Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Band of Outsiders (1964)

by on September 6, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Wed Sept 7 to Tue Sept 13 at 1:30, 3:30, 5:30, 7:30, 9:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

 

Alt Screen’s Tom McCormack recounts for L Mag, “I have a friend who jokes, whenever another early Godard film is playing at Film Forum, ‘When is that series going to be over?’ — as if Film Forum were running one continuous series of Godard films from the 60s.”

 

Well, sure, but as David Sterritt chimes in, Band of Outsiders “offers 10 times more pleasures than the average picture.” Why do you think Quentin Tarantino named his old production company after it?

 

Godard had just completed his would-be crossover picture, the Brigitte Bardot vehicle Contempt. Still reeling from the high-overhead headache and creative constraints of his first studio-bound production, he wanted to creatively stretch his limbs. And so, per Amy Taubin:
 

Godard took refuge in his own romanticism and in an artisanal mode of production that was of a piece with Band of Outsiders‘ working-class milieu. The film was shot almost entirely in the unglamorous Paris neighborhoods east of Bastille and the underpopulated outskirts of the city along the Marne, areas that still looked as they had before the war….Band of Outsiders is less nostalgic for the past than it’s heartbroken by the present—by the knowledge that the last traces of the world of Verlaine and Rimbaud, of Claude Renoir, the father, and Jean Renoir, the son, are about to be obliterated by the onrush of ’60s consumer capitalism. So Godard, who had already made his love-hate pact with the future, kisses the past good-bye by eschewing, just this once, the self-consciously brilliant camera moves, the electrifying edits, the political polemics, the radical narrative disjunctions, and the blam! blam! iconography that had already made him cinema’s foremost postmodernist.

 

Have you ever had a MMF Madison à trois? Godard’s famously lackadaisical dance sequence (riffed on by Hal Hartley and Quentin Tarantino, equaled by no one):
 

 
Want to Madison yourself? Here’s how.
 

Pauline Kael for The New Republic:

It’s as if a French poet took an ordinary banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines; that is to say, Godard gives it his imagination, recreating the gangsters and the moll with his world of associations—seeing them as people in a Paris cafe, mixing them with Rimbaud, Kafka, Alice in Wonderland. Silly? But we know how alien to our lives were those movies that fed our imaginations and have now become part of us. And don’t we—as children and perhaps even later—romanticize cheap movie stereotypes, endowing them with the attributes of those figures in the other arts who touch us imaginatively? Don’t all our experiences in the arts and popular arts that have more intensity than our ordinary lives, tend to merge in another imaginative world? And movies, because they are such an encompassing, eclectic art, are an ideal medium for combining our experiences and fantasies from life, from all the arts, and from our jumbled memories of both. The men who made the stereotypes drew them from their own scrambled experience of history and art—as Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht drew Scarface from the Capone family “as if they were the Borgias set down in Chicago.”

 

Godard’s sense of the present is dominated by his movie past. This is what makes his movies (and, to a lesser degree, the movies of Jacques Demy) seem so new: for they are movies made by a generation bred on movies. I don’t mean that there haven’t been earlier generations of directors who grew up on movies, but that it took the peculiar post-World-War-II atmosphere to make love of movies a new and semi-intellectualized romanticism. To say it flatly, Godard is the Scott Fitzgerald of the movie world, and movies are for the sixties a synthesis of what the arts were for the post-World-War-I generation—rebellion, romance, a new style of life.

 

Phillip Lopate for The New York Times:

Part of Godard’s playfulness here is to draw you into caring about the characters while denying their naturalism when it suits him. The film is constructed like a series of cheeky set pieces that call attention to its narrative technique: while Arthur flirts with Odile, their English teacher dictates a long passage from ”Romeo and Juliet”; the three race through the Louvre in fast-motion to break the record for that museum; a minute of silence is called for and the sound track goes blank (for only 40 seconds, however); the action stops while the three perform a dance called the Madison; in the park, Frantz and Arthur read newspaper accounts of grisly murders to each other. Meanwhile, the narrator (Godard himself) comments on the action in a lofty, literary manner, which is sometimes comically at odds with the humdrum events on screen. (”They descend to the center of the universe,” he says sonorously when Arthur and Odile take the metro.) The audience, thrust out of its dream by these Brechtian alienation devices, is also flattered into becoming collaborators in the filmmaking process.

