It’s time for a Jean-luc Godard review, but where as I struggled with exactly what I should say in regards to Breathless, partially because it seems one of the most written-about films this side of Zombie Lake (which seems to be one of the most reviewed movies on the internet), when it comes to Band of Outsiders, my problem is with having too much to say. So we’ll start with the so-called general consensus: Band of Outsiders is Godard for people who don’t much care for Godard. Considered by some to be one of Godard’s lighter films because it is more accessible and less maverick in its approach, Band of Outsiders still offers up a fine example of the French maverick at his best, and the fact that he doesn’t imitate himself should be an example of Band of Outsiders‘ inventiveness rather than the other way around. Missing from the film, for the most part, are Godard’s signature jump cuts and unsteady camera. In their place is one of his more conventional and straight-forward narratives. But don’t let the surface simplicity of the film trick you. This is still Godard, and this is still the French New Wave. There’s a lot boiling under the surface even if it’s not as expressly obvious as in Breathless and the director’s other, better known, and more celebrated works.
Band of Outsiders tells the story of three people. Two of them, Franz (the smoldering, handsome Sami Frey) and Arthur (DeNiro-esque Claude Brasseur) are down-on-their-luck pulp entertainment nerds who fancy themselves real-life low lives. They’re not, of course, and remind me of comic book nerds who think reading The Punisher or Wolverine makes them tough. The third is Odile, played by the divinely beautiful Anna Karina (the love of Godard’s life, at least at the time, and his muse through the 1960s), a young woman who lives with an over-protective aunt and has told her English class mate, Franz, about a large sum of relatively unguarded money stashed in her home. Franz tells Arthur, and the two of them decide to coerce Odile into going along with a scheme to steal the money. There’s just one problem: all three of them are idiots.
Well, maybe not quite idiots. Childlike and naive is probably a more suitable description. Odile is so sheltered from the real world that she still dresses like a little school girl (something that seems perfectly acceptable to the men of the 1960s, and I guess the 1970s, and the 80s, and well, all men throughout the entire history of there being grown women dressing like schoolgirls). When she brags that she knows all about tongue kissing, she demonstrates to Arthur by closing her eye and sticking her tongue out as far as she can. Arthur and Franz are no better. They still run around pretending to be gangsters by shooting at each other with their fingers. Everything they know about being tough, they learned from American gangster movies, and neither has any experience with the real world.
One look at the crime they’re intending to pull off shows that it’s painfully easy, and yet they botch it entirely. They meet to concoct a plan in a local cafe, but Franz and Arthur spend more time jockeying for the affections of Odile in a funny “musical chairs” bit in which each man keeps trying to trump the other in an attempt to sit next to gamine Odile. Like children, they can’t focus on their purpose for even a few minutes. Ostensibly, Arthur and Franz are more interested in the money than Odile, or so they tell themselves. For Arthur, at least, it might be true, but that doesn’t stop him from abandoning their plan to plan in order to flirt and engage in the film’s signature scene as the trio, Odile in her schoolgirl dress and Franz’s gangster fedora, dance the Madison. It’s a simple scene, but you’ll see it mentioned in every single review of the film. That’s because it’s infectiously charming, joyous, and simply a fun scene, maybe one of the best Godard ever shot. Reading a description of it will not do the scene justice, but even people who hate Godard can’t help but smile and find themselves beguiled by Band of Outsiders‘ joyous charm during this scene.
The whole “let’s make a plan” scene reminded me of when I was young and played Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, I played D&D. I bet you did, too. I was an early adopter of the game, back when the red boxed “Basic” and blue boxed “Advanced” sets were sold, and everyone played Keep on the Borderlands a thousand times. Although this was right about the time people started making alarmist made-for-TV movies about how D&D would make Tom Hanks freak out and try to jump off skyscrapers because he thought he was wearing Elfen Boots of Jumping +3, our motley band of adventurers never resembled the candle-burning, cloak-wearing youths in the after-school specials. Generally, our meetings consisted of half an hour of character modification (ie, cheating), half an hour of consuming Stouffers’ French bread pepperoni pizzas, and maybe an hour of game play, tops, in which we didn’t follow any rules and had characters strolling about with three of four catapults and fifty crossbows in tow. If we sustained the game for an hour, it was a record, as usually our youthful zeal prevented us from concentrating on melee with kobolds in favor of running outside to play in the woods or going out back to play TRON by throwing racquetballs at each other. We could never focus on the task at hand, and watching Odile, Franz, and Arthur try to devise a burglary scheme was like watching myself try and concentrate on D&D. It was just more fun to dance the Madison.
