Band of Outsiders (1964) is the Godard film for people who don’t much care for Godard: a proto-slacker mood piece about two nondescript guys trying to persuade a beautiful girl to help them commit a robbery. Adapted from Dolores Hitchens’s Fools’ Gold, an American ’50s crime novel published in France as part of the pulp “Série Noire,” it’s more Renoir than Fuller—the least preoccupied with American culture of any of Godard’s ’60s films.
Returning from the tsuris of his first and only attempt to cross over into the European mainstream (the Bardot vehicle Contempt, which, against all odds, turned out to be one of his great films), Godard took refuge in his own romanticism and in an artisanal mode of production that was of a piece with Band of Outsiders‘ working-class milieu. The film was shot almost entirely in the unglamorous Paris neighborhoods east of Bastille and the underpopulated outskirts of the city along the Marne, areas that still looked as they had before the war. When aspiring partners in crime Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) gaze across the river at the big stone villa where Odile (Anna Karina), their newfound friend, has told them a huge pile of money is hidden, they seem struck dumb by the scene. “It’s cold and forlorn here,” says Arthur, quoting a line from a poem by Verlaine (without knowing it, of course). The mist rising from the water and the overcast winter sky filter the light so that it seems both soft and bleak, as in an Atget photograph. Band of Outsiders is less nostalgic for the past than it’s heartbroken by the present—by the knowledge that the last traces of the world of Verlaine and Rimbaud, of Claude Renoir, the father, and Jean Renoir, the son, are about to be obliterated by the onrush of ’60s consumer capitalism. So Godard, who had already made his love-hate pact with the future, kisses the past good-bye by eschewing, just this once, the self-consciously brilliant camera moves, the electrifying edits, the political polemics, the radical narrative disjunctions, and the blam! blam! iconography that had already made him cinema’s foremost postmodernist.
In the opening sequence, Franz and Arthur, having cased the house they plan to rob, horse around in the street, pantomiming Pat Garrett shooting Billy the Kid. Three days later, one of them dies in a hail of bullets. The ending is inevitable, and yet when it happens, neither the dying man nor his two helpless friends—watching from a distance and frozen in their tracks—nor we in the audience who are similarly frozen in our seats can quite believe it. We all thought it was only a movie.
Godard’s adaptation vacuums the novel of its predictable character psychology and plot twists, leaving only the most minimal narrative. In between the play-acted and the real shooting, the film kills time with a series of set pieces: the celebrated mad dash through the Louvre; Arthur and Franz reading aloud from a daily tabloid, one crime story after another, ending with an account of tribal slaughter in Rwanda (it’s the only time in Band of Outsiders that Godard makes reference to a current political event, and nearly 40 years later, the effect is not to date the film but to confront us with the horror of a history that won’t go away). And of course, there’s the sequence where Odile, Franz, and Arthur dance the Madison in a half-empty café (the sequence that both Quentin Tarantino and Hal Hartley fell in love with and borrowed for their own films).
Brought to France by Harold Nicholas of the tap-dancing Nicholas brothers, the Madison is a non-partnered line dance done to a syncopated beat. As performed by Brasseur, Frey, and especially Karina, it’s reminiscent of a piece of Trisha Brown choreography that isolates parts of the body and makes them work against each other. Everything that the film does not tell us in words or actions about these three people is encapsulated in the dance—that although they move in sync, they’re each in a separate world, and that this absence of connection is what makes them both poignant and ever so cool.
But the Madison sequence aside, this is a film that conveys a huge amount of its meaning through blocking. The scenes where the men crowd in on Karina, trying to intimidate her by taking her space away, or where Karina tries to beg off from the plan she knows is going to be a disaster by flattening herself against a wall, her legs bent double like a grasshopper’s, distill the nasty truth of sexual power relations better than any dialogue. Along with Raoul Coutard’s radiant cinematography, what makes the film extraordinary is Karina, the pure curves of her face a contradiction to the marionette angularity of her body.
Long unavailable except in bootleg versions, Band of Outsiders is screening in a new 35mm print that restores the beauty and otherworldliness of its every shade of gray.
Click here to read Michael Atkinson’s profile of Anna Karina.