 

What Godard seems to have wanted most was to capture the sensation of life in flux. Referring to ”my ‘Bande à Part’ mood characters, who live off the cuff and whose speech is recorded directly,” he said in his book ”Godard on Godard”: ”The interesting thing is this sort of fluidity, being able to feel existence like physical matter: it is not the people who are important, but the atmosphere between them. Even when they are in close-up, life exists around them. The film, shot in black and white, takes place in a wintry Paris and its outskirts. At one point the narrator compares the cityscape of Parisian bridges on screen to a painting by Corot, and indeed Raoul Coutard’s inspired cinematography uses the cloudy, drizzly ambience of a Paris winter to bestow a consolatory mist, reminiscent of a Corot, on the potential harshness of this tragicomic film. At other times there are shots of brute materiality; in one, a car goes around and around a snow-filled lot where large cable spools sit on end. Plot-transition scenes are skipped while cutaways to the streets are provided in abundance. The documentary urge vies with the fairy tale in ”Band of Outsiders,” each enriching the other.

 

 

Charles Taylor for Salon:

Perhaps Godard’s loveliest movie, certainly his tenderest and most accessible, “Band of Outsiders” can seem no less strange than his more difficult films. Usually, the plots of film noir grow out of the characters’ desperate straits: They need money and will do anything to get it, or they find themselves so consumed by lust or by the desire for revenge that it eats away at their reason. Godard strips away that particular brand of compulsion. We don’t know why the characters go ahead with their scheme, and Godard isn’t particularly interested in why. We are watching characters who head willingly into self-destruction though there’s no circumstance pushing them in that direction. That’s what makes the movie funny (though you don’t feel much like laughing) and also what makes it affecting.

 

Why do we continue watching these no-hopers who have such little concern for themselves? Because Godard managed what no other filmmaker has ever quite. His characters may be alienated or, as Odile says with a shrug, “sick with sorrow and fatigue,” they may have no expectations. Even their fantasies may bring them little solace, and yet they never stop being vital, attractive, alive. When the three of them take the floor of a cafe to dance the Madison, their spirit and grace is elating. Franz, handsome and brooding and never able to banish the misgivings that pick at his brain, and the squat, brutally charming Arthur, who for all his toughness is more vulnerable than his buddy, make up the perfect mismatch of which friendships are born.

 

Don’t get lost in translation. Rialto Pictures has a fun guide to Godardian verbiage:
NOTES ON PUNS, WORDPLAY & OTHER UNTRANSLATABLE REFERENCES.

 

 

Joshua Clover for The Criterion Collection:

Bande à part (its French title) is a movie with a main motion—not of a noir or a policier, but a love story. Like so many Godard films, it’s a love story with a bullet in it. And like the most fiercely involved romances, it’s a map of difficult frontiers: between big city and still-rustic suburbs, prewar singularity and the masses of mass culture, between natural light and the color of money. Characters meet, notes the director, “at the crossroads of the unusual and the ordinary.” An encyclopedic litterateur, Godard recalls the sublime phrase of proto-Surrealist Raymond Roussel, envisioning the art of the new century as “the marriage of the beautiful and the trivial.”

 

That might describe all of Godard; certainly all the film’s characters. Still, beyond the vexed romance of Arthur, Odile, and Franz, there is a more encompassing love story. Shot by Raoul Coutard in a filtered black and white that renders the Bastille neighborhood flat and workaday, the suburban landscape charged and ghostly, Band of Outsiders is more than anything a melancholy love letter to Paris and to time. These are complicated relationships, to be sure. For the French New Wave, cultural nostalgia was conservative unto anathema. Godard was never in the business of stopping time, from his celebrated jump-cuts to the irrevocable destinies which sweep his characters before them. The movie doesn’t come to judge the future, but to marry it. It was just as Billy the Kid was dying in America that factories started appearing on the outskirts of Paris. Still, the spectral, suburban landscape across which Karina makes a dash, gawky, nervy, and beautiful, could still exist in mythical time (“a prewar, poetic climate,” Godard called it) where she makes a hero’s journey over embankment and escarpment, complete with rowboat bridge. It was on the Grand Boulevards that cash had become king without even the niceties of a coronation.

