Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964)

“The Americans are good at story telling.  The French are not.”  Holding such a sentiment did not prevent  Jean-Luc Godard from attempting his own takes on genre films – a favorite staple of American directors since the founding days of cinema in the United States.  In fact, the early years of Godard’s career (the late 50’s to the early 60s) revealed a director very much involved in an Americanesque phase.  One of the best films to come from this period is BAND OF OUTSIDERS (French, 1964) starring his wife at the time, Anna Karina.  But this is a Jean-Luc Godard genre film, after all, which means that the picture is virtually plotless and functions mainly as a platform for the “new wave” icon to explore some of his favorite authors, directors, actors and cultural figures. 

Meeting in an English language class, Odile (Karina), Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) plan to steal tens of thousands of francs from Odile’s rich Aunt (Louisa Colpeyn), with whom she lives in a palatial mansion.  The money actually (can’t really say “belongs”) to the mysterious Mr. Stolz, the Aunts lover, who also lives at the estate.  He came into the money  through tax evasion, and is a symbol of the corrupt capitalist, getting rich while refusing to pay his fair share.  He is a sort of McGuffin in that he is never shown, but is the reason the plot is put into motion. 

But it is Godard’s cultural and artistic obsessions that get the most attention.  The film begins with a flashing montage of the three principals’ faces accompanied by Michel Legrand’s silent movie style music and the final credit on-screen is “Directed by Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard”.  Arthur and Franz may be named in honor of “B” picture star Arthur Franz, and the two constantly enact shootouts from gangster movies.  They remark that Odile has “soft skin”,  possibly a plug for Francois Truffaut’s movie of that name, released the same year as BAND OF OUTSIDERS.  Godard’s idols from the other arts are also mentioned.  Franz is a fanatic for books and in English class the instructor (Danièle Girard) points out that it is not important to know how to say “where is the bathroom”.  It is however, essential to know how to spell “Thomas Hardy”.  Lengthy readings are given of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, as Arthur passes love notes to Odile.  After this, it is back to film commentary.  At the end of class a student asks “How do you say ‘big one million dollar film?'”, an allusion to Godard’s distaste for big budget commercial cinema.  Later, when Arthur asks Odile for a date, he playfully places his closed fist on her chin, pretending to sock her, like so many gangster and private eye movie tough guys.  Arthur wears a Humphrey Bogart style overcoat throughout the film, as does Franz.  The three are frequently seen “bogarting” cigarettes and often pass a pork pie hat between them.  Arthur constantly speaks of Odile possibly “betraying” him, as if he believes in the film noir cliché of the duplicitous femme fatale.  And – horrors – Odile remarks at one point “I hate cinema!  I hate theater!  I love nature!” as though there is something unnatural about the filmed image and performance.

Capitalism, another Godard obsession, is attacked in sharp fashion.  Early in the film, Odile is asked how she plans to explain leaving the house for so long a time to her domineering Aunt.  “I’ll  tell her I’m going shopping”, is her reply.  An innocuous sounding statement, perhaps, but knowing Godard’s hatreds (a key one being consumerism) it must be interpreted as anything but.  In a diner, Odile orders a Coca-Cola – reminding us of Godard’s famous description of the 60’s generation as “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” – fascinated by Marxism but prey to all the capitalist vices.  When discussing the planned robbery, Arthur remarks “better to be rich and happy than poor and unhappy.”  This equating of money with happiness is an attitude the filmmaker must find incomprehensible. 

The power of advertising is decried as a newspaper ad for make-up announces “It’s not just your looks, but your happiness.”  All news and advertising media are seen as a servant of capitalism, polluting us with constant stimuli (visuals and sound), all saying “buy this, think that.”  It apparently has Godard’s head swimming and late in the film Odile challenges Arthur and Franz to go without speaking for an entire minute.  As they attempt this feat, all sounds from the noisy diner – voices, music etc. –  disappear from the soundtrack.  It is an eerie touch and needless to say, one of them cracks before the minute is up.  Modern man, it seems, needs constant distractions. 

Godard plays off traditional romance films and even has Arthur and Odile take a trip to the subway – the bowels of the earth, and Arthur states bluntly that love talk is “crap”.  Something else of interest happens in the subway: The couple see a man seated on the train holding a small white box.  Arthur remarks that the blank expression on his face could be interpreted in wildly differing ways depending on what you imagine to be in the box.  If he is holding a Teddy bear, the expression could be sublime.  If he is holding a stick of dynamite the look may be sinister.  This conversation is a reworking of the Lev Kuleshov film editing experiments conducted in the early years of the Soviet Union, where the same shot of an old man is intercut with different images, as seen from his point of view.  Depending on what he is viewing, his expression will be interpreted in different ways by the audience.  Astute fellows, Godard and Kuleshov. 

The distancing techniques of playwright Bertolt Brecht are employed as Odile sings a mournful ditty while staring directly into the camera.  The song is about the common plight of all people, as she sees it – loneliness.  The use of singing and addressing the audience serve to remind us that we are watching a film.  As such Godard is saying “This is only a movie.  Do not become so involved with the plot, and instead focus on what is being said.”  And the message is an important one, as repeated by Franz at the end of the film.  Speaking to Odile he states, “Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?  Always remaining separate.”  Thus the title is fully explained: We are all outsiders, 

With Arthur killed in the robbery and no money to speak of, Franz and Odile head off to their futures together – and one last dig at “papa’s cinema”, as the narrator describes a “Technicolor, CinemaScope” film to follow of their adventures.  The narrator is Jean-Luc Godard himself, a wise choice to tell the story of one mans obsessions, hatreds and passions. 

CREDITS: Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.  Based on the novel FOOLS’ GOLD by Dolores Hitchens. Cinematography by Raoul Coutard.  Music by Michel Legrand.  With: Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, Danièle Girard, Louisa Colpeyn.                             

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April 30, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, film directors, French "new wave", French cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment