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Godard and Feminism Part VII: Bande á part (Band of Outsiders) (1964)

January 28, 2014

band-of-outsiders-posterThis month’s trip down memory lane of all things Jean-Luc Godard has been one filled with unexpected paths and enlightening treats along the way. It’s been rather odd rewatching the films of his that I’ve considered favorites for years, but only just know have been able to fully grasp the complexities of its stories and narrative. Not all of Godard’s films generate equal exuberance and powerful criticisms. Some tell rather subpar albeit interesting tales, like Band of Outsiders which is arguably one of Godard’s most recognizable films. Director Quentin Tarantino named his production company after the film and Bernardo Bertolucci made the controversial NC-17 flick, The Dreamers, a film both inspired by and heavily saturated in images from Band of Outsiders. Nevertheless, despite it’s hip chic and palatable simple story, Band of Outsiders lacks a punch when compared to Godard’s mountainous works.

Band of Outsiders’ story is simple enough. Odile (Anna Karina) is a shy restrained woman who wears her hair in pigtails and perceives life through a childlike lens. Odile lives with her wealthy aunt and uncle and busies herself taking classes to become a nurse, her aunt’s dream not hers. In an English class she meets Franz and Arthur, best friends who both fall hard after laying eyes on Odile. Franz is more suave and laid back while Arthur is more brash and abrasive with a violent streak to boot. The sheltered, inexperienced Odile falls madly in love with Arthur but their relationship is complicated when she lets it slip to Franz that her uncle has a large sum of money hidden away in a closet. Desperate for cash, Arthur and Franz enlists Odile’s help in an attempt to rob her uncle. Trouble brews when the dynamics of the trio’s relationship begins to shift and uncertainty rises.

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If La Petit Soldat is Godard’s most straightforward film conventionally, then Band a part is his most safe. In typical Godard fashion we are treated to beautiful framing from expansive camera angles. Virtually anytime the characters hit the road viewers follow closely in tow riding for miles at a time mounted either on the hood or trunk of the car. We experience the wind whipping through hair, the rumble of engine and tires on asphalt and see Anna Karina beautifully posed in the middle seat as the windshield wipers accentuates her face. Godard also constantly reminds us of the interworkings of the filmmaking process by utilizing his famed jump cuts and making rapid editing techniques commonplace. The film’s opening intro shuffles through images of each main character in such swift succession that it almost blurs their faces together in a maze of repetitiveness. Cleverly placed edits during scenes reveals actors reciting their lines on cue only to have the next shot pick up with the actor repeating the previous scene’s last word from a different angle. Moreover, during a B-roll shot of the night life on the streets of Paris, dozens of street patrons are captured staring at the camera as it grazes by. One man hilariously follows the filming camera into an alley to look head on in curiosity.

All of these technical aspects are what excites and invigorates me with Godard’s work. However, for the life of me, I can’t seem to find any importance in the story of Band of Outsiders at all. On the surface, Band of Outsiders is perhaps Godard’s coolest film in look and style. Anna Karina, Sami Frey, and Claude Brasseur round out the cast donning a wardrobe of pristine, classy decorum: pressed khaki’s, double-breasted suits, pleated, plaid skirt with knee highs socks, fedora caps, polished shoes and flashy sweaters. Furthermore, two of the greatest moments in cinematic history take place in Band of Outsiders. One in which for 3 minutes and 32 seconds we watch the trio dance to a soulful song on a jukebox as the diegetic sound cuts out being replaced by a narration of the characters current thoughts. The second scene comes when Franz argues for a minute of silence and all sound is muted and we watch the characters watch each other for nearly a minute (they actually stop 32 seconds in.).

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Yet, there’s nothing bigger happening outside of the plot and the characters lack ample depth to make them likable or even relatable. Odile is a strange girl. So much so that even Franz and Arthur admit to themselves she’s not all there. Within minutes of meeting her, Arthur writes Odile a note telling her she looks ridiculous with her hair in pigtails. She immediately cowers in class before taking off her bows to let her hair lay at his approval. Odile is a character so sheltered from social contact that she interprets a man’s rude behavior for flattering kindness. She smokes cigarettes only because Arthur does. She skips class because he tells her to. She takes a beating from him multiple times and reacts only by sulking momentarily. Odile isn’t bright, lacks independence and worse is void of wisdom.

However, she’s the embodiment of first love, puppy love if you will. Her first kiss with Arthur comes after she’s assured him she’s kissed plenty of men “with tongue” before. As he leans in she comically lets her tongue lie on outside of her mouth like a dead cow. For Odile, Arthur is a breath of excitement to her dull life. He introduces her to heights of pleasure and pain and she happily laps it up without a second thought. Graciously enough Godard doesn’t just let the woman carry the burden of poor decision making and stupidity. Arthur is a cruel, thoughtless individual who often shocks Odile with his callousness and pays for it in the end, while Franz is the more thoughtful and kinder of the two, yet he still only sees Odile as an object and wants her for himself for all the same superficial reasons as Arthur.

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It’s hard to be fully angry or annoyed at the representation of Odile because strangely enough she’s not unrealistic. Although our knowledge of each character is slim, we pick up on enough of Odile’s background which gives insight into her choice of friends and men. Likewise, Godard even allows his characters to comment on the strangeness of her decisions just as she can’t even fully understand herself. The relationship of the trio is rooted in reality and each possesses their own power assertion within the group. Odile has just as much say so and power as the men she surrounds herself with even though she doesn’t know it. Yet, with no strong assessment of politics or gender present, Band of Outsiders feels as though its nothing more than Godard attempts to produce a good old-fashioned pulp story. Even if that were the case, Band of Outsiders is riveting and intriguing despite being a bit bland and conventional.

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