Various and sundry elements have kept me from progressing in my series on influential French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, but it’s good to be back writing about him again. This week we come to a film that is often described as Godard’s most accessible film, a statement that ultimately rings quite true. It also, however, could be in some ways considered ground zero for one of modern cinema’s most outlandish and outspoken directors.
You can practically set your watch to the moment when Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” became one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies. About 48 minutes in, Arthur (Claude Brasseur), Odile (Anna Karina) and Franz (Sami Frey) have an impromptu dance session in the middle of a coffee shop. It’s one of several light-hearted digressions that give the film its energetic identity, but this one in particular is practically a blueprint for how Tarantino would handle the same sort of digressions in his own films.
The now-famous dance scene with Uma Thurman and John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction” can be traced directly back to this coffee shop session, and Thurman’s character, Mia Wallace, was pretty clearly inspired by Karina’s in this. Even Tarantino’s production company, A Band Apart, was named after the French title of this film, “Bande à part.” But more than anything, there’s a spirit to the film that seemed to have attached itself to Tarantino on a primal level.
It was obvious from the outset of Godard’s career that he had his own obsessions with American cinema, as well as pulp crime novels and other stylistic elements. He has Jean-Paul Belmondo adjust his own fedora while a fat cigarette dangles from his mouth while staring a movie poster plastered with Humphrey Bogart’s visage. If that’s not being overt with one’s influences, I’m not sure what is and is more or less the same thing as using Ennio Morricone musical cues.
Like “Breathless,” “Band of Outsiders” is a loose love story wrapped around an even looser crime story. Arthur and Franz are two playful pals (they zip around in Franz’s convertible and play act bits in the street like the shooting death of Billy the Kid) who get the bright idea to try and score a fat sum of cash. They got the idea from a cute but naïve Odile who is taking an English class with them (and in whose house lies the cash).
The “heist” (if you can even call it that) is barely a concern for most of the film and only occupies a tiny portion of the proceedings. The money is brought up in nearly every scene, but the trio seems far more concerned with going out for a drink, dancing, driving in Franz’s car and sprinting through The Louvre.
Like with “Breathless,” Godard is far more interested in providing a procession of cool and fun moments rather than telling any sort of interesting or unique story or giving us a thrilling crime caper. It moves at its own unique rhythm, managing to be both a free-spirited romp while also throwing in a bit of melancholy. I found myself feeling sad for Franz every time Odile would reject one of his cigarettes, but immediately light up one of Arthur’s.
Likewise, Odile seems to alternate constantly between being excited at the prospect of falling in with Arthur and Franz, yet also scared at the notion of becoming a criminal. None of this is ever said by her, but rather entirely evident in Anna Karina’s eyes. If there is one thing Godard accomplishes with absolute precision in this film, it is in his ability to have his actors tell us everything, often by doing so very little.
As mentioned earlier, it’s easy to see why this is considered Godard’s most accessible film. He’s not trying to turn conventions on their head or relay any sort of deeper artistic meaning to anything and his stylistic bag of tricks is kept to a minimum (although the moment when he cuts all audio for a “minute of silence” is brilliant and the most memorable part of the film outside of the dance scene). It’s a good movie, though, and worth watching, especially for those eager to see where a master inspired a master.
Next week, I’ll (hopefully) continue this series with a review of “Alphaville,” followed by “Pierrot le Fou.”
Stewart Smith is the Entertainment Editor for the Tyler Morning Telegraph. Contact him at 903-596-6301 or by e-mail at ssmith@tylerpa per.com.