film still from Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders
If films—as many have pointed out before—are an approximate for dreams, then Band of Outsiders is a dream in which the figures within are aware that they’re being dreamed. “We’ll work out a plan at a café,” says Arthur, with Odile on his arm.
“A plan, why?” she spurts, turning directly to the camera—directly to us, the dreamer—for only a moment before being tugged away and lead off screen.
What justifications do we have in labeling the medium of film as a close relation? —as cousins? —to dream? Firstly, we can say they both harness and juxtapose sound and image: the visual montage layered upon dialogue, soundtrack, narration. But more important may be that in their basic nature both allow for spatial and temporal discontinuity. The sculpting process of editing, much like the filtering of the subconscious through dream, can create a poetic ambiguity: a long shot dissolving into a close-up, a sudden cut merging with music, flashbacks and flash-forwards, the fluidity of one scene to another, the confrontation of unconscious meaning, the overlap of past, present and future.
All the other art forms—painting, literature, photography, music—can approach these qualities from their own angle, and yet they eventually fall short in one aspect or another. Cinema is as close as human beings can get to a manufactured dream. And thus, the great directors can be considered sculptors of these reveries. Waiting in line to see their newest movie—waiting with a date, hands in pockets, coat pulled tight against the rain—is to voluntarily put yourself under their trance. Wouldn’t you say a dreamer is very similar to a spectator in a movie theatre? Passive and meditative, both are looking to escape from reality, but only for a set amount of time.
Enter the French New Wave, which did for cinema what bebop did for jazz over a decade earlier—the breaking loose from structure, the allowance for spontaneity, improvisation, imagination, stream-of-consciousness. These generally low budget movies from a young generation of artists/critics who turned to filmmaking—Francois Truffaut, Agnés Varda, Jacques Rivette—have a trademark rebelliousness and a handmade quality that’s part of their charm. The use of real locations, hand-held cameras, unpolished actors and playful editing was a shot of fresh energy into the film world of the late ‘50’s/early 60’s. But wait, you must listen: to understand the breakthrough you must go back, submerge yourself—as those young French directors did—within the pulpy American crimes movies of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, ‘50’s:
Bogart. The coil of cigarette smoke. Expressionistic shadows. Robert Mitchum. Gin, scotch. Private detectives. Crooked cops. “You like money. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.” Dark alleyways, the drizzle of rain. Murder and blackmail. Junkies. Pimps. “It was the bottom of the barrel, and I was scraping it.” Fritz Lang. John Huston. Nicolas Ray.
Jean-Luc Godard—himself starting out as a film critic for the influential Cahiers du Cinema—absorbed everything, and loved it, but when it came time to make his own movies, he was ready to play.
Band of Outsiders does contain a plot—a love triangle involving two would-be criminals attempting to persuade a naive young girl into helping them rob her own family. However, anyone watching would be ill-advised to hang their hat on it. I’m reminded of Twain’s opening notice to Huckleberry Finn: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted…persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” The plot of the film exists in order to be digressed from. Let things unfold as they are—let it flow, dance, speed up, jump-cut, break the fourth wall, freeze, go silent, clunk bumpily from scene to scene, shift poetically in tone and style. By transposing and filtering a clichéd American crime story through a cool, Parisian point-of-view, Godard is able to stretch out in any free-form direction he chooses, commenting upon and experimenting with the very nature of cinema, knowing full well that you’re watching as he unfolds it—the same way a great jazz instrumentalist might debut a continuous, flowing monologue of sound before a crowded audience.
The dream begins with bouncy dancehall piano overtop the jittery Pop Art images of our three main characters. Now scenes of swirling traffic at an intersection. Cobblestones. Compact little cars. With the last score (?) ever written for the screen by Michel Legrand, the credits inform us. The film is directed by Jean-luc Cinema Godard, it also lets us know. Already we feel the playfulness.
