Jean-Luc Godard is both cinema's class clown and its teacher's pet. In his early films of the 1960s, be it the landmark Breathless or the newly restored Band of Outsiders, Godard was clever and mischievous, paying tribute to the wonder of great movies by making a mockery of them.
Like Francois Truffaut and his French New Wave filmmaking brethren who cut their teeth watching and writing about thousands of movies, Godard was not content simply to follow in the footsteps of his heroes--Howard Hawks, Max Ophuls, Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray--once he got his hands on a camera. Godard, like any great artist, invented a language of his own.
Godard famously said that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. Unsurprisingly, most of the pictures he grew up watching were American gangster films--simple, violent, romantic sagas where a lone misdeed is enough to ruin your life. The predominant principle of the French New Wave, however, was personal filmmaking: Tell the stories you know, the ones that matter to you the most. Coming from a middle-class family in peaceful, bucolic Switzerland, Godard knew nothing of actual hard-edged crime, so he turned to his real expertise: movies about crime.
Like Andy Warhol's painting of a Campbell's soup can, Band of Outsiders is art toying with the rules of its artform. Daring, absurd and extraordinary, Godard's early films are among the first to be truly aware of themselves and refer to that awareness, constituting a moment in cinema that's like Eve's pluck of an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, or the emperor discovering his nakedness.
Band of Outsiders' story, for what it's worth--and that's not much, even in Godard's estimation--involves a beautiful young woman named Odile (Anna Karina, Godard's then-wife) who recruits two thrill-seeking men from her English class (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) to rob her home, where a fortune has been stashed. Flustered and naive, she wavers in her love for the two men and about the virtue of their plan. Based on novel called Fool's Gold by Dolores Hitchens, the theme is classic American pulp fiction--sexy, dangerous and fatalistic. As such, Godard assumes it's a story we already know so well that we needn't pay much attention to such tiresome machinations as plot, motivation, and dramatic arc. If he had directed The Wizard of Oz, Godard would have unmasked the wizard at the outset.
Band of Outsiders brims with acknowledgments that this is a world of make-believe. Characters address the audience directly. Camera and editing deliver deliberately jumpy montages, their artifice a badge of honor. Godard himself provides scattered narration designed specifically to jar us out of any remnant tendencies toward suspension of disbelief. The film's beginning, for example, finds the characters already scouting out the house they'll rob before we even know what they're doing, yet Godard's explanation is sarcastic and half-hearted: "To late-comers, we offer a few randomly chosen words." Appropriately, the film's best moment is a dance sequence in a cafe (to which Tarantino paid homage in Pulp Fiction) that's out of character and completely pointless. As Godard says, "Cinema is not a reflection of reality, it's the reality of that reflection."
Pointlessness is the point with Godard. Part of the generation embodied by Dean, Brando and Clift in front of the camera, Godard displays behind it a similarly anguished, restless energy. Still making up for lost time after World War II, Godard is both fascinated with and repelled by the new blitzkrieg of American popular culture that included Elvis, Coca-Cola and most of all, movies themselves. Bursting from the confines of genre and medium, the characters in Band of Outsiders don't want to be criminals--they want to be movie criminals, yearning for something they can see but never reach.
There's no doubt about the formidable cleverness of Band of Outsiders and Godard's other early pictures. Perhaps more than any other filmmaker, he made cinema the self-reflective medium it is today. But Godard can be all brain and no heart, leaving some of us yearning for filmmaking that's more genuine and sincere. Lately the age of irony seems to have been waning. And depending on your take, this is either the worst moment for Band of Outsiders to return or, as Godard would no doubt believe, the best.
Band of Outsiders
Opens Friday, Dec. 7.
Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave. 223-4515. 7 and 9:10 pm Friday- Thursday, Dec. 7-13. Additional shows 12:45, 2:45 and 4:45 pm, Saturday- Sunday.
Band of Outsiders star Anna Karina can be seen next year in Jonathan Demme's remake of Charade.
Godard's most recent film, Eloge de l'amour, was nominated for the Golden Palm at this year's Cannes Film Festival.