BAND OF OUTSIDERS (Bande à Part) B
France (95 mi) 1964 d: Jean-Luc Godard
Everything that is really new is by that fact automatically traditional.
―T.S. Eliot from his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, 1919
Probably the last Godard film still connected to traditional cinema, shot for just $120,000, inspired by the director’s love of gangster flicks, B-movies, American pop culture, and the existential poetry of “trembling” youth, which can be downright goofy at times, with the director credited as Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard in the opening credits, but proof that Godard was once a playful young director, adapting a 1958 American pulp fiction novel Fools’ Gold by Delores Hitchens and transporting it to the back alleyways and dirty canals of Paris, showing dilapidated streets, industrial zones, and locations not normally associated with films, reflecting a city in decay, accentuating a peculiar lower class perspective. Playing out like a fairy tale, complete with a dry yet poetically descriptive literary narration that runs throughout and is read by Godard himself, Anna Karina plays Odile (the Black Swan, or black mirror reflection of the heroine in the Swan Lake ballet), a particularly dreamy-eyed young girl whose innocence recalls that of Alice in Wonderland, completely surprised yet captivated by the world around her, literally terrified that it’s not as it seems. But the film opens with Franz and Arthur (Sami Frey, ex-boyfriend of Bardot, and Claude Brasseur), two friends who are working class and poor, still carrying on like youthful adolescents (though they are both closer to 30 in age, which certainly stands out as noticeably incongruous), carefree in spirit, playing out fantasy sequences on the street, like Billy the Kid being shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett, while driving around the city in their Simca sportscar convertible with the top down, though bare trees are without leaves and pedestrians on the street are all in heavy coats. Reaching a destination just outside of town, they seem to be casing the joint from afar, observing a large manor on the other side of a river, already conceiving a planned robbery with absolutely no backstory provided. Seemingly identifying youthful indifference, it’s something of a dreary, downbeat story with melancholic overtones, yet the playful exuberance has enchanted movie audiences for decades. Given a jazzy score from Michel Legrand, the upbeat tempo is inherently appealing, even as these two small-time hoods have their clamps on Odile, meeting her in an English class, learning coincidentally that she lives on the outskirts with a boarder who keeps large sums of money in his room. With designs on a robbery from the outset, the two vie for her attention, pretending to romance her and earn her trust, never letting on that it’s all a charade, a devious con game, with little interest in her as it’s all about the money. These two knuckleheads cleverly deceive her throughout, much like Pinocchio thinks his captor is his friend, up until the point he’s become a caged commodity. So despite the jazzy tempo that accompanies them in a race around the city, driving their sports car like a race car (another one of their fantasies), there’s an underlying tone of malevolence that is cringeworthy, like introducing sin to an innocent, as Odile simply doesn’t have the capacity to recognize malicious intent. Living in a big house with her wealthy aunt, she leads a sheltered life, overly protected, abiding by strict rules that are for her protection, which she quickly rejects in a rebellious series of deceitful acts and lies, egged on by these two halfwits who continually prod her for information while encouraging her to disobey, never once thinking about the consequences.
