Friday, June 14, 2013

“I hate movies.”

Being part the fourth of my wrasslin’ with the work of Jean-Luc Godard. The first two parts – 2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER and BREATHLESS – went undocumented. The last bout between Godard and I – when I watched 1967’s WEEKEND – occurred last fall. (I’ve also seen both ALPHAVILLE and CONTEMPT but both were so long ago that my opinion on these has been misplaced.) I know everyone finds my struggles with a highly regarded auteur fascinating, so I’m here to bravely confront BAND OF OUTSIDERS.

I was told that BAND OF OUTSIDERS would be The One, the Godard film that would instantly connect with me as it travelled the same neural pathways as my beloved film noir. Popping in Criterion’s recent Bluray upgrade of the film, I went full Pollyanna, expecting this to be my JLG Rosetta Stone.

My first pang of trepidation came near the end of the (otherwise brilliant) opening credits, when Godard billed himself as “Jean-Luc ‘Cinema’ Godard”. That “cinema-is-my-middle-name” bit made me audibly groan. It’s this kind of affected wankery that I find so bloody grating in Godard’s films.  

If I switched on the film just after the credits, it would initially be hard to distinguish from a gritty French crime film in the vein of Jules Dassin. The film opens with two young toughs (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) driving toward some undeclared nefarious purpose while engaging in idle young tough chatter. This is a classic set-up, one that ripples down from BAND OF OUTSIDERS all the way to PULP FICTION (Quentin Tarantino named his production company “A BAND APART” after the Godard film’s French title; indeed, it would seem QT mined Godard - and BAND OF OUTSIDERS in particular - pretty heavily). 

The two men arrive at their destination: a spot just across the river from a small mansion, the home of Odile (Anna Karina), a classmate of theirs and the object of their psychosexual desires. They’re casing the house in the hopes of robbing it with Odile’s help. 

All of this – the first few minutes of BAND OF OUTSIDERS – is shockingly conventional for a Godard film. There’s still the sense of oily, amoral youth endemic to his films but it’s not until the poetic, confessional narration kicks in – voiced by Godard himself – that the film’s pedigree begins to show. At the fifteen-minute mark, I scrawled “most accessible JLG, not as visually audacious” in my notes and that assessment held for me to the end.

The rest of the film follows a rather typical (for film noir and Godard) trajectory: the doomed trio bungle their way through their relationships and toward a bitter anticlimax. Godard takes his own odd, ugly thing and tenuously hangs it in a familiar frame. The characters – even the lovely Karina – are narcissistic sociopaths, which is kind of the point I guess (in an odd move, late in the film, Godard introduces Arthur’s family, themselves a horde of crooks; this is the closest I’ve seen to a psychological backstory in any of the Godard films I’ve taken in). 

As a lust triangle, an amoral character study, and a crime film, BAND OF OUTSIDERS accomplishes its aims but never rises to the heights of the similar JULES ET JIM or even Godard's own BREATHLESS. In fact, for all of my kvetching about Godard's flights of intellectual fancy and self-gratification, I think I prefer his more unstructured work to his attempts at linear storytelling. BAND might not have the highly aggravating self-satisfaction of WEEKEND, but it also doesn't have anything close to the sublime aside about the life of a rock or the performance of Mozart's piano sonata #18 (not to mention the coffee bit in 2 OR 3 THINGS, which remains my favorite Godard thusfar). I'll take the rambling essays for their moments of transcendence over the dull cynicism of BREATHLESS and BAND.

That said, BAND has two such playful asides, both of them quite famous. There's the storming of the Louvre (referenced in Bernardo Bertolucci's execrable THE DREAMERS) and the part where the trio make an impressive go at dancing the Madison. Both of them are fine, I guess. Fun-ish. Good additions to Oscar clip reels thrown together to remind people that there are foreign films.

My biggest problem with Godard has always been his approach to storytelling, which I find very dull. He’s not really concerned with much beyond rubbing his own cleverness in our face. With each film, whatever his pet obsessions happen to be at the time become the footnotes that he uses to create his “story” (itself just one big hyperlinked meta-footnote). As with the Criterion edition of WEEKEND, BAND OF OUTSIDERS is accompanied by a very instructive extra that parses all the academic and cultural winks and nods that Godard saw fit to use as a leavening agent (Rimbaud and French surrealists were primary inspirations).  For this reason, I feel like Godard films are perfectly complimented by the DVD format when it’s used to its fullest. His work opens up quite a bit more when decanted from an illuminated, expository container.

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