Two men in a car with the top down. The backs of their heads, the rolling black & white city (trees, buildings, bicycles) through the windshield. They park and observe a house from across the river. Like kids, they reenact the death of Billy the Kid in a quick, imaginary shootout. Arthur collapses to the ground in agony, reaching out for the car, taking a long time to die. He and Franz are playing at being cowboy outlaws in the same way the movie is playing at being a gangster film.
The narration overhead speaks poetically to the characters inner feelings and motivations, things they themselves may not be able to articulate. At this time the narrator paraphrases the backstory for latecomers—which would be us, because of course we’re only joining their lives just now, but also perhaps a wink at anyone who might have strolled into the theatre after the opening: “Three weeks earlier. A pile of money. An English class. A house by the river. A romantic girl.”
In their English class the teacher recites Shakespeare as Arthur passes flirty, slightly rude notes to the quiet girl. Odile, as played by the iconic Anna Karina, has the large doe eyes and dark mascara of a silent film star. The music goes gentle, a poetic flutter of words taken from Romeo and Juliet passes softly overhead while she shyly, sadly, adjusts her hair out of self-consciousness. The dream is now a Romance, a flower sprouting timidly from city sidewalk dirt. The class takes a break and the crowd clears out nosily. One student is left behind, wanting to ask the teacher for a translation. “How do you say ‘a big, one million-dollar film?’”
Odile is almost too innocent for her age, as if she were thirteen, but trapped in the body of a twenty-two-year-old. Franz (Sami Frey) is reserved and distant, thin and angular like a painting by Kirchner, wrapped up as a dapper gangster in clothes that seem slightly too big. Arthur (Claude Brasseur) is more forward, courting the girl, cajoling her. A little shorter than his partner, but stocky—the broad, rowdy-shouldered frame of a bull. He entices her toward the robbery with a cruel mixture of sweet talk and demeaning bluntness. Are these boys actually smitten with her or are they just playing the role to take advantage? They bounce mercurially between sincerity and sarcasm, in much the same way as this dream unfolding before us.
Godard himself continues to wink playfully at us—the dreamer, the spectator in that movie theater of 1964. He demonstrates just how long a minute of silence can feel by abruptly cutting the sound off while our characters wait. Later, digressing from the plot on a whim, he has the three of them attempt to break the record for fastest visit through the Louvre. Sprinting haphazardly, laughing breathlessly, the paintings blur around them as they dodge past stoic tourists. Godard captures this new, young, joyous Art of the Present by literally brushing off the cold, dead, scholarly Art of the catalogued past. “I think museums are vulgar,” said Bob Dylan in an interview of the era, only a couple years after the film’s release. “They’re all against sex.”
Another shot follows Arthur and Odile, arm-in-arm, through nighttime city shadows, passing underneath a large neon sign reading NEW WAVE. There’s a coolness of style that’s undeniable. Cool in that chic, French, black & white sense, yes, but also in the way of an emerging rock n’ roll attitude. Picture a beautifully disheveled Beat poet—shades on, cigarette dangling—posing casual and detached. That’s the energy Godard achieves by strolling his young lovers underneath a sign announcing—like a hip exclamation point—that he now wields the young, fresh, cutting edge of filmmaking.
One of the filmmaker’s greatest strengths was the ability to quote from cinema’s past in order to create something new and personal. A previous film, 1963’s Vivre sa Vie, contains a shot of Anna Karina in a movie theatre watching Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. The screen is filled to the brim with the famous close-up of Renée Falconetti, only to cut away to the reaction shot of Karina’s character—equally overflowing the screen—completely absorbed in the moment, tears streaming down her cheeks. This is meta-cinema at its best: an already iconic image used to facilitate another image that became famous in its own right. Now all we need is a third movie where a character buys a ticket for Vivre sa Vie, giving us a close-up of them watching Anna Karina watching Renée Falconetti. Then a fourth movie—and on and on ad infinitum.
