Friday, July 20, 2007

band of outsiders, by jean-luc godard

One of the rules of the "film club" that Skunkcabbage and I have formed is that each film must connect to the previous one in some way. So, since last week I picked Rushmore, a film influenced by the French New Wave's appropriation of noir, this week H. picked Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders (1964), one of the masterpieces of the French New Wave.

Looking at this shot kind of sums up the engine that drives Band of Outsiders:

Those dudes on the right (Franz and Arthur) look pretty much like they could have stepped out of an American noir or hard-boiled pulp novel, and, sure enough, in this particular film they are interested in stealing a pile of cash. So far, so familiar. The movie's brilliance comes from playing off of these types as types, and crashing them together with an incongruous type, represented by the woman here on the left, Odile, a young French schoolgirl. Let's get a closer look:

She's played by Anna Karina (Godard's wife at the time), and her doe-eyed glory is echoed by any number of contemporary Euroesque actresses: let's say Uma Thurman, Chloe Sevigny, and Audrey Tautou, for starters. Perhaps the Tautou comparison is the most fruitful, because, like Amélie Poulain (the character Tautou plays in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie (2001)), Anna Karina's Odile is a bit of a naif, especially with regard to sexuality. Here she is gearing up for a kiss:

But she's also incredibly charming—in various twee indie ways. Note that, when on her bike, she uses proper hand signalling methods:

So, essentially, Band of Outsiders takes as its premise this question: what happens when you crash together true-crime types with a girl who seems like she's emerged from a Belle and Sebastian song?

Since the characters and their scheme all feel familiar so familiar that they can basically be represented with a few basic cues, the film is freed up to permit all manner of digression. (This is essentially the same trick that gives Pulp Fiction (1994) a lot of its appeal, and let's recall that Tarantino's production company, A Band Apart, takes its name from this film.) The proposed heist is so simple that it requires almost no energy to plan, and so the film's entire middle segment concentrates entirely on the characters roaming around Paris engaging in various forms of jackassery: driving around, visiting book stands, racing through the Louvre, reading true crime stories out of the newspaper, going dancing:

It is through this process that we begin to realize that Franz and Arthur aren't really the two-dimensional toughs that they initially appear to be, but rather are closer to being slacker types who have simply learned tough-guy mannerisms from B movies and dime novels (see also: Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket (1996), the Tarantino-scripted True Romance (1993), and Pulp Fiction, again). It is also around this point that the movie's narrative gradually shifts from heist plot to love triangle.

It is to the film's enormous credit that it manages to keep all the plates in the air: it resolves the heist plot in a fashion that exploits the potential (both comic and dramatic) inherent when a hipster-plotted crime goes awry, and also satisfyingly resolves the love triangle. This alone would be an impressive feat, but it's worth noting that what really makes Band of Outsiders a masterpiece is that it manages this while also continually playing with and usurping the formal features of film itself: Godard makes dramatic scenes ludicrious by shooting them in long shots instead of close ups; he chops the score into fragments, so that phrases that signify "something dramatic is happening" start up and cut out erratically; a voice-over narrator summarizes the first ten minutes of the film for people coming in to the theatre late, remarks on the potential for a sequel, etc. etc. In this way, Band of Outsiders stands as a perfect piece of postmodern cinema, underlining again and again the film's status as a manufactured artifact in a way that should feel familiar to fans of, say, Hal Hartley, or to anyone who went to see Grindhouse (2006).

Godard's later work gets really obsessed with this trick of short-circuiting the expectations of cinema-goers, or otherwise denying them the cathartic release that comes with narrative: I'm considering choosing his apocalyptic train-wreck Weekend (1967) for next week's film club installment as an example.

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