Band of Outsiders (dir. Jean-Luc Godard): pop culture, the art of film and existential philosophy in one pulp crime film

Jean-Luc Godard, “Bande à part” aka “Band of Outsiders” (1964)

Once upon a time, the French had a knack for making gangster and pulpy crime movies in which they could hang philosophical concepts, especially those of existential philosophy, onto the plot. Such a movie is Jean-Luc Godard’s famous “Bande à part”, often cited as the most outstanding example of the French New Wave of films that came out in the late 1950’s / early 1960’s. The main distinguishing features of the French New Wave are present: the use of natural sets or real locations as opposed to fixed studio sets; the use of natural lighting or lighting found in the locations where filming took place; free-flowing action aided by a straightforward plot; and a naturalistic style of acting. Voice-over narration by Godard himself, which forecasts the action to come or describes what a character is thinking, defies conventional linear “show, don’t tell” narratives; a character appears to address the audience directly with a song about modern life; and the movie inserts several playful (though sometimes melancholy or tragic) scenes that reference film-making, popular culture of the time, social and economic change, and the place of the individual in modern society.

The film basically is about three young people in a love triangle who impulsively decide to steal money from a rich couple with whom one of the youngsters live. They talk more or less continuously about how much money there is to steal, and how they are going to do it, and use up a lot of energy and petrol racing around Paris and the banks of the Seine river while planning the heist, but the actual robbery itself takes place late in the film. Along the way, Odile (Anna Karina) dithers between whether she prefers Arthur (Claude Brasseur), a hardened, macho fellow who acts before he thinks, or Franz (Sami Frey) who is more sensitive and less certain of himself. The challenge for Godard is to keep the viewers interested in the doings, comings and goings of these people in a very simple plot, to which a sub-plot, involving Arthur’s uncle who decides he wants some of that money the youngsters plan to steal, has been tacked on almost as an after-thought; and Godard does this successfully by throwing Odile and her would-be lovers into situations that have no connection to the plot but simply rope in whatever ideas and concerns the director has about French culture and society. The plot and sub-plot become secondary to the movie’s themes which themselves enrich the characters and their relationships to one another and their wider world.

There are several scenes in “Bande à part” that stand out, in particular the cafe scenes of which one consists of a minute’s silence, during which time (actually just over half a minute) all sound in the film completely cuts out; the second scene in which the trio play musical chairs at their table and Arthur spikes Odile’s drink while her attention is elsewhere; and the third is the celebrated Madison dance scene in which Odile, Franz and Arthur dance together in line, all three more or less keeping in time and dancing together yet not really together as the music dips in and out and Godard’s voice-over tells viewers what each dancer is thinking. Odile dancing between the two buddies highlights the potential conflict the love triangle poses for all three of them. There is a strange sense of isolation in the scene: the dancers are self-absorbed and not looking at one another, demonstrated in Franz and Arthur gradually dropping out and Odile continuing the dance; the waiters come and go, oblivious to the dancing; and no-one else in the cafe joins in the dance or even watches it. The scene itself is a comment on changes in social relations in French society: most dancing before the 1960’s either involved large groups of people dancing or couples (each couple consisting of a man and a woman) dancing with more or less constant eye contact. Another very significant scene in the movie is the train scene in which Odile sings a poem about modern life in Paris and the cares and burdens ordinary people have to carry: this scene includes a montage of fixed scenes of Parisians in their day-to-day activities.

Other scenes that reference social change and the impact of American culture on French culture include Franz and Arthur’s playful re-enactment of a gunfight death scene from a popular Western movie which one of them will re-enact for real in a hysterically funny and exaggerated if tragic way near the end of the film. There is one very good scene where Franz and Arthur read aloud tabloid headlines about various murders and massacres around the world while lounging on a Seine embankment not far from a busy and noisy factory; the scene looks peaceful and serene but distant sounds of pounding machinery can be heard. The boys and Odile together also run through the Louvre museum in an attempt to break the world record, held by an American; the scene and its playfulness might be a laugh at the respect people have for cultural institutions simply out of conformity to tradition. Then of course the fact the boys imagine themselves the equal of their movie gangster and Western outlaw heroes to the extent that they dare to rob Odile’s adoptive relatives with Odile playing the gangster moll role, and none of them considering the dangers or the consequences that might follow, says something about how much of a hold American pop culture has on their imaginations and what that says about their alienation from the world around them.

As might be expected, the heist doesn’t go to plan and the love triangle resolves in a way viewers least expect with none of the main characters learning any lessons from what they experience. Two of them flee Paris without having to answer for their part in the robbery or feeling any pangs of conscience over three deaths. Some folks may see in the plot’s resolution a lesson in how dangerous second-hand fantasy derived from pop culture may be when applied literally to real life. Even if viewers don’t agree with the way the plot works out or the characters’ interactions with one another – Arthur behaves cruelly towards Odile who all too often is overly submissive and passive – they will find something in the movie that’s fun, clever, playful and enjoyable, something that reminds them of the carefree and innocent nature of childhood. Before it all collapses into tragedy and the reality of being responsible for one’s actions and future life. A movie that’s good to look at, enjoy and make you think about its issues on different levels: that’s “Bande à part”.

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