Band of Outsider’s most well-known scene employs this use of cinematic quotation as well. In a café the three of them decide to dance in the middle of the floor. They begin a jerky, start/stop Madison, while the narrator overhead reveals the private inner musings of each. Arthur is thinking about a kiss from Odile, and she in turn is wondering if the boys notice her breasts moving under her sweater. Franz is more philosophical: “He wonders if the world is becoming a dream, or if the dream is becoming the world.” As the three of them synch their movement together—just for added fun the music cuts off now and then, drawing more attention to the shot—in such a drop-dead cool way, we’re once again taken off guard by how free this movie is to change direction. The snap of fingers as their steps lock into place. Out of nowhere the dream has suddenly become a musical! Like a dream-echo, we’re reminded of those MGM studio musicals, particularly the dance of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain. But this echo goes forward in time as well, influencing the spur of the moment twist contest in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction thirty years later.
Some may consider a film like this to be all style and no substance. There could be an argument for that, especially with most of the poetic dialogue seemingly lifted from other sources and the jumpy quality of the film’s digressions keeping us at arm’s length from the ‘reality’ of the situation. What this ignores though is the idea that sometimes in a work of art (not always) style can be the substance. A great aesthetic used properly can sometimes be the point, the meaning, the theme, the breakthrough, the accomplishment. Cubism, for instance, examined an object from every conceivable point-of-view all at once. All you may be looking at is a bowl of fruit, but it’s the way you’re looking at it that makes all the difference.
In her review Pauline Kael spoke of how the film’s “quick rhythms and shifting moods emphasize transience, impermanence. The fragile existence of the characters becomes poignant, upsetting, nostalgic.” Much like the theatre of Brecht, Godard attempts to disrupt the fourth wall, keeping us constantly reminded that we’re watching a movie (like lucidity during a dream) and creating a distance between us and the characters. But from time to time he allows for a soft dip into their emotions, pushing his style out of the way and giving his actors the space needed to flesh out their roles, imbuing them with weight. Odile is the prime example of this.
Throughout the story she heart-breakingly continues to offer up her fragile, innocent love without defense, vulnerable to the cruelty of the world, seeking only acceptance in return. A beautifully lyrical sequence has Odile singing a sad song to Arthur—but more to us, staring into the camera—as they ride the metro. Her voice floats over images of people coming and going, wistful loners at café tables, night scenes of the street. Finally. it settles on her and Arthur asleep together in bed.
Eventually she concedes and the final act unfolds in a swirl of tension and heated awkward botched mishandlings. Horror film stocking masks on their faces the raising of a ladder attacks and betrayals camera twirling along foggy gray rooftops down the river up to the balcony above shots fired from a revolver Odile shrieking as she changes her mind the contorted crumple of a body in the closet the speeding convertible up and down the highway back and forth up and down a long drawn out staggering shootout with the witnesses watching helpless from distant trees a new set of lovers disembarking on their own. None of it even mattered, just like we knew all along.
The dream comes to an end with Franz and Odile aboard a steamer, arms around one another, heading toward a new life together. But just to add one last quick dig, and to prove it isn’t that sentimental, the narrator informs us: “an upcoming film will reveal, in Cinemascope and Technicolor, the tropical adventures of Odile and Franz.” We then get a jarring shot of the globe slowly rotating with jaunty music cut short so that FIN can stamp an ending.
Movie’s over. Done. We awake from our sleep or else stumble out of the darkness of the theatre into the lights of the street.
Throughout the ‘60’s Godard worked at a prolific rate. From 1960 to 1967 alone he released a staggering fifteen films. In ‘63 came Contempt, his first leap into the league of big budgets and famous stars. But something of the experience must have left a bad taste in his mouth. The world of tight plots and formulaic filmmaking, it would seem, did not appeal to him. Band of Outsiders was the movie he immediately jumped to after, returning to the realm of ragtag fluidity and shoestring charm. This approach would continue as the main stylistic direction of his frantic, creative peak. He had dipped his toes in the mainstream, and now he was back where he belonged.
Mitchell Zigler is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. His short stories have appeared in various literary magazines including The Bitter Oleander and Permafrost. His essays on film have been published in Bright Lights Film Journal.