I’ve seen this film a bunch of times (and written about in on here before), and each successive time I watch it, I think I become a little less enamoured with it — not unlike the Tarantino films, whose production company is inspired by the title of this film. You remember the dance, the verve, Anna Karina’s face framed in class, almost solarised like a Man Ray print, with her big eyes. You remember Sami Frey’s nonchalance, you remember the beautiful monochrome photography, those Paris street scenes shot from a moving car, the run through the Louvre, the feeling of young lives, of being young. But there’s also this nasty little plot about them staging a heist, and they’re all really dull unlikable people at heart, and I just wonder if it’s a film about people or a film about people in films, and if it’s the latter why really should I care, at least on the third or fourth watch? Maybe some films work better when you see them once and then try to remember what you loved about them.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 2002 (and since then on DVD, most recently at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 October 2017)
The title may reference a then-popular detective series starring American expatriate Eddie Constantine, but as per usual this is hardly a straightforward film from Jean-Luc Godard. It’s set in a retro-futurist Paris, though of course Godard didn’t have the budget to build any sets, but rather films amongst the modern 1960s architecture of the city, all glass lifts and big shiny lobbies, not to mention anonymous office corridors at the heart of the computer-controlled corporation that runs the city. It’s a film of alternately banal surfaces and fascinating faces (whether the pitted one of Constantine, or Godard’s muse of the time, the ravishing Anna Karina), matched to the raspy electronically-modulated voice of computer overlord Alpha 60. I can’t for a moment pretend to tell you what actually happens — there are elements of generic detective plot though Caution is fighting on behalf of individualism and free thought rather than anything more base, and Godard punctuates scenes with images of flashing lights and neon equations, presumably to symbolise Alpha 60’s reliance on logic. There’s a troubling relationship to women in Alphaville’s society — a theme that runs through a lot of Godard’s filmmaking — and it’s difficult to be sure whether that’s a function of the oppressive state or something more insidious. Needless to say, it’s a strange and fascinating movie whose images of a modern nighttime Paris have a dark romanticism to them, especially seen at a remove of what is now 50 years.
Criterion Extras: Certainly not all Criterion releases have extensive extras (though more recently they’ve tended to put the bare-bones stuff out on their Eclipse sub-label), but even by the thin standards of some others of this period, Alphaville is particularly negligible. There’s not even a trailer, so it comes down to the two slim pages written by Andrew Sarris on the inside of the booklet, and of course the quality of the transfer. A bit of context to this odd attempt at sci-fi futurism would have been nice, but at the very least the transfer is of excellent quality.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 23 July 2002 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998 and October 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 March 2015)
Following the glorious widescreen colour films of Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961) and particularly Le Mépris (1963), Godard returned to the American B-movie inflected black-and-white of his debut with Bande à part. There’s a freewheeling energy to this film which is delightful, though there’s still plenty of recognisable Godard themes and obsessions.
If À bout de souffle was one of the first films of the nouvelle vague, then I am inclined to believe that this film marks one of the last. It makes a connection in its style to that first film, but also has traces of the changes that had already taken place in French cinema. There are references to other films from nouvelle vague filmmakers which had already taken their place in the mainstream, most prominently Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), whose title theme is heard twice. Then there’s the brief scene where our protagonists walk past a shop called Nouvelle Vague, the name now co-opted to commerce. Clearly within only five years, the New Wave was no longer particularly new.
The plot itself, like the monochromatic look, also harks back to Godard’s debut. It’s another crime-based story, lifted this time quite literally from an American pulp novel, featuring the kind of slightly incompetent would-be gangsters that are a mainstay of the genre. Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) are young and bored, living at the edges of Paris. They meet Odile (Anna Karina) at school and hatch a plan to steal money from her wealthy family. There’s a hint that the plan has been hijacked by Arthur’s own criminal family, but as ever Godard isn’t really interested in the specifics.
Bande à part is primarily about suburban kids and their experience of the big city. Aside from an all-too-brief scene in the Louvre, one of the few unambiguously happy moments in their lives, this is not tourist Paris. It’s a film of the outer limits, the unremarkable streets clogged with traffic and pollution, the down-at-heel cafes and the semi-rural backwaters on their doorstep. They sit in the woods by a river reading the papers, which promise a world of crime and murder that they aren’t a part of. US pop culture, as peddled by its movies, promises something different, so Odile will only accept Arthur’s Lucky Strike cigarettes over Franz’s local ones, before asking for a Coca-Cola. They play-act scenes from movies, too, like Arthur’s comically melodramatic turn pretending to be Billy the Kid, shot in the street, which is reprised later on, if less comedically.
Then there’s the dance sequence — ostensibly of another American import, the Madison — which they perform together in a cafe. It’s become one of the iconic scenes of the 1960s New Wave and is one of the most famous in Godard’s filmography, and for good reason. It’s a bracing, seemingly spontaneous expression of youthful joie de vivre, and yet encodes everything the film wants to express about individuality. The three protagonists dance it side-by-side, not looking at one another, each in their own space. Every so often the music cuts out and in voiceover Godard speaks of each one’s feelings, emphasising their outsider status, to one another as much as to the (fictional, movie-inflected) society they want so desperately to be part of.
If Karina’s presence recalls her earlier role in Vivre sa vie, she’s here playing a quite different character. The camera still loves her, but she’s not the wearily glamorous Nana but the cheerfully naïve Odile, not confident about either how to wear her hair or how to react to the bad ideas of those around her. By the time she turns to the camera on the Métro to deliver some existential doubts, it’s no longer clear that she wants to be part of this band that Arthur and Franz have created with her. It’s Brasseur who impresses most as Arthur, and its his charm that carries the plot forward.