 

 
Robbie Freeling for Reverse Shot:

Well, there’s the dance . . . the Madison. And there’s the mad sprint through the Louvre . . . nine minutes, the new record. But for me there’s no set piece in Band of Outsiders that can equal the dazzling effect that is Anna Karina’s face. At this point she was far from her early days as a model, getting several years’ worth of quick and cruel lessons in life and art from Godard; in Band of Outsiders Karina combines her natural wide-eyed angelic charm with an increasingly frustrated, worldly pragmatism, and it’s a winning, poignant combination. Her Odile, named after Jean-Luc Godard’s deceased mother, is hardly a naif, but you can tell she’s been used to playing one. As Godard wrote about her, “She lives, on the contrary, each day as it comes, each emotion as it comes, which she plunges into one after the other.”

 

Reality doesn’t exactly come crashing into their little scheme (though it is filmed with a realist aesthetic, and using Godard’s most conventional film grammar since Breathless), but there’s something inescapably tinny and perfunctory about their gains. Band of Outsiders is often described as “lighter than air” or a “lark,” and with its can-do New Wave attitude and lovely, languorously insouciant threesome, it surely is a hoot to watch, but its grey-sky sadness always seems to me as pronounced as its joy. Perhaps, even more so than in the violent turn of events, this mostly comes from the constant push-pull of Karina’s Odile; as Godard must have seen Karina as a source of happiness and despair at this point in their tumultuous relationship, he also makes Odile into his ideal—a Karina whose sadness he knew he might not be able to puncture much longer. She responds by staring back soulfully.

 

 

From a Godard interview republished in Focus on Godard:

JC: In seeing your film, which is after all a pure Grade B story, it seemed to me that you were able to hide your allusions and quotations with much greater ease. You’ve often been reproached for your love of quotations. It seems to me that they won’t even be noticed this time.

JLG: Yes, I wanted to make a simple film that would be perfectly understandable. For instance, when distributors see Muriel or Contempt, they can’t manage to decipher them. Whereas Band of Outsiders is completely clear.

But that didn’t stop me from putting everything I really like into the film. I took advantage of every situation and every instant in the film. For instance, if a scene takes place in a care, the two guys talk about the cars they like. And in the choice of names, in certain dialogues, and in various parts of the commentary, I also managed to slip in everything I like.

 

JC: You also don’t allow yourself to write dialogue. Why?

JLG: I write it at the last minute. That’s so that the actor won’t have any time to think about his dialogue and get himself prepared. That way, he has to give more of himself. He’s more clumsy that way, but also more total. I leave my actors quite free. I correct theme very once in a while if they do something that doesn’t work or doesn’t have anything to do with the subject. Simply because they can’t realize as well as I do what the film is all about. But there’s little rehearsing. Only two or three takes are made. Usually it’s the first or last that works. I explain how they’re supposed to act the way Mack Sennett probably explained things to his actors’ ‘You come on, you do this and we start rolling”.’

 

On the other hand, for the dance scene in the cafè, we rehearsed for two weeks, three times each week. Sami and Claude didn’t know how to dance. We invented the steps. It’s an original dance, and we had to perfect it. It’s a dance with an open, line figure. It’s a parade. They dance for the camera, for the audience.

 

JC: When did you really discover these characters?

JLG: When I saw the finished film. Before that, they escape you. Everything you do is staggered and contradictory. For instance, Arthur, when he goes off to rob the house, looks quite disguised, artificial, and theatrical. With his black mask, he looks as if he’s playing a gangster. That’s why, immediately afterwards, the theft scene is treated with a great deal of violence and brutality. It had to be realistic, you had to see the scene as somewhat true to life.

 

JC: Why the title Band of Outsiders, which you finally kept after having tried several others?

JLG: I like it precisely because these three characters really do form a ‘band of outsiders.’ They’re not like other people. They’re more honest with themselves than with other people. They’re people who lead their own lives. It’s not really they who live outside of society. It’s society that is far from them. They go everywhere – you see them in the Louvre, in the bistros; they’re no more withdrawn from society than the characters of Rebel Without a Cause

 

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