Flow My Tears, The Robber Said in Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) December 20, 2007Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films, French Spring, Literature.
Original Title: Bande à part
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Anna Karina, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur
Based on Dolores Hitchens’ Fools’ Gold
Children looking for summaries — don’t go here. If you are really serious about cinema, forget about plot narratives. Forget about coherence and linearity. Forget about beauty and depth. Forget about Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Forget about reviews and ratings. Forget even about writing. Forget everything — and that’s the reason why Godard continues to fascinate me, for he relentlessly avoids these things — he ranks among the Greek and Roman gods; he is peerless, no one can ever surpass him — he has built a world, a galaxy of works that has changed a landscape — that inimitable greatness that is very much felt a million frames per second. And considering the films he made in the sixties — the atomic bomb he dropped in the history of cinema — he surely has lived up to his name as the landmark filmmaker of the 20th century.
Band of Outsiders was shot after Contempt, Godard’s venture to the CinemaScope which fairly doubles the omnipresent enigma of his style, and surprisingly, he still hasn’t left the mark of his black-and-white effrontery — the audacity which catapulted his name to criticism — with a little help from French New Wave’s most revered cinematographer, Raoul Coutard. Well, ‘little’ here speaks of a grand scale that no pair has ever achieved before, with the possible exception of Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist or, to satisfy my personal pleasure, Wong Kar-wai and Chris Doyle.
In A Woman is A Woman, Alphaville, Pierrot le fou, and My Life to Live, Godard has clearly showed his affection to Anna Karina. He is at the peak of his career, with groundbreaking films that defined a generation, and she is behind him every step of the way, even in real life, as his muse, as his dauntless woman of veneration — as seen in Agnes Varda’s Les Fiancés du Pont Mac Donald. Their pair is unmistakably full of vigor, much like Antonioni and Vitti’s collaboration is full of angst, and indeed the films they made together reflect the grueling ball of energy and passion they had then. But with Band of Outsiders, which hints a close reference to Jules and Jim — but I suppose everyone who has seen both films would agree that they are handled very differently, as if Godard and Truffaut have taken the same material and come up with works which are strikingly beautiful in their own way, a sense of uniqueness that only filmmakers like them could achieve — depicts more of a masterly partnership between Godard and Coutard, and in saying that this film might be the most accessible film he has made owes a lot to Coutard’s unwavering devotion to non-conformity, endlessly thinking of ways to shoot differently, and a genius for having made a name for himself apart from his directors.
It is difficult to discuss a film by Godard without relating it to his other works. Thus if one tries to compare Band of Outsiders with Pierrot le fou or Contempt, it certainly makes sense to claim that this film is better than the two, or just one film stands out among the three. That proves Pauline Kael’s assertion that “it is possible to hate half or two-thirds of what Godard does — or find it incomprehensible — and still be shattered by his brilliance.” And basing it on texture, Band of Outsiders is layered with countless allusions to literature and cinema, from Shakespeare to Kafka, from Billy the Kid to Loopy de Loop, from T. S. Eliot to Rimbaud, from Chaplin’s Immigrant to Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg, not to mention a famous ad slogan “Bravo, Mr. Segalot. That’s real furniture!,” and an overflow of homage that only seems to work at his advantage — its entirety feels like a book of knowledge, and Godard eagerly opens the book for us, and we hear him speak, we hear his words of enlightenment and disarray, we listen to his truths and lies, we listen to his phrases of hope and discouragement — and we lend our ears like someone listening to a long-awaited Messiah — in a stream of eloquence.
This is the coolest Godard I’ve seen so far — cooler than Breathless, cooler than Masculine Feminine, cooler than In Praise of Love, which isn’t cool at all — cooler than the snow-capped Fuji, cooler than a red dress, cooler than Tarantino, and cooler than a bunch of thugs butchering each other. The Madison sequence and the world-breaking nine-minute visit inside the Louvre are stupefying — such magical moments full of vibe and energy — and if ever you accuse me of exaggerating then see for yourself. For Godard has not only broken the fourth wall, he smashes all walls; if you can imagine how the Colorado River carves the Grand Canyon for centuries, that’s how I see him — better not miss this quintessential vintage from the world’s greatest living director, and run for your life. * * * *