- Ravi Swami
"Bande à part", dir: Jean-Luc Godard, 1964
I rarely seek out reviews of films after I've seen them although it can be interesting to see what other people think, mainly because if it's a film I haven't seen before, I don't want to be over-influenced in my reaction to it.
The work of Jean-Luc Godard has been endlessly analyzed since he was possibly the most prolific and controversial of the French New Wave directors, even if he came to the table as a director quite late, and what seems to emerge is that besides being heavily influenced by Hollywood genres, something he shared with other New Wave directors, many of his films have an autobiographical element, often cleverly disguised and integrated into genre-referencing plots.
I wasn't aware, when I watched it, of the fact that, for example, "Bande à part" (Eng: "The Outsiders") was one of the last he made starring Anna Karina, at the time erstwhile muse of the French New Wave and of Godard's films in particular since she was his wife, and ex-wife when he made the film.
That said, the film was just another random choice on BFI Player, another "Godard film", and the summary of the plot gave little away besides the two male characters being influenced by Hollywood films and it being a picture of France and French youth in the 1960's and possibly a reflection of concerns about the negative effects of popular culture, and films in particular, on young people - now it might be video games, for example.
I partly expected a plot about a doomed "menage a trois" relationship drama centering on Anna Karina's character, underscored by Godard's typical introspective narration laced with literary references.
On the face of it, "Bande à part" is a typical Godard "exercise in style", in the same way that "Alphaville" is an exploration of a genre, science fiction, though here it is the American "Film Noir" - the two male leads are a couple of petty criminals, one of whom, Franz, meets Odile, (Karina), the niece of wealthy woman and her husband, in an English language class and on befriending her discovers that her aunt's husband, who it transpires is an embezzler, has a large amount of cash in their home.
Franz and his accomplice Arthur make a plan to steal the money with Odile's help, though she is reluctant, in the process vying for her attentions romantically, which is part of their plan, and ultimately only Arthur is able to ensure that they have her loyalty when he succeeds in sleeping with her.
Godard very often deliberately referenced films of other New Wave fellow directors in his films - here, besides Michel Legrand delivering the film's score, a scene set around a pool-table in a cafe uses Legrand's sung-dialogue score from Jacques Demy's hit film "The Umbrella's of Cherbourg", broadcast on a radio. Other whimsical interludes take in Hollywood musicals and comedies to suggest that the trio want to challenge the adult world, such as a now iconic scene in a cafe where they dance the "Madison" together, or decide to run through the Louvre to beat a world record for the same thing.
Things take a dark turn as the plot goes wrong and by the end it is too late for Odile since she has thrown in her lot with the two criminals and after Arthur is shot and killed in a very caricatured version of a gangster film shoot-out, both she and Franz, who she realizes she is in love with, make a plan to escape to South America to avoid justice.
In retrospect there are many clues in Anna Karina's performance that hint at her relationship with the Godard at the time - gone is flirting with the camera that characterized Godard's films at the height of their off-screen, on-screen romantic life, to be replaced by anguish, and the film is shot in moody monochrome in the depths of winter in the Paris suburb of Joinville, and if there is any autobiographical subtext at all in the plot it seems to be mostly in the tone of the film, with Godard implying that all adventures, like his life with Karina, are doomed to end, perhaps badly, though Odile and Franz are offered a lifeline in the form of a future together.
In some ways "Bande à part" marks the beginning of a change of direction in Godard's films, moving away from themes that reflected the intersection of his personal and professional life and a move towards more political themes, and also, perhaps, a growing cynicism with the whole New Wave movement, something referenced in a scene set in a Paris street where we see very clearly a shop called "Nouvelle Vague", or "New Wave", suggesting that Godard was wryly signaling a "full-stop" on his career within the French New Wave movement.