Band of Outsiders (1964)

Director Jean-Luc Godard often is pegged as one of the pretentious and presumptions directors of the French New Wave. While he certainly produced films seeped in what we traditionally understand as pretentious, what many forget beyond the technique is that he has a way of being honest and true to the characters in his films.

The cast of Band of Outsiders is not composed of movie characters. Odile (Anna Karina) is a student who is not particularly incredible or noteworthy, but becomes the interest of two men when they hatch a scheme to rip off a government official. Franz (Sami Frey) knew Odile from before and does his best to be nice to her, but when he brings in his friend Arthur (Claude Brasseur) to help them with the heist, an awkward love triangle emerges.

Therefore, the situations the characters find themselves in are very movielike, but they often play out in ways that are atypical of films. This is because these characters are not as smooth, graceful and sleek as the movie characters they might fancy themselves being. They’re prone to spats of stupidity or rough words, sometimes the audience might even dislike the characters for being so…human.

Godard is perfectly aware of all this, using the characters and many film techniques to craft a self-aware film that seems to be dissecting the very thing it is. He uses narration to give the audience the inner thoughts of characters, employing a literary device in his film. The narration also has this sarcastic edge to undercut the more movieish moments of the film.

At times, Godard goes a bit too far. The narration is purple prose and stuffy in the earlier sections of the film. Other times, it’s a bit too aware and sly in a moment that might have played out fine without it. It’s an opposite occasionally taken to excess instead of finely balanced as part of a more gracious response to the typical heist film.

However, he does strike a fantastic balance with the film techniques. His famous jump cut is used sparingly but when he does us it, there’s a clear intent that justifies it use. Most of the film is steeped in long takes, presenting a realism that almost seems antithetical to the genre the film is presenting. And Godard also uses it to tease out some fantastic moments in the film.

One of the finest stints in the entire picture is when the trio sits down at a diner. The sequence opens with a long take of the three shifting seating locations while talking about the heist. Godard uses positioning to convey the uneasiness and evolution of the relationship between characters. This gives way to one of the characters insisting they say nothing for a whole minute, which Godard then uses to cut out all the sound of the film, crafting literal silence.

This culminates in a dance sequence that is the finest moment of the film the music cuts in and out, leaving only the shuffling of feet when the music is gone. It’s a playful, self-aware scene that exists on multiple layers. All this is to say that while Band of Outsiders is a fun little film that playfully prods the audience with film techniques, it’s also a smart little picture that knows exactly how and why it’s manipulating what it is manipulating.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing