Before we begin I feel I need to get one thing straight; Godard IS God. To begin a film blog without starting with one of the greatest auteurs of the medium, who influenced the direction of Modern Cinema, would be like making an omelette without an egg. It just wouldn’t work! And so, I will introduce Godard as he would one of his characters, narrating over a scene; Wealthy Swiss family…aimless boy in Paris…Left Bank…Marxist radical views…a meeting of film obsessive minds…birth of a revolutionary film movement…a Danish girl…enigmatic…iconic black shades and trilby hat…Legend.
Godard’s seventh film feature is his most accessible to date, adhering to his own dictum that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. So typical of his sweeping statements that hold a truth within them – to reduce the essence of public appeal to sex and violence but also the opportunist ability for anyone to make a film with very little money. Bande a part (The Outsiders), filmed in 1964, is a loose adaption of the pulp novel ‘Fool’s Gold’ by Dolores Hitchens, in which a trio of disillusioned and bored youths plan a robbery that is doomed to fail from the start. It is Godard’s homage to the American gangster B-movies that he and his friends from Cahiers du Cinema (a famous film magazine) adored and waxed lyrical about. But this is Godard we’re talking about and so nothing is at all straightforward. Many critics believe the film to be one of his lesser efforts but in my view it is probably the best introduction to his style and is his most linear narrative, but still the plot is more secondary to the characters and mood. It is a film which follows two petty criminals Franz (Frey), a shy, hesitant young man and his friend Arthur (Brasseur), a self-assured rogue who hatch a plan to rob loot from the house where Odile (Karina) lives with her aunt. Odile is a confused, insecure girl who they meet through English class and begin a torturous love triangle with.
There’s always a wonderful dynamism in Godard’s films and a witty humour (which is often overlooked by many who fixate on the intellectual genius able to quote Baudelaire and Zola in the same breath.)The opening title sequence flickers between close-up shots of the three characters whilst a jaunty ragtime piano plays which lends an immediate comical effect that never fails to illicit a smile. The camera occasionally freezing upon either Karina’s, Frey’s or Brasseur’s face as a letter from the film’s title punctuates the screen in time with the music temporarily halting before rattling on again. And then suddenly the music cuts out and the audience is launched into the streets following Franz and Arthur as they drive around in their Simca convertible. It is an example of one of Godard’s trademark effects to disorientate the audience by disruptively jump cutting between scenes, never easing the audience into the differing scenario or mood. This is due in part to Godard’s rebellious determination to undo the traditional conventions of Hollywood films and play with the possibilities of film but also to employ the alienation devices of Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright.
Godard was greatly influenced by Brecht’s belief that a play should not make the audience emotionally identify with the characters but should instead provoke self-reflection, engaging the mind to question one’s views. The devices that Godard uses is to film characters from behind as they talk; jump cuts to disrupt the editing flow; characters address the audience directly (ie. when Karina turns to the screen and proclaims ‘A plan? What for?’as Arthur directs the gang to a cafe to prepare for the robbery); the repetition of dialogue from a different camera angle and throwing the audience by including irrelevant details with no connection to the story (ie. Odile feeding a tiger on her way to visit the boys.)
Bande a part is also a study of the boredom of life in the Parisian suburbs. Unemployment is alluded to at the beginning when Franz says there are no vacancies at the factory. Odile’s aunt sends her to English class to improve her prospects. They all appear to be aimless, with crime a casual distraction to relieve them of the dreary surroundings and dull routine. But there is also a hope that with the money from the caper they can escape to America where life will surely be better.
These darker undertones of restlessness are beautifully reflected in Raoul Coutard’s cinematography. Coutard’s prominence in Godard’s work cannot be underestimated – he has been director of photography for 17 of Godard’s films. He had fallen into film by accident. He was first and foremost a war photographer, a photojournalist and on learning of his background, Godard de-moted his appointed cinematographer. It was a collaborative effort in which Godard asked Coutard to shoot his films like a reportage, using hand held cameras and natural lighting. Tonal greys and blacks seep onto the screen, giving the desolate and bleak landscape a faded quality. Capturing the stark outline of the bare tree branches against a threatening cloudy sky, or using specific stock film to create raw, saturated colours for night scenes and the breathtaking sequence on the Metro. The camera language is also very fluid. Running alongside the characters as they chase through the Louvre or vibrating as it rests on the car bonnet observing the characters as they drive through town. It wanders like a roving eye, for example, when Arthur instructs Odile to remove her tights, the lens follows her hands as she fiddles with her suspenders and unwittingly flashes her pale, white thighs to Arthur and us, the audience.
The film is also enhanced by Michel Legrand’s musical score. His use of haunting brass horns, unfinished melodic phrases and unresolved chords add to the sense of foreboding, a precursor to the shoot-out between Arthur and his uncle. Legrand also sneakily weaves in strains of the theme of an earlier Godard film that he composed for ‘Une femme est une femme.’
Referencing are a huge component of Godard’s films, whether it be through music, particular shots, character names (ie Arthur us named after the author Rimbaud) or literary quotes. In an earlier scene at the English class,the teacher chalks up on the blackboard ‘classic=modern’, at once a contrary equation but it also reads as the Nouvelle Vague’s notion that to create fresh, modern Cinema one must refer to the classics that have gone beforehand.
Even though there is an inevitable dark mood that surrounds the film, Godard interjects scenes with light-hearted decadent indulgences that are so exhilarating to behold. The famous scene when on a whim Odile, Franz and Arthur run through the Louvre to break an American record is a delight to watch. There’s the minute of silence which Odile insists upon in a crowded cafe and on the count of three Godard cuts out the music and background noise forcing the audience to participate, although they get bored very easily and only manage 40 seconds. The exquisite dance sequence in the cafe where the characters dance the Madison, isolated from one another but dancing with such detached charm as Godard’s voice intersects and cuts out the music as he describes the thoughts running through each character’s mind. Franz and Arthur’s playful re-enactment of the shooting of Billy the Kid on the streets. The glances in the English class where the camera follows Franz’s longing for Odile and Odile’s stand off towards him, Franz’s warning look to Arthur and Odile’s infatuated look to Arthur and Arthur’s returned indifferent look to both of them, is like a delicate ballet of camera work intertwined with the character’s emotions.
But probably my favourite sequence is on the Metro where such tenderness is played out between Arthur and Odile. She believes marriage is the answer for them and Arthur questions her thinking. They converse about perception, Arthur argues that the same image can be given a different understanding; a man looking sad on the metro carrying a package could be carrying a teddy bear to a sick child in hospital which would make him kind and sympathetic or he could be a terrorist carrying a bomb which would make him evil. This is a key issue for Godard, growing up in Switzerland he had the unique position of being able to view both German and English newsreels, using the same images but often accompanied with two completely differing soundtracks. Karina sings a melancholy poem of Louis Aragon’s verses, her girlish voice wavering over a montage of images of varying loneliness ( a homeless man, a woman waiting for her date…)and then her heart shaped face turns to the camera and directly says ‘It breaks my heart’ and as the tube slowly pulls into the platform the word ‘Liberty’ draws into our view. Karina’s expressive face illustrates how desperate Odile is to have freedom from anxiety, a need for hope that ends with her ensconced, safely in Arthur’s embrace in his bed. It is an unbelievably touching sequence, delivered by a master who at once is thought provoking,arrogant, anarchic and beguiling.
‘Jean – Luc Cinema Godard’ as the director so modestly declared in the opening credit titles really is. Godard truly equates Cinema – no other director tested or relished the form of film more than he.