remember that pain and laughter often live next door to each other.

It’s okay to get serious with a smile on your face.

Next Time: Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up

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