The trio finally stitch together the rudimentary basics of a plan far more complex than it needs to be. Given Odile’s aunt’s tendency to go out to society events, all they have to do is waltz in when they know she’s gone and take the money. Anyone could do it, but Franz and Arthur are just too, well, stupid to think of it. They’re too committed to playing it out like a movie, which requires masks and hostage taking and all sorts of other needless complications. In fact, one of the film’s best attributes is the narrator, who in the scene after the trio of bumbling would-be criminals split up to carry out the plan, explains that Franz and Arthur waited until after dark, because that’s always how it’s done in bad B-movies. It doesn’t occur to them, though it does to Godard, that B-movie heists almost never work. But even when things run terribly afoul, the trio doesn’t seem to be able to deal with anything as real. It never seems to occur to them that this is anything but a scene from a movie. The fate of the aunt confuses me a bit. It’s not much a spoiler to reveal that she’s accidentally killed during the feeble burglary attempt, but later when the other occupant of the house comes home, we see a figure run to meet him at the door, wearing what looks to be the same white slip as the aunt. Which would lead one to assume that she wasn’t dead at all, and Arthur and Franz just don’t know how to tell if someone is actually dead. I watched the scene a couple times, even in slow-motion, but I can never tell if that is indeed the aunt who meets the other guy at the door. Thematically, either fate works, though our trio only mistakenly thinking she’s dead maintains their likability.
The narrator pops in several more times. During the Madison dancing scene, he pops in to say something to the effect of, “Now would be a good time to review how each of our heroes is feeling, but that should be pretty obvious.” He also gives a nonsensical run-down of the plot half-way through “for those who came into the theater late.” And finally, in the end, one of the funnier and more poignant pieces of narration explains that they will leave the characters here, when they are happy and hopeful, instead of continuing on and revealing any failure and frustration they may experience later in life, once again, because that’s how good pulp novels always do it. The deadpan narrator was an integral part of old film noir, so it’s a natural device for Godard to adopt.
Though easier to follow and digest, Band of Outsiders shares much with Godard’s previous homage to American B-movies, Breathless. Both feature characters who are looking to imitate their American idols. Where as Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel really was a small-time hood, Franz and Arthur’s “petty crook” status exists purely in the realm of fantasy. Franz is guilty of bad driving, but that’s about it. Jean Seberg’s Patricia in Breathless is a lost woman looking to become French just as her French boyfriend seeks to be more American, though neither of them really knows much about what that means as they’ve both formed their idea of what it is to be French or to be American based only on pop culture entertainment. None of the leads in Band of Outsiders are as world-weary as Michel and Patricia; they’re too naive for that. But all these characters share a common bond in that they’ve mistaken movies for reality.
Let’s move on to the performances. The performances in Breathless were often purposely stilted, deadpan, and remote, with characters staring blank-eyed into the camera and reciting their lines lifelessly. Godard doesn’t rely on that technique for Band of Outsiders, where the acting is much less stylized and more “believable.” All three leads have incredible charisma, with Arthur being the most obviously dangerous of the three, the kind of guy who sees lots of movies and fancies himself a tough guy and might one day just haul off and stab someone out of delusion. Chalk that up to the fact that he lives with overbearing, clingy relatives and an uncle who seems to be a real-life hood.
And Anna Karina – what can I say? It’s obvious why the characters, and even Godard himself, can’t keep their minds on crime when she’s around. She’s a stunning beauty, and her childlike innocence mixed with a desire to understand more of the world makes for a charming character. She’s never really played for sexual appeal, though she certainly has it. She’s like a girl at summer camp who is just noticing the fact that boys notice her. And not to leave the other sex out of the equation, actor Sami Frey has the dark, slightly sinister good looks of an genuine film noir matinee idol.
The script by Godard, based on a pulp novel by Dolores Hitchens, is as I said, far more straight-forward and accessible than his other work. But then, most of his scripts are pretty straight-forward; it’s how he handles them that makes them seem strange. But since the direction here is less “arty,” Band of Outsiders seems like a more straight-forward film. It’s a good way to ease yourself into Godard. Though it doesn’t boast his signature directorial flourishes, it does contain most of his important themes and reflect his love for noir B-movies and desire to both praise and poke fun at their conventions. The sign of great satire, which people seem not to remember these days, is that you poke fun at a film or type of film without seeming snide while, at the same time, being a fine example of the type of film at which you’re poking fun. A satirical gangster film, then, has to also be a good gangster film. Band of Outsiders pulls this off with aplomb. It also showcases Godard’s love for picking apart film making in general, though less directly than he would later do in films like Contempt. Band of Outsiders is a gangster movie, and it’s a movie about gangster movies.
But you can ignore all that, because none of it is really in your face. Ultimately, what Band of Outsiders is a uniquely enjoyable, imminently delightful celebration of a film. It certainly doesn’t deserve to be considered “Godard lite” or “one of his lesser films.” It’s every bit as clever, funny, and biting as anything the director has done, only more breezily so. It may not be Godard at his heaviest, or Godard at his best, but it’s Godard at his most entertaining; Godard at his wittiest. And that’s the Godard for me.