While the boys are jealous and extremely competitive for Odile’s charms, Arthur boldly asserts himself, passing notes to her in class, playing her for his girlfriend, though he continually stuns her with cold-hearted observations and criminal instincts, views that she simply ignores, preferring to see him in a more romanticized light, believing she actually means something to him or they wouldn’t be kissing. Franz on the other hand is more of a dreamer, with the narration coming from his character, where he fades into the background, basically following Arthur’s leads, yet arriving at a different viewpoint, as he’s less harsh, play acting the part of a criminal so he can see himself as an action figure, mostly just doing it for fun as he has little else to do. Still, he’s got a thing for Odile, and met her first, but he’s forced to stand in Arthur’s shadow. Passing the time together, Franz reads newspaper reports of crime stories out loud, fascinated by the petty details of sordid lives, incorporating them into their young imaginations, romanticizing the idea of criminality. In much the same way, Odile doesn’t really love Arthur, but loves the idea of what love brings, like renewed energy and a sense of purpose, idealizing the idea of romance, inhabiting the character of Juliet being wooed by Romeo, exactly as Jean Sebring imagines in Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) (1960). This idea is further emphasized in her English lessons, where the teacher (Danièle Girard) reads aloud passages from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, expecting the students to translate the French reading into English, something not a single student appears capable of doing, yet she collects the papers afterwards and expects to grade and correct them within a ten-minute break. This overall feeling is one of delusion, a separation from reality, which one might attribute to youth, but the teacher is equally culpable, getting her butt patted by one of the students seen earlier drinking from a flask. The overall sense in class is one of utter anarchy, where there is no sense of order or direction, with the teacher clueless about how disinterested the students are. This emptiness is further reflected in their aimless and directionless lives, particularly those on the lower end of the economic spectrum, where a drab reality is all that exists, lives filled with endless dissatisfaction, the same thing happening day after day, leading hopeless lives, with no end in sight. Odile is their ticket out of poverty, or so they believe, but they’re such amateurs, the only thing they know about crime is what they see on TV or in the movies, embracing a fictional world as their own, unaware of the difference. Mostly what happens in this film is purely killing time, bored, with nothing better to do than concoct a minute of silence, with Godard eliminating all sound, yet they easily give up before a minute is up, also seen driving on roadways or taking the subway, staring at the bored faces of commuters, immersed in a world of disappointment and defeat, yet Odile breaks out into song, staring straight into the camera, singing about sad and lonely people. To overcome that adversity, they live in a world of make believe, racing through the Louvre museum avoiding security guards like silly kids in order to break an existing speed record, which they do accomplish, but avoid spending even a second of their time embracing the art or culture contained therein, again completely unaware of the consequences.
Easily the scene of the film is generated from simply passing the time in a café, bored without anything else to do, so they decide to get up and dance the Madison, Bande à Part - Madison Cafe Dance Scene - Jean-Luc ... - YouTube (3:50), an American line dance fad from the 50’s that initiated in black communities but quickly spread to white mainstream television shows like American Bandstand, becoming all the rage in Europe in the early 60’s. Godard of course insists on subverting the form, stopping the music altogether for brief moments, yet they continue dancing in rhythm while Godard reintroduces his superfluous narrative, becoming a stream of conscious blend of body and mind, accentuating freedom of movement, becoming an artform of harmonious synchronicity that is constantly interrupted, altering the rhythm and mood, yet remains a timeless sequence, one of the most memorable scenes of Karina ever captured on celluloid. Now if only the rest of the film were this good. Another film shot by Raoul Coutard in black and white, the film feels drenched in an overcast wintry gray, like an overhanging cloud of oppression that all but blocks out their future, leaving them in their own enclosed little world, cut off from themselves as well as the world around them. This internal existential angst is in complete contrast to Godard’s film style that so completely embraces shooting on the streets, allowing spontaneity to intervene in regular intervals as they geometrically crisscross their way around the city, including a storefront sign reading “Nouvelle Vague.” With Arthur bullied by his own family to help pave their way out of debt, Franz is dreaming of escaping into Jack London territory, while Odile is caught up in an imaginary romance that doesn’t exist. By the time they get around to actually carrying out the crime, they soon discover they are in over their heads, stymied at every turn, baffled by the idea that it should be so hard. Thinking that they’d be in and out in two minutes, they are startled to discover obstacles have been placed in their way, having the alter their plans and make adjustments on the fly, only to discover what a bungling group of idiots they really turn out to be. Caught up in a world of dream and reality, they have no conception of right and wrong, where the ineptness of their actions is headscratching in its futility, going from bad to worse, as they continually make boneheaded decisions. While the intent may be laughable at such a bungled robbery attempt, perhaps amusing viewers through comic misdirection, almost like something we’d see in a Silent movie speeded up to show just how ridiculous they are, yet the cruel way Odile is discarded and physically mistreated is no laughing matter. Like earlier Godard films, it ends in senseless tragedy, producing the most preposterous shootout scene, as artificially contrived as any ever conceived, where the sheer exaggeration is beyond absurd, but by this time viewers may actually be thinking, good riddance, put him out of his misery. With one man down, finally out of the competition, that leaves the other to ride off into the sunset with the girl of his dreams, like a Chaplin-style fairy tale ending from THE GOLD RUSH (1925), where both live happily ever after.