Though far from being a conventional romance or gangster picture. “Bande à part” (Band of Outsiders, 1964) is Jean-Luc Godard’s most accessible film. Although there are more overt references to American cultural artifacts in many of his films and an Americans lead (Jean Seberg) in his first one, “Bande à part” is probably the one liked best by American audiences.* The movie’s plot derives from a pulp American novel (“Fool’s Gold” by Dolores Hitchens, published in Gallimard’s popular crime imprint). Godard discarded the motivation for the characters in the novel without supplying any of his own.
The two overaged boys whom Odile (Ana Karina, Godard’s wife at the time, in a role bearing his mother’s name) meets —in a totally improbable English class** — Arthur Rimbaud (the thuggish-looking and -acting Claude Brasseur) and Franz (the very suave and strikingly handsome Sami Frey, whose face reminded Godard of pictures of Kafka) are competing with each other to impress her, but mostly seem to be acting out fantasies of “coolness” built on excessive consumption of gangster movies (as Don Quixote’s sallies were built on consuming too many romances of chivalry).
Odile, who is dressed in pleated checked skirts and with her hair in braids to look childish and/or slow-witted, seeks to impress the boys by telling them of a cache of cash in the room of a tenant in her guardian’s house on an island near Jonville. Arthur decides to rob the place before his even more thuggish uncle does. The robbery is a series of absurdities, though absurdities with fatal consequences. Killing time before the robbery, the trio do a line dance (having some relationship to “the Madison”), smoke and flirt in a bar, and dash through the Louvre (to break an alleged American record for fastest time through it. . . though if killing time is the point, they could easily kill more of it by looking at some of the contents of the museum). Waiting by a canal (or a river with no discernible current), the boys read news reports of crimes and international atrocities to each other. (In the interview with Anna Karina included on the DVD, she says that reading the newspapers was padding to get the film over the ninety minute mark, though the movie’s duration would be ninety minutes without the three news reports).
Godard thrusts his usual load of allusions into the mouths of the leads (heavy on surrealists—Aragon, Breton, Queneau—plus Verlaine and a Fritz Lang movie title). Odile quotes T. S. Eliot in the class about to embark in an extended dictation from “Romeo and Juliet”, Franz tells a Jack London Story (“Nam-bok”) and one from André Breton that is attributed to Raymond Queneau’s early novel “Odile”, a roman-à-clef in which Breton is one of the thinly fictionalized characters. The DVD has a “visual glossary” explaining these references. That is, it lays out what the references are. It does not attempt to explain why any of them are there in the film, or how they help the audience to make sense of the actions of the movie or the movie’s characters.
None seems indispensable to me. I don’t think the references and stories reveal character or that Godard intended to use them to make the characters more understandable. Rather, I think they are just works and writers Godard happened to be thinking about while he has making this movie in a hurry (25 days), knowing that intellectual audiences would ponder them and concoct interpretations of what the cultural bric-à-brac must mean, leaving no time to wonder whether Godard could tell a story or develop characters instead of making collages of images and stray remarks.
Despite such distractions (and Michel Legrand recycling songs he wrote for “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” on the soundtrack) from the inertness of the image of the three leads through the windshield of Franz’s battered convertible, there is much that looks striking and still feels fresh more than a third of a century later in Raoul Coutard’s photography around Paris, in the bars and cafés, the Métro, and the house where Odile lives. Under the great New Wave cinematographer’s supervision, the sharp images were restored for the 2001 Rialto re-release that is preserved on the Criterion DVD. (There is also eleven minutes of Coutard speaking, one of the DVD extras. He explains that the weak winter light of Paris sufficed for the exterior shots, but that additional lighting was used in the interiors.)
“Bande à part” does not have the abstruse camera angles and jump-cutting for which Godard was famous back when Godard was famous (when he could identify himself as cinema, as in the credits to “Bande à part”). Most of the scenes, Karina, and Frey look striking in melancholy (post-existentialist, pre-Maoist) ways. Brasseur and Frey manage to continue to look hip dancing; Karina visibly enjoys herself, both dancing on alone after the boys drop out and at other junctures. At some other junctures, she looks cowed, and though she is the least bright of the three main characters, she is the one who recognizes the robbery is not going to work out according to Arthur’s confident plans.
“Bande à part” is more fun than other Godard films: exuberant, if not quite light-hearted. Legrand’s wistful, jazzy score and Coutard’s photography can easily induce nostalgia, even for someone who never saw Paris in the early 1960s. The endings (which I don’t want to reveal) are very apt. There is a notably funny fight, earlier on. Although one would be hard pressed to answer the question “Why is this here?” for many pieces of the film, none (even the “minute of silence” that lasts 35 seconds) lasts long enough to provide serious annoyance to viewers able to understand the romance pulpish/noirish movies that animate the three leads and their director. (Godard famously pronounced Howard Hawks’s “Scarface” the greatest film of the sound era.)
In addition to the eleven-minutes of Coutard and the eighteen-minute “glossary,” there is eighteen minutes of Ana Karina reminiscing, five minutes from a 1964 French television documentary on New Wave film-makers that includes Godard talking and shooting two scenes of “Bande à part”, the three-minute silent movie “Les fiancés du Pont MacDonald” with Karina, Frey, and Godard that was in Agnès Varda’s “Cléo de 5 à 7,” a booklet with some musing by Godard on the three lead characters and a rapturous essay by poet Joshua Clover, and two very similar trailers without any spoken words. Seeing the trailer first is useful for setting expectations of silent film comedy. Despite Godard’s wry voice-over (in the very knowing tradition of Cocteau film, I think), and all the high culture bandied about in the film, most of the dialogue could be thrown away. What is important is what one sees (“pure cinema”). The last shot is, as Godard confirmed, an homage to Chaplin (“The Immigrant”); the climax, and particularly the reaction shots to it, might have been filmed by D. W. Griffith.
* In a special feature included on the DVD, Ana Karina, says that “Une Femme Est Une Femme” is her Godard film most liked in Germany; “Vivre sa Vie, Bande à part” and “Pierrot le Fou” in Japan, “Alphaville” in England and Brazil, and “Pierrot le Fou” most everywhere else. She does not specify what the American favorite is, but I doubt that it is “Pierrot le Fou”. My own favorite (since she was not in “Masculine/Feminine”) is “Alphaville”, but from naming his production company A Band Apart, one may infer which is Quentin Tarrantino’s (along with his homages onscreen to “Bande à part”.
** The teacher declaims Shakespeare in French which the students are supposed to translate into English. None of the students is writing nearly fast enough and the Arthur’s note to Odile shows he cannot manage to write even “To be or not to be, that is the question”, let alone an extended dictation spontaneously translated back into Elizabethan English. Then the teacher is going to correct all the students’ translations during a ten-minute break. Everything about this exercise is improbable, though it serves to get some romantic poetry into the movie early on and provide fodder for weighing Arthur as a Romeo, Odile as a Juliet, and Franz as a Mercutio. This is the kind of invitation to speculation that made Godard movies catnip to 1960s’ intellectuals and made him seem unbearably pretentious and inept to others.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray