Monday, 26 September 2011

Bande à part (1964)

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, whose own filmic output was amongst the most iconoclastic and challenging on offer, possessed of a deep-rooted political and philosophical point of view. In 1964, Godard released what is generally seen to be his most approachable and accessible film, based on the pulp novel Fool’s Gold by Dolores Hitchens - Bande à part.

Franz (Sami Frey) meets Odile (Anna Karina) in an English class, where she casually mentions that she lives with some wealthy benefactors, and that one of them keeps a pile of money in his room, unguarded. Franz tells his friend Arthur (Claude Brasseur) about this, decide to rob the house. As they put pressure on Odile to assist them in their heist, they also both attempt to romance her, leaving her torn between resistance and defiance.

As well as being the most radical member of La Nouvelle Vague, he is also one of the most endlessly quoted. Like most people who write about film (hello there), he had some very resolute opinions on cinema and its potential for major cultural influence, and he would often share them in a manner most concise. Here’s a selection of some of his better-known quotes:
• “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.”
• “Every edit is a lie.”
• “I don’t think you should feel about a movie. You should feel about a
woman. You can’t kiss a movie.”
• “It’s over. There was a time maybe when cinema could have improved
society, but that time was missed.”
• “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in
that order.”

Just look at some of them. There’s the clear love of cinema and what it can do, but it’s tempered with a rather abrupt cynicism. A kind of ‘yeah, it’s good, but what’s the point’ attitude. He was often accused of being too cynical in his critical work, once getting into a feud with François Truffaut because Truffaut believed Godard was too harsh on other people’s work simply to put more attention on his own. This all speaks to the kind of filmmaker Godard was: an outspoken rebel, an iconoclast, someone who questions and challenges the standard way of doing things. Take a look back at that last quote again, which is a pretty concise way of showing his feelings on standard narrative construction. It’s also a favourite line of every film school in the world, trying to make students think outside of the proverbial box when it comes to film structure. Another one of Godard’s oft-quoted remarks on film is “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” Bande à part is something of an exercise in whether or not this is true… and it kind of is.

More specifically, though, it’s an adaptation of a 1958 pulp novel, Fool’s Gold, by Dolores Hitchens, an American mystery writer. Godard took a great deal of influence from such 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 and Arthur 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, 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 get complicated further when Arthur’s uncle finds out about his plans and decides to pull the job himself, forcing the three to go ahead with it before they’re ready.

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 ass through, despite some protests from a guard. I’ll come to my thoughts on these scenes in a bit.

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 is 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. As 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 that it was done on purpose. As I mentioned before, Godard was someone to challenge 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 mistakes, 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.

Honestly, I find that, nowadays, whilst Godard’s work is still interesting to me, it is only in a purely theoretical sense. I can’t really say that 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, after viewing the film today, 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 the audience 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 more books, your opinions on what makes them work become more solidified, depending on your own tastes. Of course, it is 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 have 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 am 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 Godard is still an important filmmaker for people to 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.

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