Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Dance to the Music of Youth: Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders

This is a revised version of an essay that was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on December 15, 2011.

Jean-Luc Godard’s sixth feature, Contempt, was a wallow in the angst of a souring adult relationship. It is no surprise that for his next film, he went in a completely different--if not opposite--direction. Band of Outsiders, his follow-up effort, is an ode to the joie de vivre of adolescence. It recalls his first film, Breathless, in many respects. Both are built around crime plots that play like a formality for moving the characters around, and Godard again seems enchanted with the energy and playfulness of his protagonists. But he is less judgmental this time out, perhaps because the protagonists of Band of Outsiders are a bit younger than those in the earlier film. The couple played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless were, as young as they were, childish adults. The trio played by Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, and Sami Frey in Band of Outsiders are adolescents through and through.

Granted, that’s not one’s initial impression of Arthur and Franz, the fellows played by Brasseur and Frey. The film opens with the two driving from Paris to the eastern suburbs along the Marne. They stop along the river to look at a house on the opposite side, and it becomes clear they are casing it for a robbery. The house is where Odile (Karina), Franz’s new girlfriend, lives with her aunt. She has mentioned to Franz that a boarder is keeping a large amount of cash in his room. Franz and Arthur, both working-class and poor, see the opportunity for an easy burglary. But it’s not long before this ominous conversation between the two fellows shifts into oneupsmanship and goofing around. Arthur asks if Franz is sleeping with Odile, and when Franz tells him no, he taunts Franz by promising he’ll tumble her before the day is out. The two then have a mock gunfight in the street, at which point they get back in the car and drive back to the city. Their nonchalance has one wondering if the robbery plans and Arthur’s designs on Odile are as much playacting as their pretend duel. These are kids. It can be hard to take them seriously even when one knows one should.

Claude Brasseur, Anna Karina, and Sami Frey

In the scenes before the robbery, one may become so enchanted by the love triangle that one doesn't mind. Odile meets up with the boys in an English class they’re all taking. She's an easy mark for Arthur. She’s about eighteen, but she comes across as much younger. Everything about her--her appearance, her manner, her actions--speaks of a sheltered life. (Her most amusingly gauche moment is when she demonstrates she knows how to kiss.) She’s so euphoric over the attention of not just one boy, but two, that she gets inextricably caught up in both the robbery scheme and Arthur’s ego games with Franz. The drama of the film is in seeing her glamorous fantasies of love and the outlaw life take hold, only to have the ugly realities pull the rug out from under her. But the marvel of Band of Outsiders, as it was with Breathless, is that Godard gets the viewer completely caught up in the characters’ happy fantasies while keeping one aware of the sordid truth of their situation. One can’t even dislike Arthur for being a manipulative, thuggish creep. It almost seems beside the point.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the film is that Godard’s sense of humor, almost nowhere to be found in Contempt, is back in full. There are cute throwaway gags, such as when Franz calls for a minute of silence when the three are in a club. They stop talking, and Godard drops all the ambient noise on the soundtrack. But after about thirty seconds, Franz says enough, and the sounds of the club and the dialogue resume. Godard’s handling of the more elaborate comic moments is even better. I especially enjoyed the virtuosity he shows in the classroom scene. The teacher reads from Romeo and Juliet for the students to translate, and she becomes increasingly in thrall to the romantic dialogue. The irony is that she’s oblivious to the real romantic drama going on in the room. Odile’s interest shifts from Franz to Arthur when the latter flirts with her and passes notes, while Franz watches and stews. The shifts between Arthur’s dedicated focus on Odile, her by turns bashful and flattered reactions, Franz’s dejection, and the teacher’s increasingly rhapsodic recitations from Shakespeare--Godard orchestrates it all in a beautifully droll set piece.

But more often than not, Godard knows it’s enough to back away and let his trio’s charm shine through. He catches the viewer up in the giddy whimsy of three running through the halls of the Louvre, or of Odile making her way across her aunt’s neighborhood and stopping to feed the tiger at a local circus. His willingness to just let his actors do their thing is especially apparent in the film’s most delightful moment, when the three perform a line dance to Michel Legrand’s jazz-pop score. They’re hardly polished dancers, but their moments of clumsiness play off the formality of the dance hilariously. And that clumsiness also carries a sweetness--the happy-go-lucky joy of letting go is wonderfully conveyed. The three are into the music and moment, and their happiness is nothing less than infectious. Adolescent bliss has never been captured better on film.

The most charming of the three by far is Anna Karina, who is once again an expressive marvel in her work with Godard. She’s dazzlingly fluid; she moves into character effortlessly, and her emotional shifts are remarkable in both their vividness and naturalism. The performance is built around Odile’s bashfulness, which heightens the sense of the character’s elation at Franz and Arthur’s attention. It also makes her extremely sympathetic for the viewer. One can’t help but feel concern for her over the impending robbery, and when it finally takes place, one shares her stark horror. But the melodramatic moments, as effective as they are, don't have the most staying power. Odile's happiness is what one always thinks back on. She embodies the fantasy of an ugly duckling who becomes a swan. Karina brings that fantasy completely to life.

What I love more than anything else about the movies is their capacity to bring out the romantic in me. It’s vicarious, but what the hell. Part of the joy of watching A Woman Is a Woman, Godard’s first starring showcase for Karina, is knowing about the romance blossoming while the camera was off and seeing it reflected on the screen. The two married shortly thereafter, but the relationship was a stormy one. After multiple separations, it ended a few years later in divorce. Band of Outsiders was made after they reconciled from one of those separations, and one knows one is seeing their affection rekindled, however temporarily. One of the great lines in literature, from Chodleros de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses, goes something like, “women know the love they give; men know the love they feel.” Karina gives so much in her commitment to the role, both with the tensions of Odile’s reserve and anxieties, as well as in the exuberance of the character’s happiest moments. And Godard fully conveys the delight he feels in filming and presenting it. I thought of titling this review “A Dance to the Muse Anna Karina.” That and the one I ultimately chose are both apt descriptions of Band of Outsiders.

Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:

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