"Everything that is new is automatically traditional," a character says in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 masterpiece Band of Outsiders, and this paradoxical aesthetic manifesto describes the film perfectly: it redefines the new by embracing the old. This impossibly beautiful, impossibly sad movie calls to mind nothing so much as the lyrical surrealism of Jean Vigo’s 1933 Zero for Conduct, yet 35 years after its release it still retains its heady air of risk and endless capacity to surprise. Filmmakers are still trying to catch up with it.
A simple crime story serves as the springboard for the film’s playfully radical formal experiments. Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey play aspiring criminals Franz and Arthur – kids, really, playacting their favorite gangster movies. They fall in with Odile (Anna Karina), a naive, sheltered young woman. Hopelessly in love – first with Franz, who sports Italian suits and movie star good looks, then with the pug-ugly Arthur – and craving their approval, she tells them about the boarder in her home who keeps a huge stash of money in his room. She immediately regrets it once they start to plan a robbery.
It’s a gangster movie that’s less concerned with the caper than with the fickle frailty of young love. The most indelible scene isn’t the climactic crime (though their bumbling first attempt is the most memorably inept larceny ever recorded on film) but the three kids dancing the Madison in a smoky club, interrupted now and again by a voice-over explaining their thoughts as they stomp and clap. The plot is just a framework for a series of stunning set pieces, scenes that bend our expectations while redefining the possibilities of narrative filmmaking.
Godard’s early work – particularly the startling run of fifteen features and five shorts completed in the eight years between 1959′s Breathless and the 1967 Weekend – was a rabid film geek’s haphazard attempt to reinvent the cinema, with each film exploring new terrain by yoking together contradictory impulses. Breathless destabilized the film noir with manic jumpcutting and gear-grinding shifts in tempo. Vivre sa vie was acted as classical melodrama but shot like cinema verite documentary. A Woman is a Woman was a "neo-realist musical" without music. Each film looked and felt completely different from the last, yet was unmistakably Godard.
These are ecstatic, delirious films, even at their most despairing. (All these films, even the comedies, tend to end tragically.) There’s a sense of aesthetic freedom in these pure products of the French New Wave, a love of filmmaking that shows itself in a willingness to try anything, to leap off into tangents and let loose for the sheer thrill of the attempt. It makes for messy work – Godard’s bad scenes seem to go on for years – but the exuberance and charm make it clear why he so quickly became the most influential filmmaker of his time.
Much of Band of Outsiders‘ energy derives from the deliberate mismatch of its style and content. Shot and staged like a silent film, with echoes of Griffith and Renoir, the casual nihilism of the young thugs is a shockingly modern attitude to find wrapped in such classical dress. The movement of the actors is precisely choreographed in long takes, with the dance of their shifting position within the frame telling us more than their chatty, tossed-off dialogue. There’s a moment towards the end where the film brilliantly reenergizes the cliches from which it builds: Two characters face off with drawn guns. One fires, the other takes the bullet, and as he clutches his chest we plunge from the boys’ silly games into something altogether more real. Guns keep firing, and the scene shifts yet again, from unexpected tragedy back to farce, becoming more weirdly comic as the scene lurches forward. As the shooting plays itself out, the scene shifts to Odile, poised by a tree, looking every inch like Lillian Gish in Way Down East as she takes in this awful moment. Her horrified amazement shocks us out of our laughter, forcing a recognition of the scene’s dreadful finality. It’s a staggering ninety seconds, compacting sixty years of cinematic style so deftly that it manages to make us experience the most tired movie convention – a gunfight – as something wholly new
In the luminous new 35mm print currently touring the US, it’s possible finally to see the echoes of Eugene Atget in Raoul Coutard’s superb, wintry black and white cinematography. (Since its initial release, the film has been available in the U.S. only in foggy bootlegged 16mm dupes.) Coutard’s offhand style feeds the improvisatory quality of the film; the best moments here feel like they’re unfolding in real time, being created as you watch them.
The opening credits of Band of Outsiders eschew the standard "written and directed by" in favor of the blunt, cocky "JEAN-LUC CINEMA GODARD." It’s a brash joke, a wink at the influence Godard was beginning to wield in the film world. Yet once the film gets underway, and scene after scene pulls us up short with its invention and depth of feeling, it begins to look less like a prankish bit of hubris, and more like a modest statement of fact. – Gary Mairs