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.
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.
Update: I have also since reviewed this film for my Criterion project.
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).