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Band of Outsiders

Along with Breathless (1960), Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders (1964, French title: Bande a part) is considered by many to be one of the director's most accessible early works and that is exactly what Godard intended. He needed a commercial hit at the time that would enable him to make the more personal films he had in mind such as Pierrot le fou (1965) which was in the planning stage for years. Based on the pulp fiction novel Fools' Gold by Dolores Hitchens, Band of Outsiders is the story of a young, wayward trio composed of Odile (Anna Karina), a bored student, and two small time hooligans, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), who plot a robbery together. Despite the movie's box office aspirations, it was not a hit in France and was attacked by many of Godard's critics and supporters at the time for being a sellout; one reviewer even made the case that Godard's movie was an example of "an author in the process of plagiarizing himself."

Since its release, however, Band of Outsiders has found its audience, particularly in the U.S. where it influenced such independent filmmakers as Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, and where it was first championed by such important critics as Manny Farber and Pauline Kael; the latter wrote, "It's as if a French poet took a banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines; Godard re-creates the gangsters and the moll with his world of associations - seeing them as people in a Paris café, mixing them with Rimbaud, Kafka, Alice in Wonderland. This lyrical tragicomedy is perhaps Godard's most delicately charming film."

It was while Godard was in the final editing stage of Contempt (1963) that he decided to set up his own production company because he was having no luck attracting investors for his new projects in Europe. In desperation, he turned to Hollywood: "I wrote to Columbia, Paramount, United Artists, asking could they give me $100,000 to make a picture. They said, "Well, that's a huge fee for a director." And I said, "No, that's not for me, that's for the whole picture." Columbia was the only one interested."

The studio offered him a choice of three projects but he picked Fools' Gold, based on the recommendation of his friend, director Francois Truffaut. Like Breathless, Band of Outsiders gave Godard the opportunity to take lowbrow material and transform it into something highly original and idiosyncratic. In an interview with French critic Jean Collet, the director said, "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....For instance, if a scene takes place in a car, 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."

As the first film produced by his production company Anouchka Films (named after his nickname for his wife Anna Karina), Godard had a lot riding on Band of Outsiders. He intended for the film to reestablish his commercial viability as an international filmmaker but to also give a boost to his wife's career who had yet to reach the level of fame enjoyed by other contemporary French actresses such as Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot. At the time Karina was recovering from losing a child during her pregnancy followed by a suicide attempt. She later recalled, "I had come out of the hospital. It was a painful moment. I had lost the taste for life at that time. In the meantime I had lost weight. I wasn't doing well, neither in my head nor in my body...I had no more desire to live. I was doing very, very badly. This film saved my life." The relationship between Karina and Godard was also on shaky ground by this point in their marriage and they would soon go their separate ways after working together on Alphaville (1965), although they were not officially divorced until 1967.

Quite possibly it is this tension between the actress and director and the underlying sadness and anxieties of their lives at that moment in time that resonates through Band of Outsiders and provides a striking contrast to the spontaneous, lyrical bursts of exuberance, youthful high spirits and madcap fun that occur throughout the movie. Amazingly, the entire production took only twenty-five days to shoot and was filmed under mostly gray, wintry skies in the Parisian suburb of Bastille and at deserted points along the Marne River. "Everything was very precise, decided in advance - even the details," noted co-star Sami Frey, and Raoul Coutard, the film's cinematographer, confirmed Godard's methodical working methods. "...it was a given that we would work with a handheld camera, always following the actors - whereas in his other films the camera had moved freely, independent of the actors...First the actors' movements were pretty thoroughly prepared; Godard himself stood in the place of the camera. Then there were the rehearsals with the camera, to synchronize the movements of the camera and the actors."

One of the most memorable sequences in Band of Outsiders is when the three characters go to a café and break into a seemingly impromptu display of 'The Madison' by the jukebox. According to Godard, "...we rehearsed for two weeks, three times each week. Sami and Claude [Brasseur] 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." The immediacy of the scene, which holds up to repeated viewings, reveals as much about the three characters as it does the director. "None of them has a finer moment than the Madison, just a couple minutes during which each manages to telegraph everything you might need to know about them," wrote Joshua Clover in his liner notes for the Criterion Edition DVD of Band of Outsiders. "If it's a set piece, it's also the heartbreaking heart of a total, complex movie; it makes a microhistory of the changes at stake...But Godard sees in such a moment more complexity than a musical comedy would allow, or a grand tragedy for that matter. There's something of both in the joy and alienation expressed equally in Arthur, Franz and Odile's dance, choreographed to bar jukebox and internal monologue. Never have three people been so alone together, a band and apart, in a singular double-exposure of one moment arriving as another passes away."

Band of Outsiders premiered at several film festivals after its completion but won no awards and in most cases, either baffled, disappointed or angered audiences (it was booed at the Locarno Film Festival). And it didn't fare any better when it opened at theatres in Paris and experienced more attacks and dismissals by the French critics. Of course, by this time, Godard was already deep into his next projects, which included Une Femme Mariee, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou and the episode "Montparnasse-Levallois" for the anthology film, Six in Paris - all of which were shot, astonishingly enough, in 1965!

Among his many early triumphs, however, Band of Outsiders is for many the supreme achievement. Amy Taubin in her perceptive Village Voice wrote that the film "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."

Director: JeanLuc Cinéma Godard
Screenplay: Dolores Hitchens (novel); Jean-Luc Godard (scenario, uncredited)
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Music: Michel Legrand
Film Editing: Françoise Collin, Dahlia Ezove, Agnès Guillemot
Cast: Anna Karina (Odile), Danièle Girard (English Teacher), Louisa Colpeyn (Madame Victoria), Chantal Darget (Arthur's Aunt), Sami Frey (Franz), Claude Brasseur (Arthur), Georges Staquet (Le légionnaire), Ernest Menzer (Arthur's Uncle), Jean-Claude Rémoleux (L'élève buveur d'alcool).
BW-95m.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
Godard by Colin MacCabe (Bloomsbury)
Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody (Faber & Faber)
VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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