I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Band Of Outsiders (Bande À Part) (France, 1964) is a tough film to write about; so much has been written already about this wildly original and eccentric caper film that it’s a challenge to bring anything new to the table. Based on a now-obscure paperback thriller called ‘Fool’s Gold’ by Dolores Hitchens, the film relates the meeting of Odile (Anna Karina) with two bored, media-obsessed wannabe hipsters, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), and how they conspire to rip off one of the tenants with whom she lives in the house of her Aunt Victoria (Louisa Colpeyn). There’s a pretty big pile of 10,000-franc notes in Mr. Stolz’s bureau, and Odile has no idea where he might have gotten it, but Franz and Arthur take it for granted that, like the laconic and remorseless outlaws that they’ve been admiring and emulating from countless American movies, it’s too good an opportunity for two resourceful mugs to pass up.
When the film starts, Franz has already become acquainted with Odile through their English class, and Odile has already told Franz about the money. Now Franz is anxious for his buddy Arthur to get in on the action; Franz shows Arthur the house where she lives, and brings him along to the class to meet her. Odile seems to be a normal young French girl; attractive, engaging and friendly, but coy and cautious. But she’s also furtively anxious to make new friends and step out a little past her Aunt’s practical influence. Most of the things the two men suggest – skip out on class, go with them to a café, don’t go home to your Aunt right away – seem like a bad idea to her, but she acquiesces nonetheless; she could use a little insubordinate adventure. (Anna Karina was 24 at this time, married to Godard, and had already suffered a miscarriage, a nervous breakdown, and a few suicide attempts, but her depiction of Odile as a game, wide-eyed, impressionable naïf who gets in over her head is astonishingly good). Arthur lays the pretense on thick, yanking out every dour gangster mannerism he can summon; they bond by sharing cigarettes, and he defuses her forthright practicality by answering her questions with more questions. ‘Is something wrong?’ she inquires. “Something unusual, Arthur?” “Why unusual?” he responds, “aren’t ordinary troubles enough?” “You have troubles?” “Don’t you?”
The café scene is one of the film landmarks of the sixties French new-wave – unapologetically manipulated by Godard, having some fun at his characters’, and his story’s, expense, Godard expands his earlier presence (simply providing narration over the action) to use the technical aspects of filmed storytelling to actively subvert our fourth-wall suspension of disbelief. When Franz glibly asks for a minute of silence, Godard cuts the sound entirely, background noises and all. When the three are line-dancing to, one assumes, the juke-box, Godard stops the music off-and-on to explain the thoughts of the three dancers, even as we still hear their rhythmic footfalls, snaps and claps. The ‘Madison’ sequence is surprisingly charming, and our identification with the three carefree dancers is oddly enhanced by Godard’s ‘taking us aside’. Godard loves to remind his audience that This Isn’t Real, It’s A Movie, by hilariously shocking us out of our acquiescence to the make-believe and pointing out the artificiality of everything we’re seeing.
The movie continues in this playfully subversive vein, in more subtle fashion – Godard’s placement of Michel Legrand’s music is disconcertingly un-synced to the action or transitions between scenes, and Arthur’s courtship of Odile is awkward and distanced, even as Odile admits to Arthur that she loves him. (After she initially tells him, as a direct action, Godard resorts to his narration for anything else concerning it; “Arthur said such love talk was crap. Odile said she’d blurted it out but meant it.”). The three playfully race each other through the Louvre as frantic museum guards try to wave them away (“In 9 min. 43secs, Arthur, Odile and Franz broke the record set by Jimmy Johnson of San Francisco,” Godard informs us). They have to attempt the actual robbery twice, due to goofily unforeseen circumstances and their own hesitant ineptitude. Throughout the film, we’re in a constant state of flux – we identify with Franz’s culture-driven dreams of striking it rich, racing a Ferrari in the Indy 500, and retiring to ‘Jack London country’; the romantic notions that Odile pursues in the face of the other two’s tawdry opportunism; and Arthur’s clumsy but earnest attempts to woo Odile while trying to impress his family as an underworld big-shot. It’s easy to identify with their headlong youthful exuberance, even as we understand that each, in their way, is a total screw-up, more like semi-delusional victims of their own inner cultures than any kind of genuine vanguard who draw from them to artfully deal with harsh reality.
On my list of overused words I make a point not to use is ‘bittersweet,’ but it truly fits here. Even Michel Legrand’s low-brass, jazz-inflected melody that pervades the proceedings (and, I suspect, your own brain for a few days afterwards) can be described that way. Godard amusingly overwhelms his three protagonists with the very culture they can’t help but model themselves after – the English class teacher asks her obviously-beginning students to translate Shakespeare from French-to-English. Odile sings a song based on a Louis Aragon poem on the Metro, competing with the thuds and squeals of the moving train (Aragon was a famous surrealist, and Communist, poet and novelist). ‘Arthur’ and ‘Franz’ are named after Rimbaud and Kafka, and Godard slyly peppers his narration with further references to them. Franz and Arthur pretend to shoot each other in mock-good-guy-bad-guy ambush throughout the film, but when one of them is really shot, it looks brazenly fake compared to the other, truly fake, instances. Godard, though, somehow blends these elements – the dark slapstick, the lofty aspirations, the B-movie surliness, his own exo-cinematic intrusions – into a uniquely intriguing, amiable shaggy-dog whole that still finds a way, ‘Graduate’-like, to leave us hanging with a real sense of serious-minded loss. Or, as the great Pauline Kael explains:
“The sadness that pervades the work is romantic regret that you can no longer believe in the kind of movie you once wanted to be enfolded in, becoming part of that marvelous world of beauty and danger with its gangsters who trusted their friends and its whores who never really sold themselves. It’s the sadness in frivolity—in the abandonment of efforts to make sense out of life in art. Godard in his films seems to say; only this kind of impossible romance is possible. You play at cops and robbers but the bullets can kill you. His movies themselves become playful gestures, games in which you succeed or fail with a shrug, a smile.”