Band of Outsiders (1964)

January 26, 2007

Recently, the wife and I made the exciting decision to take a trip to France later this year. So if you notice a sudden influx of French films on the blog in the coming weeks (I don’t think I’ve reviewed a single French film thus far), that is why.

For some reason, I’ve never really gotten into the French cinema as much as, say, Italian or Japanese. It’s somewhat strange since it seems like it would be right up my alley. In many ways, trying to describe the tradition of French film – particularly since the 60s – sounds a lot like a description of lyric poetry. It is concerned with empirical reality primarily to the extent that it leads one to something deeper – those inner qualities and emotions that can be so difficult to express. Thus, having a straightforward, sensible narrative band21.jpgsometimes takes a backseat  in favor of the somewhat off-the-wall, “artsy” images and dialogue that so typify French film. This sentiment was pretty much the driving force at the heart of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) movement in the 60s, and I recently watched one of the movement’s classic films – Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders.

I’m afraid I’m not terribly well versed in the New Wave movement beyond its most basic tenets. Essentially, it did for cinema what the Modernists did for literature – i.e., it tried to make things new. New Wave proponents such as Godard and Francois Truffaut rebelled against classical cinematic form and explored unorthodox moviemaking and storytelling techniques in attempts to challenge the viewer’s notion of filmmaking and expand the artform’s capabilities. Thematically, many of the genre’s best known works are influenced by existentialism and thus features protaganists who struggle to understand the nature of being. As a result of such characteristics, the resulting films are often very metacinematical, reflexive pieces that question both the limitations of film and the very meaning of life. These questions, however, are often hidden under a veneer of a playful, superficial plot, and only as events unfold do they finally begin to surface. I’ve found that this, more than anything, is why watching a New Wave film can be such an unsettling experience. Godard’s film is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Band of Outsiders follows two wannabe thugs, Arthur and Franz, as they try to convince fellow student Odile to help them rob the wealthy benefactor with whom she is living. While doing so, both men fall for Odile and try to win her affection. Despite the potential seriousness of the crime, band.jpgfor the most part, the film playfully follows the three’s rather mundane daily lives – as they talk or dance at a cafe, as they reenact scenes from B-Westerns, etc. (Following criminals during such trivial moments might seem familiar to fans of Tarentino’s work, who, indeed, is a New Wave disciple. In fact, his production company, A Band Apart, is named after this film’s French name, Bande a part.) And yet, as is made obvious by bits of the dialogue and particularly by Godard’s occassional narration, there is a longing underlying their every action. No matter how they try to fulfill it – whether through love, money, or art – they are unsuccessful in their attempts.

Band of Outsiders is not generally as well known as Godard’s other New Wave classic, Breathless, nor do I think it’s quite as good. Nonetheless, it is fairly accessible and is probably a good introduction to the Movement. For me, there was just something a little too disjointed between the daily, superficial lives of the protaganists and the deeper, more meaningful questions the film was trying to ask (I’m sure somebody could well argue that this was actually something Godard was trying to do intentionally). Those few scenes where these two levels come closest to connecting, such as the Metro scene, which I consider to be the real central scene of the film, I found particularly moving. I just found such scenes too few and far between and as a result found the finished product somewhat lacking the aesthetic appeal of a film like Breathless. One should take my objections with a grain of salt, however, as I’ve encountered some zealous fans of this film, and I can certainly understand why they argue it’s one of the genuine classics of the French cinema.