Thursday, February 11, 2010

Band of Outsiders

Godard pushed his luck when he cast Fritz Lang, an established master, as his avatar in Contempt, but he more or less chucks modesty out the window when he bills himself "Jean-Luc 'Cinéma' Godard" in the opening credits of his 1964 opus, Band of Outsiders. It's a fair assessment, though: of his previous six films, one could certifiably be called a watershed in the medium (Breathless), and all but Les Carabiniers were the toast of critics the world over. He became the symbol of the most important and revolutionary cinematic movement in the medium's history, and while he made clear with Contempt that he was not about to run to Hollywood, Godard had the film world in his palm.

Building off the idea of Contempt -- to break from commercial filmmaking before he could actually become a part of it -- Band of Outsiders sends Godard back to the beginning: like Breathless, it is a gangster picture without proper gangster, substituting them for angsty youths without purpose. Yet Band of Outsiders is reflective and delicate where Breathless is chic. It eschews the fractured montage of its predecessor yet in no way compromises the director's style; if anything, it finds the midpoint between artistic Breathless and the more jaunty fare of Une Femme est une Femme.

Consider the way that it follows these adults, young as they may be, in a childlike manner. It opens on wannabe rebels Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) attending English classes, where they meet Odile (Anna Karina). The classroom setting automatically evokes memories of school, and Karina, with her hair in bunches and her doe eyes as wide as they can be, looks even younger than she was at the time. The two men lust for her and attempt to woo her in class. Franz plays the cool, aloof guy, while Arthur writes the sort of notes that are passed in junior high, let alone high school, and slips them to his crush. Somehow, Godard manages to navigate this absurdity into a genuinely felt emotional snapshot of adolescence and the way men of all age will make dopes out of themselves when they truly like a gal.

For their romanticism, though, neither the lads nor Odile particularly care about much. They loaf about Paris and entertain themselves through how bored they are. "What do you love, then?" asks Odile's aunt Victoria, her caretaker, after Odile lists off the various things she hates (the cinema, the theater, the boulevards). "I don't know," comes the withdrawn response. She stumbles across a possible activity for her new friends when she discovers a massive sum of money belonging to M. Stoltz, a man who lodges in Victoria's home. Naturally, Arthur and Franz suggest a robbery.

The existential ennui that pervaded Breathless seemed more a reflection of its leads' arrogance and self-absorption, but here finds a proper social context. Michel and Patricia hinted at what Odile, Arthur and Franz make clear: the youth in France are directionless and repressed. Karina is dressed in long skirts and made to look like an innocent, virginal schoolgirl, yet she contains more sexual power to these men than she presents as a stripper in A Woman is a Woman. She has no wisdom to impart, but that only identifies her as a kindred spirit. As they sit in a café, the trio decide that they have nothing left to say and call for a minute of silence (not only do they not speak, Godard cuts out the audio track). It lasts only 36 seconds though, when Franz curtly says, "Enough of that," a subtle encapsulation of the entire film: these people have nothing to say, yet they'll still make a commotion because, hey, what the hell else can you do?

That scene is directly followed by the film's most famous (and most referenced), in which the three dance to an R&B tune (actually a composition of score writer Michel Legrand) in the café. It's a deceptively romantic (in the poetic sense) moment, a bit of spontaneity in their humdrum lives. Yet their sloppy, plodding shuffle carries an edge of tragedy, a dead-eyed, lethargic realization that this may be as good as it ever gets. It finds a counterpoint in the only truly joyous moment we see of their lives: their sprint through the Louvre. But even that moment of unrestrained flippancy toward tradition and propriety has a dark side to it. They run through the Louvre to break the "record" for traversing the museum, and the narrator informs us that they succeeded, completing their sprint in 9 minutes and 33 seconds; ergo, their happiest moment, of which we only see about 30 seconds, is over in a flash.

Godard's direction reflects both these social concerns and the nature of the plot. As Odile rides with the lads in Franz's Simca in the rain, the windshield wipers move from the edge to meet in the middle as opposed to American models. They meet to frame Odile in the middle, squashed by the two men vying for her affection. More politically, Godard inserts an ancillary shot in a subway train: the doors open to reveal a sign that says "Liberté" while smaller ones right underneath read "Sorties" and lead to the exits. Could, then, Godard be suggesting that freedom in France has left the building, so to speak? This came out four years before May '68, but there's something clearly weighing on the director's mind.

Everything, as it must, does not go according to plan at the end, at first comically and, finally, tragically. As with Breathless, the survivors move beyond the climactic death immediately, yet Arthur's demise resonates more deeply than Michel's. An on-the-nose segment near the start of the film features the ESL teacher lecturing the class on Romeo in Juliet, and Arthur's death is downright Shakespearean in Brasseur's drawn-out flailing. But that bit of melodrama adds to the effect, highlighting the grand perversity of a young man being killed by his vicious uncle. It's the sort of thing that should only exist in hyperbolic fiction, though something like it happens every day.

It also maintains the charm of the picture, which hardly makes sense and reflects the impressive manner in which Godard mysteriously channels the misery of these three future burnouts' lives into something endearing. He doesn't judge these characters, perhaps because, compared to Contempt, he doesn't judge himself. In the classroom, Odile recites a T.S. Eliot quote, "Everything that is new is thereby automatically traditional." Godard referenced his own work ever since he had more than one film to work with, but the incredible proximity of Band of Outsiders to Breathless shows the director treating his own work as cinema history to be examined. Contempt, if only for a brief moment, helped Godard get over his insecurity in his place in the cinematic hierarchy, and Band of Outsiders is his most accessible and inviting film yet because the auteur focuses solely on the film and not how it reflects upon him.

1 comment:

  1. I love your interpretation of the "liberte" sign as an early indication of Godard's dawning political consciousness. Obviously, Godard always had something to say about disaffection and disconnection, from his very first film on, but his conception of this youthful discontent would become more and more politicized and powerful as the 60s wore on.

    This film was my first exposure to Godard, way back when, and I suspect it serves that purpose for a lot of people: as you say, it's more accessible than Breathless, more light-hearted in its surface aesthetics, even as it essentially chronicles the same milieu of angry, bored Parisian youths. It's easy to miss, amidst all the whimsy and playful aesthetic diversions — the "minute of silence," the dance, the sped-up run through the Louvre, a nod to Godard's oft-unacknowledged inspiration from silent comedy — that this is another story about bored youngsters playing at being gangsters because they honestly can't think of anything better to do. The ending, a Chaplin homage, is both sweetly romantic and yet also somehow melancholy; there's a suggestion, perhaps as you say in the dull eyes of the protagonists, that this "happy ending" is not permanent.