Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)

Boy oh boy, was I geared up to hate “Band of Outsiders.”  Three impossibly good-looking, well-dressed young French people speaking their worldviews and intelligent-sounding phrases that amount to little more than unrealistic drivel while they plot a robbery?  And the master of pretty, stylistic drivel, Jean-Luc Godard, at the helm to boot?  There’s the stuff that my pre-ordered hate is made of.  And much of “Band of Outsiders” has that chic, fashionable way about it, but what can I say, it sucked me in – some way, somehow, I identified with the aimless existences of Odile, Franz, and Arthur and their search for some kind of meaning in life, whether that meant planning a robbery of Odile’s aunt’s house, or talking out their inexperienced and imperfect views on love and such, or just looking for something to do, something to occupy themselves with in the midst of their trivial everyday lives. 

Of course, Godard’s usual stylistic flourishes make their cameos here and there, where Godard tries his absolute hardest to scream ‘look at me, look at me!’ like the forgotten kid at the grownups’ boring party, and they still sorta infuriate me – the minute of silence, where all sound is drowned out while the three sit at their table, is kinda nifty, but really just a superfluous distraction from an already relatively plotless movie, and the narration, by Godard himself, adds little if anything to the proceedings.  And did he really credit himself as Jean-Luc Cinema Godard in the opening credits?  I know Godard’s a bit of an attention whore now and then, putting style ahead of substance, but is he really that arrogant and starved for attention, he basically proclaims himself the self-styled god of cinema through a movie credit?  Seriously?  Alright, trivial thing to complain about, I admit.  But whaddya know, other than those quibbles, Godard finally churned out a bonafide winner for me.  Yes, our three protagonists are guided more by pop culture fashions and faux philosophy popular among yuppie youths than anything, so they’re not exactly honest with themselves or as realistic individuals, but fuck it, I identified with them – their need for acceptance and meaning in an increasingly meaningless world stuck with me. 

An early scene in their English class, where Arthur courts Odile by passing her sensual notes as the teacher recites a passage from Romeo and Juliet is absolutely wonderful: no spoken words other than the Shakespeare, and all we see are Arthur’s lustful eyes, the camera following the note from Arthur’s hand to Odile’s, cut to the message, cut to the wondrous eyes and innocently bashful face of Anna Karina, then to the part-cynical, part-curious, part-jealous face of Franz from the other side of the room.  Godard should’ve taken a cue from this scene the next time he made poetic, showy, and phony language the centerpiece of a movie, because in this scene, the eyes say more than any words could.  That makes it all the more distressing later, when the three actually try to put their ill-conceived robbery into motion, and friendship and love/lust turns into betrayal, and the two men treat Odile, the centerpiece of a possible love triangle, like a piece of garbage.  Was this a natural degradation of their relationship as the whole robbery scheme came crashing down around them?  Or, were Arthur and Franz being facetious in their affection for Odile the whole time, even with those amorous eyes?  It’s tough to say, and for once, I’m glad that characters in a Godard film were so hard to read – there’s no character so complex as one without a discernable purpose or goal in life.  One thing’s for sure, even if Franz and Arthur truly are nothing more than the scumbags and Odile the overly-cautious ditz they appear to be by film’s end, it sure is sad to see them live the carefree life one minute, and become paranoid messes in risking life and limb the next. 

I mean, just look at the famous dancing scene in the restaurant – the one Tarantino lifted for “Pulp Fiction.”  Seeing nothing but stills from the scene before watching the movie, I was prepared to loathe, to despise it as Godard being chic for the sake of being chic, and indeed it’s probably the most staged and fake scene I’ve ever seen.  But fuck my mother, I loved it.  I still love it after watching that one scene again for the third time just now, despite how contrived it is that the three of them impossibly know every dance move perfectly and dance in downright impossible unison (on the fly, no less), and how contrived it is that Godard’s narration completely replaces the music at certain moments to tell us what the three characters are thinking as they dance.  This would never, ever happen as perfectly as it does in real life, but so what, it’s just so spontaneous, and shown to us so naturally via a single shot, and it’s just plain cool.  I love it because Odile, Franz and Arthur were, to that point, the only Godard characters I’ve ever seen that I really cared about, and it was great to see them just living carefree, if even for just that moment via unrealistic yet carefree dance.  But also, you can read that famous scene in more than one way.  Yeah, it’s a moment of spontaneous, carefree serenity for them, but they’re also pretty damn robotic, and expressionless, in dancing in such flawless unison, as if some outside force has told them that this is how to act cool, and they’re doing it out of necessity and a sense of duty rather than because they want to – improvised indulgence in once sense, artificial coolness in another, and unlike other moments of Godard-eque artificial coolness, this one is more sad than superfluous, a disheartening statement on how popular behavior and fashion takes away from one’s individuality and genuine motivations.  And look at me, blinded by that artificial coolness, just like the subjects of so many of Godard’s films, in completely buying into the scene.  Shame on me 😛 .

This isn’t a movie about some robbery, otherwise more attention would be paid to the planning stages of the crime – and thereby, there would actually be a feasible plan in the first place.  The robbery is just one way out of many that these three young and aimless people pass the time, to tell themselves that they’re doing something meaningful with their lives.  Why else would the other set pieces of the film include Arthur and Odile waxing philosophical about the nature of love while riding on a trolley, or that dance, or the three of them attempting to break the record for passing through the Louvre, at breakneck speed?  Utterly trivial activities in the grand scheme of a full life, but done with passion, and with a zest for life that’s just plain ruined when they actually try to do something that they deem really meaningful, but in reality couldn’t be more retarded and ill-advised.  They’re just three dumb, bored kids who try to do something outrageous so that they can tell themselves that they’re special and significant, when really that stupid plan that gets them in way over their heads is just one more part of an aimless quest to pass the time.  It’s sad that we can never really discern who Odile, Franz, and Arthur really are – the well-read and charming twentysomethings living the semi-hedonistic life or the faux-serious, passionless wretches whose grand scheme turns out to be one semi-funny, semi-pathetic fuck-up after another – but what’s even sadder is that they themselves can’t discern that either.


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