Not too long ago I saw Bande à part at the Arclight, Hollywood. I’d already seen the film a couple of times and liked it, but this time I connected with it in a way I hadn’t before. The best word to describe what I felt is euphoria. I was swept up in the whirl of images and sounds, I was completely involved in the performances, I was overwhelmed by the audacity of it all. The movie was totally intoxicating.
I think Godard is one of the most gifted filmmakers ever, but I’ve often had trouble relating to his work. I know I’m not alone. Many critics have written about Godard with a mix of admiration and frustration. Audiences have never flocked to his films, though he does have a small, passionate following. His movies are amazingly inventive and imaginative. But they can also be difficult, didactic, and even dull. I think in part this is because Godard has a complicated relationship with the medium. He’s spent a good part of his career trying to figure out what role film should play, and what role he should play as a filmmaker. While he grew up watching American films, and has spoken of his respect for some Hollywood filmmakers, he’s definitely conflicted about the impact commercial cinema has had on the world. Like many of us, as a young man he fell under the spell of Hollywood’s magic, but as an adult he finds himself horrified by Hollywood’s madness.
Many of Godard’s early films were based on Hollywood genre formulas, and movies about criminals seem to have had a special hold on him. Bande à part falls into that category, but rather than just make a crime film, the director ended up making, as he often did, an essay on crime films. He doesn’t want us to just sit back and enjoy the ride, letting ourselves get pulled along by the narrative. As much as he loves Hollywood movies, he also knows you can’t trust Hollywood movies, and that makes him want to question the form, to twist it, to turn it inside-out. Anything to keep himself and us from sliding into complacency.
It’s Godard’s irreverent, anarchic approach to the material that makes the film such a thrilling, dizzying experience. As soon as the credits begin we’re assaulted by raucous music as close-ups of the three leads flash before us. Bande à part is full of abrupt transitions and sudden changes in tone. The restless energy of the three would-be thieves drives the film. The visual style is amazingly alive and vibrant. And the sound is just as important as the images, catching both the din of the city and the intimacy of quiet conversations. Rather than trying to clean up the audio, bringing down the ambient noise, looping the dialogue, Godard lets us hear the world as it is. We hear feet scuffling along the street, music bouncing off the walls, traffic droning in the background. And when we get to the house where Odile lives we’re suddenly surrounded by an unsettling calm. The silence somehow feels strangely sinister.
The film is based on the novel Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens, though apparently Godard took a lot of liberties in adapting it. The story follows Odile, Franz and Arthur, three young people in Paris who are planning to steal some money. Though the trio wants to pull a heist, they seem to have no idea how to proceed, and when it comes to committing the crime they’re hopelessly inept. Arthur takes charge, giving orders and acting tough to impress Odile, but he’s really just as clueless as his friends. Franz goes along, seemingly because he doesn’t have the nerve to challenge Arthur. And Odile is a naïve young girl who just wants to get away from her home and have fun.
One of the main differences between Bande à part and the crime films of the studio era is the way the main characters are portrayed. If we were watching a movie with Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney (later on maybe John Garfield or Robert Ryan), for the most part the star would be tough, confident, assured. As the tension built, as the pressure mounted, we’d get to a point where that confident surface would start to crack, revealing the tough guy’s vulnerable side. Often the heart of the film would lie in the moments where we saw how frail the hero was beneath his hard exterior. That conflict between the tough and the tender was one of the linchpins of Hollywood melodrama. But Godard takes a totally different approach. In Bande à part, it’s obvious from the beginning how vulnerable these three are. It’s clear that Arthur and Franz are doing their best to mask their insecurity by acting cool, and Odile is trying as hard as she can not to let them see how scared she is. These three are not crooks. They’re playing at being crooks. At times we see Arthur and Franz literally acting out scenes from movies.
Bande à part has an ending, but it doesn’t have a resolution. It couldn’t, because Godard doesn’t believe in tying things up neatly. Rather than trying to find order in chaos, Godard lets us experience the world as it is. My sense is that he’s a romantic who feels he should be a realist. His work is formed by the tension between these two perspectives. In his films he seems to be offering us an invitation to explore with him the massive contradictions that make up our lives, the sorrow and the violence, but also the joy and the beauty
How can you turn down an invitation like that?