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Bande à part

Bande à part

By Paul Costello • May 19th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 3/5
Columbia Films

Original release: August 5th, 1964
Running time: 97 minutes

Country of origin: France
Original language: French

Writer and director: Jean-Luc Godard

Cast: Anna Karina, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur

Bande à part

Back in late 1950s France, there came La Nouvelle Vague, or the “New Wave” of filmmakers. It was a term used to describe a group of French critics-turned-filmmakers who, taking influence from the Italian Neo-realist movement and classical Hollywood fare, sought to question and reject the accepted form of film grammar as it stood. One of the most radical members of this group was Jean-Luc Godard. As well as being the most radical member of La Nouvelle Vague, he’s also one of the most quoted. One of his oft-quoted remarks on film is “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” Bande à part, his most approachable and accessible film, based on the novel Fool’s Gold by Dolores Hitchens, is something of an exercise in whether or not this is true… and it kind of is

Godard took a great deal of influence from pulp novel books, and the whole American pulp sensibility in general. For example, his male characters were often petty criminals who consciously affected the look and demeanour of characters from American noirs and B-movies. Bande à part featured two such characters that set out to rob the home of one of their classmates after she mentions a large sum of money that’s kept in the house. However, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) aren’t career criminals; they’re essentially two wannabe tough-guys and fantasists who figure that this kind of score will set them up for life.

Along the way, each of them vie for the attentions of Odile (Anna Karina), the girl whose home they plan to rob. Naturally, they try to bring her in on it, making her their spy in the house, bringing them details about how much money there is, where it is, and whether or not anyone will be home for the robbery. Odile herself seems to be getting pulled by different feelings: some guilt over accidentally initiating proceedings; a hint of happiness about the possibility of escaping her dull life; and attraction to the two would-be thieves, though she often fluctuates as to who she likes more. The plans for the robbery become further complicated when Arthur’s uncle finds out about and decides to pull the job himself, forcing the three to go ahead before they’re ready.

Bande à part

It’s a rather intriguing premise, and the plot does unfold nicely, however it’s clear that Godard has little interest in this. The plot is really just an excuse to let him follow three young people around Paris a bit, and offer some of his less contentious perspectives on film. There are three moments in the film that everyone talks about, all of them pure Godard. The first is in a café when the three decide to have a minute silence and the film itself joins them, with all sound completely cutting out. The second is in the same café, immediately after the silence, when Franz puts on some music and the three dance together for a while. The third is the scene when they decide to try and beat the record for going through the Louvre, which they go tearing through, despite some protests from a guard.

The three main players in this film do their work admirably enough. Both men offer quite restrained performances, in keeping with the influence of Hollywood genre anti-heroes. Sami Frey is the more stylish, but cold Franz, who wishes he could be warmer for the sake of getting closer to Odile. Claude Brasseur is Arthur, a more masculine presence, and more comfortable in his exchanges with Odile, though he’s actually the more ruthless of the two. Anna Karina, though, does give something more. A gorgeous girl with big eyes and nice smile, she brings out the awkwardness of Odile very well, projecting this sense of vulnerability that’s in a near constant state of ebb and flow. It’s a downright enchanting show from Karina, who was actually Godard’s wife at the time.

There are things that I do struggle with in Bande à part, though. The continuity is off every now and then, such as Odile’s socks and stockings, which seem quite inconsistent. And there are a few edits that seem to be screw-ups, with the cut going back on the previous few seconds. Bande à partAs such, you’ll get a moment where Franz and Arthur start to cross the street, the camera cuts to a different position, and the two are back where they started, about to cross the street again. Another instance comes in the classroom, where a student’s response to a question is shown from one angle, but repeated with the camera now on the teacher. Moments such as these are simply too big to go unnoticed, which would make me think it was done on purpose. Godard was someone who challenged ways of working, so this could be something in this vein. I say this because the alternative is that Godard and his three editors had a collective moment of crass amateurism and never noticed the problem. However, if this really were intentional, what would be the point? It doesn’t add anything.

The only thing I can think of is that Godard left these mistakes in as a message that we all make them, and it’s no big deal… yes, I agree, that’s a bit thin. Even taking into account his “every edit is a lie” concept, it still just amounts to him saying to us “remember, it’s all a lie”, which I’ve never really appreciated. All of this points towards a more general problem I have with Godard.

I find that, nowadays, whilst Godard’s work is still interesting to me, it’s only in a purely theoretical sense. I can’t really say I enjoy his films as much as I used to, and Bande à part is included in this. You look at all the words written about the film and the adjectives in most constant use are “accessible”, “charming”, and “enjoyable”. However, there are also a few qualifiers in there, like “weirdly” and “peculiar”, as if the people found themselves enjoying the film against their better judgement. As for me, I think it’s lost some of its charms. The famous dance scene that spawned a few imitators does nothing for me. Neither does the Louvre sprint scene. The minute of silence I still find a little funny, but largely just because of the faces of the trio as they sit there. As it is, I just spend some of these moments wanting to get back to the story, which I doubt Godard would appreciate.

I think that the reason I feel this way about Godard’s work in general comes simply from the fact that I’ve grown up. I don’t mean to say that Godard’s work is juvenile, because it’s absolutely not. He was, and still is, a serious man with serious opinions about the filmic medium. What I mean is that the things Godard is trying to make us think about (narrative, editing, intertextuality, etc.) hold less sway as you grow as a viewer. As you get older and you see more films or read Bande à partmore books, your opinions on what makes them work become more solidified, depending on your own tastes. Of course, it’s important that you challenge yourself every now and then, question your own standards of what you think works and what doesn’t, so to this purpose Godard’s films will always be important and always have their place. I just find that I have grown out of the questioning nature of Godard’s work because I’ve considered what he talks about and made up my mind on the subject, one way or the other.

I think that Godard’s filmic sensibilities are best experienced at a younger age than I am now, back when his musings and questions about the medium have a more profound impression on the viewer because they seem new. As I am now, I’m less inclined to be bowled over by his radical tactics in narrative trickery or editing rhythm. I have seen his points, and how they have evolved, and I have decided whether or not I think they work for myself.

Bande à part is a good film, and part of the body of work that should be seen at least once. The story is intriguing and the acting is very good, especially from the wonderful Karina. However, I just can’t say that it had too much of an impact on me as I am now. I do believe that he’s still an important filmmaker whose work people should see, particularly those who are serious about their films, like film students. So, if you’re looking to expand your filmic horizons, starting with Bande à part would be a wise move.

Bande à part

Paul Costello

Paul Costello

Paul Costello is a critic, blogger and former film editor with a degree in filmmaking from the University of the West of Scotland. He’s been watching movies for as long as he can remember, and began the process of writing about every movie he owns on his blog: acinephilesjourney.blogspot.co.uk. He’ll be at that for a while. He’s also the resident film writer at TheStreetSavvy.com.

You can follow him on Twitter @PaulCinephile.

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