Primarily associated with a movement that began in the late 1950s and which became hugely influential following its 1960s peak, Jean-Luc Godard has directed over 100 films and is still very active today: he currently has two films in post-production at the time of writing, one of which is a short, the other a 3D comedy called Adieu au Language about a couple that struggle to communicate with each other and enlist the help of their pet dog as interpreter. No-one could accuse him of taking it easy as an octogenerian.
* The voiceover in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie is a direct tribute to Godard’s voiceover in Bande à Part and Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, both pay homage in different ways. More on that later. But the influence of Godard’s films can also be seen in the works of directors as diverse as Leos Carax, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, Steven Soderbergh, Abel Ferrara, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, John Woo and Martin Scorsese.
That playful spirit – not to mention Godard’s admirable work ethic – stretches back for more than half a century. After making À Bout De Souffle (Breathless), Bande à Part was one of the mid-60s films that cemented Godard’s name as a pioneer of the French New Wave movement, and its influence still resonates today.*
In the 1950s Godard was writing for the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and, along with several other prominent contributors, he became increasingly frustrated with the moribund output of the French film industry throughout that decade, which many felt had become too pre-occupied with literary period pieces. Although the New Wave movement was never actually organised, its roots are clearly found in that influential journal, and many of its writers went on to direct films notable for their fresh, youthful spirit that embraced experimentation, addressed current social and political issues and often fearlessly challenged the audience by incorporating ambiguity and fragmented editing. In addition to Godard, other directors that wrote for Cahiers that were linked to the New Wave movement include Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette.
In terms of its plot, Bande à Part is a simple crime caper, set in Paris. Odile (Anna Karina) is a young, naive girl who meets Franz (Sami Frey) in an English language class, and she informs him about a stash of money in the riverside villa where she lives with her aunt Mme Victoria and a man named Stoltz. None of this is actually shown on screen, so the film effectively starts with the plot under way, as though a couple of scenes are missing. It’s like a slap to the face, provocatively suggesting you are late to the party and must catch up straight away. We join the action when Franz is telling his friend Arthur (Claude Brasseur) about the money, and the two hatch a plan to steal it.
Arthur and Franz (named after Rimbaud and Kafka) are wannabe gangsters, the former seduced by the romance of Hollywood’s western gunfights and the latter by the trilby-and-mac style of moody film noir stars. Both are more pre-occupied with winning Odile’s affections than the crime at hand, which they deal with matter-of-factly. Though he met her first, Franz is quickly usurped by Arthur, who spends the night with Odile. Franz doesn’t seem too put off, though, and this being Paris in the 1960s he remains insouciantly cool throughout, hat and cigarette both at just the right angle.
When Arthur’s aggressive uncle finds out about the plot to steal the money he wants a cut, so the trio change their plans and bring the robbery forward by a day. Meanwhile, Stoltz becomes suspicious and hides the cash. I’ll refrain from divulging anything further about the plot, but suffice to say things come to a head in the way they always seem to do in crime capers. As Godard once said ‘All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun’.
Of the leading trio, Anna Karina’s performance is particularly impressive. Her Odile is an innocent, insouciantly enlisting the help of two young amateurs with little thought as to what might actually happen as a result of their heist. Only in the aftermath does this seem to occur to her, though there is no willingness to address her own fault in the proceedings: “I am disgusted with life,” she enigmatically moans. Karina plays the role with conviction, despite the fact that at the time of filming she was 24, married to Godard, had suffered a miscarriage, had endured a nervous breakdown and had made several attempts to take her own life. None of those scars can be seen on screen.
Bande à Part‘s plot is unoriginal, even if crime was a novel subject for the French New Wave directors railing against the previously tired output of their country’s film industry. However the eccentric moments that fall in-between the scenes that deal with the criminal storyline are fresh and original by today’s standards, so one can only begin to wonder about the impact they had in 1964. The most famous of these are direct and playful challenges by the director to the cinematic conventions that had infuriated him a decade earlier. An early scene in the staid English class is Godard’s most overt disapproval of the traditions of French cinema in the 50s; while the teacher discusses Shakespeare, Odile trades glances and notes with her suitors, bored and in search of more visceral thrills than those gained by heavy literary criticism and intellectual debate.
As they pass from cafe to cafe to a background of jukebox soul and Michel Legrand’s jazzy soundtrack, at one point Franz discusses the possibility of the trio holding a minute’s silence. After some discussion among the characters, they decide to go ahead with it, and Godard wittily cuts the sound completely (including the background music and cafe chatter). It is amazing how disorienting and odd this move seems even today, and it is excruciatingly awkward to sit through, even though the silence only lasts for 36 seconds.
* In terms of Reservoir Dogs, the widely-held belief is that the kind of bullshitting going on around the table at the start of the film is a scene that owes its existence to the pioneering work of Godard, who realised that gangsters would be just as likely to be found discussing pop culture as they would be discussing matters of gangstering. The subject matter may appear to be irrelevant, but it is actually far from it, and it illuminates the characters.
A short while later the trio get up and dance for several minutes in formation. This is such fun, and so damn cool, it’s easy to see why Tarantino paid homage to the idea in Pulp Fiction*. It’s like a scene from another movie that just got dropped in by accident and once again it is completely disorienting. Though his actors look carefree when they are dancing, Godard explains in his voiceover what each of the characters is thinking, in turn. This is another jolting move that shakes you out of your reverie just as you are getting lost in the scene’s repetitive dance moves. The director lulls you into a semi-trance before powerfully shaking you out of it, reminding you that this isn’t real and you’re just watching characters in a film. Godard’s will to break the spell, to remind you constantly that this is the unreal cinema, is too strong to resist.
At another point the trio decide to run through The Louvre in order to beat the record set by an American (who, it is explained, bombed past the artworks in 9 minutes and 43 seconds flat). Perhaps Godard is once again referring to the New Wave here, and its desire to break from past traditions; The Louvre represents old France, with its incredible works of art that demand the time, attention and concentration of visitors. But the trio, with their more modern concerns of pop culture and Coca-Cola and guns and money, are like a breath of fresh air, a wind sweeping through the quiet corridors and flying past the shocked security guards. They don’t care about their surroundings – all that matters for them is the moment.
Godard employs plenty of long-takes, but also jittery hand-held camerawork and stuttering editing, two techniques that propel the film along at breakneck speed. It’s DIY, low-budget filmmaking, but it never looks or feels cheap. There is a sense throughout Bande à Part that anything can happen, such is its freewheeling improvisational feel. Some of the ideas may be too self-consciously kooky for some, but its playful experimentation and willingness to defy the conventional filmmaking of its time mark it out as a truly interesting work.
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Anna Karina, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur
Running Time: 97 minutes