The film’s set-up feels like a hundred more recent American indie movies, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the film’s title was purloined by Quentin Tarantino for his production company. Yet Bande à part still retains a real vivacity and a charm that makes it one of Godard’s most accessible works. From here onwards, the films he made became progressively more opaque and difficult, with frank political messages and an ornery idiosyncrasy to their construction. In some ways that’s why this film feels like the close of a chapter, and a winding down of a certain mythology.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 2002 (and since then on DVD, most recently at home, London, Saturday 14 September 2013)
My Rating excellent
Next Up: The final shot of Bande à part promises a Technicolor widescreen extravaganza set in the new world. Though Alphaville (1965), with its monochrome sci-fi modernism, didn’t exactly deliver that, yet Pierrot le Fou (1965) seems to possess some of that quality. I won’t be discussing either (primarily because I don’t own them, though they’re both fantastic in different ways, and well worth watching), so shall be moving on to Week End (1967), which seems to mark the apocalyptic denouement of an entire era and is maybe where the protagonists of Bande à part really ended up.
“God knows where He leads us but we know not the path of our journey.”
— Carl Theodor Dreyer, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)
After he’d got his start in feature filmmaking with À bout de souffle at the age of around 30, Godard maintained a prodigious output, through all his many phases. This film, known variously in the English-language world as My Life to Live or It’s My Life, came just a couple of years after his debut but already he’d made two features and a short film, and his 1960s output would be sustained at two or even three features a year thereafter.
Formally — and, as flagged in its very title, it is very much concerned with form — Vivre sa vie is a provocation. The structure is 12 chapters (“douze tableaux”) which are each set out with an intertitle featuring, as in a screenplay, a description of the setting, but also a laconic précis of what will happen. If this strategy means to flag the film up as a constructed work of fiction, then the viewer is left in no doubt by the distancing tactics in the first scene proper, which presents a conversation between the protagonist Nana (Anna Karina) and her husband Paul from the backs of their heads (first hers then, at length, his). It’s a bold aesthetic choice, which is carried through to the rest of the film (and shows up increasingly in Godard’s later films), though it happens we’ve already seen Karina’s face, first in profile, then head on, and then profile from the other direction, beneath the opening credits. It’s a hint that whatever else the film might deal with, it’s above all interested in Karina — yes, at some level with her character Nana, but also Karina as both an actress and as a wife.
Karina was Godard’s first wife and their marriage was quite recent when the film was being made. Indeed, with such a tireless work ethic, it’s no surprise perhaps that the feelings and issues Godard was dealing with in real life should have suffused the films he made. If certain aspects of his use of Karina do not reflect well on his opinion of her — she is one of the first of his central characters to play a prostitute, and far from the last — there’s still plenty of self-criticism too. The men in her life are ineffectual and treat her with barely-suppressed contempt: the final sequence is shocking as much for the off-handedness with which it unfolds as for its outcome. Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard hold Karina at the heart of the film and if the narrative keeps the film at a studied distance from the audience, the camera certainly doesn’t do likewise for Nana. She rarely gets the chance to escape the camera’s gaze, in fact — the camera loves her, or at the very least is fascinated by her. In this, she is like Renée Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), Dreyer’s great silent film about Joan of Arc shot in disorienting close-up, which Nana goes to watch in a cinema. At the same time, she is in a sense trapped (as a character into prostitution, as an actor by the camera) — during the sixth ‘chapter’, shortly after falling into prostitution, Karina/Nana looks directly at the camera with a haunted look. Like Joan, Nana is a doomed icon, filmed in evanescent black-and-white.
Nana’s move into prostitution is never precisely explained — she asks several people early in the film if she can borrow 2000 francs, she is seen running from her landlords, and speaks of getting work as an actress — but ultimately the prostitution theme seems more a part of Godard’s interest in commodification. The quotations he uses and the narrative influences he takes (Brecht is only the most prominent in this film) just foreshadow his later decisive move into overtly political filmmaking (his late-60s and 70s work engages with a Marxist-Leninist dialectic). It’s all part of the society Godard is analysing, where Nana becomes a chattel traded amongst men just like the records she’s seen selling early on in the film. Her status as object is in some ways not just a thematic concern but is integrated into the very formal and visual strategies the film adopts, not just the Brechtian distancing of the chapter headings, but also Godard’s prominent frontal staging and lateral tracking shots as well as, most notably, his insistence on lighting scenes so as to minimise depth of field — all strategies that would be extended over the decade and can still be perceived, ever more distilled, in Tout va bien ten years later.
Quite aside from these formal and thematic concerns, I think the film stands as a wonderful piece of cinema, with Karina’s gaze having since become an iconic image of the French nouvelle vague. There’s still a freshness and enthusiasm to the performances that belies the very rigid ways in which the camera moves, though even here Raoul Coutard’s black-and-white cinematography has never been more beautiful. For me, in many ways, Vivre sa vie stands as the film in which the formal concerns that would come to dominate Godard’s later period are merged most easily with his pulp influences to produce a film that remains a wonderfully invigorating piece of cinema that stands up 50 years later.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina | Length 83 minutes || Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013)
My Rating a must-see
Next Up: For me, Godard’s most formally ambitious film of his early phase is Le Mépris (1963), a reflection on the nature of filmmaking itself, featuring international stars and a spectacular use of widescreen colour compositions, but retaining an appropriately Olympian detachment that makes it difficult to love wholeheartedly.