Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part/Band of Outsiders (1964) is one of the director’s most accessible French New Wave films. Godard himself described the film as “Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka,” and it’s easy to see why. The characters in the film embody the youthfulness and naivety of Alice in Wonderland, while the film features a tragic and fatalistic story that is truly Kafkaesque. Despite the joyousness of the film, there is always an underlying sense of impending danger.
It is Godard’s take on American pulp crime movies, and the film follows friends Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), two young delinquents who fall for the same girl, Odile (Anna Karina) and then conspire to commit a robbery. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong, not least because having feelings for the same girl complicates Arthur and Franz’s friendship.
For those who have been keeping up with my adventures through French New Wave cinema, you may notice that the plot sounds eerily similar to one of Francois Truffaut’s films, Jules et Jim. However, while some elements of the plot are similar – two men fighting over the same girl – Band of Outsiders is actually more of a companion piece to Godard’s Breathless. It’s a story about crime, and characters that seem to think that life is a movie, with no awareness of the consequences of their actions.
The film was shot in the more dingy of Parisian neighborhoods, and in the outskirts of the city along the Marne. This would have almost certainly lent a bohemian sensibility to the film upon its release, but from a modern perspective conjures up just as much nostalgia as scenic shots of Parisian apartments (topped with terracotta chimneys) does.
The narrative itself is somewhat disjointed and meandering, but what stands out most favourably in Band of Outsiders is Karina’s performance. She was Godard’s then-wife, which perhaps explains the predilection of close-ups of her face: Karina’s preternaturally large eyes looking up through swooping eyelashes. However, her performance as a slightly vague young woman, who gets swept up in the romanticism of crime, is a believable portrait.
This film of Godard’s features some of most famous scenes from his career. The trio of actors dancing in a bar; the friends running for 9 minutes and 43 seconds through the Louvre; a re-enactment of the Billy the Kid shoot-out. All have become iconic images, and are demonstrative of Godard’s shtick: a sense of frivolity in his filmmaking, and a preoccupation with pastiche.
It is because of Godard’s own tendency to reference other films, and forms of high and low culture, that it is not at all surprising that his nouvelle vague films have become fodder for other, equally referential filmmakers. Band of Outsiders in particular has been referenced in other cinematic works. It is film inspired that famous dance sequence in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and the title of the film Bande à part inspired Tarantino’s production company A Band Apart. Further, the scene where the Arthur, Franz and Odile attempt to break the word-record for running through the Louvre was reenacted in Bernado Bartolucci’s controversial 2003 release The Dreamers.
Band of Outsiders, despite the sense of foreboding one experiences while watching the film, still manages to shock the viewer with its morbid conclusion. It’s three main characters plan their crimes and capers with such joyous abandon, that their actions merely feel like play-acting. However, when the plot sours, the viewer is reminded that – although we are watching a film – the characters will still suffer the consequences of the their actions.
Although best remembered for its interesting set pieces, rather than its plot, Band of Outsiders is a thoroughly enjoyable film overall. Although you will be left with an overwhelming desire to run through the Louvre, which I think security makes somewhat more difficult nowadays than it was in the 60s.