Pierrot opens with a rather lengthy voice-over exposition on the painter Velasquez. What we mistake for a narrator’s voice turns out to be that of the protagonist, enjoying a bath and a cigarette and reading a passage of a biography to his young daughter. Aside from injecting humor into situation, Godard takes an early opportunity to make a serious point. That is, how can art be dead when part of its essential nature just is to be disseminated, received, and reinterpreted in a new context? In fact, Godard himself has already been enacting this three-fold process in the opening montage. The printed pronouncements of the biography come alive over images that interpret and inform them; Pierrot speaks the word “twilight” and Godard presents us with an image of sunny afternoon tennis game. Several shots later, he presents twilight over water, but now the voice informs us that “space reigns supreme.”
For a corpse, art is doing quite a lot of work here. Or perhaps it might serve us better to say that the sound and images are doing a lot of work to create a work of art. The juxtaposition of quotation with new images, of “twilight” with light, and of twilight with “space” suggests (1) an ongoing dialog with art of the past and (2) a continuing struggle to create something that interprets our experience in space and time. But what is art if not the latter? And how does a work dialogue with its predecessors if it is not one of them itself? One might answer that the critic or essayist partakes in both but does not create art. But the critic’s craft operates in the intellectual domain; the artist’s spans the sensory, emotional, and intellectual. Pierrot le Fou assaults the senses with fireworks, gunfire, and flashing neon, pricks the emotions with a love affair, a journey, and a betrayal, and invites the intellect to apprehend a barrage of images and plot points that can only be understood in context.
The context of Pierrot comprises not just the Situationist state of affairs and the state of cinema itself, but the whole of performance spectacle dating back to at least the 16th-century Commedia Dell’arte, from which Godard's protagonist receives his nickname. In that comic tradition, the trusting Pierrot pursues the love of Columbine; she betrays him for the affections of the agile Arlequin. In Pierrot le Fou, if fickle Marianne plays Colombine to Ferdinand’s Pierrot and to dancing Fred’s Arlequin, Ferdinand’s fate should come as no surprise. Yet Godard surprises us because he closely associates Pierrot with himself (via quotation), Marianne with the state of French culture (she wears the colors of the flag), and Fred with violence and war (suggesting the collapse of French imperialism). Pierrot's betrayal occurs at the last minute, leaving the audience with sensory exhaustion and a strong emotional charge, but still chewing on the meaning of every quote.
Indeed, the ability to inspire affect and introspection in its absence proves to be one of art’s most powerful qualities. Art lives in Godard’s film, and he clearly wishes to spread it around. That he co-opts his opposition’s terms—especially, spectacle—makes Godard’s artistic food for thought all the sweeter.