Blame it on the Madison.
Or blame it on Arthur, Franz, and Odile’s gleeful race through the Louvre in an attempt to break the world record (held by an American, of course) for the quickest visit ever.
Blame it on the minute of silence; the way the director credits himself as “Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard”; the way our heroes pass under a stylish neon sign on the place de Clichy that reads “Nouvelle Vague.”
But most of all, blame it on the Madison dance sequence, later to be quoted by a parade of hip directors, that 1964’s Band of Outsiders at first seems a film of gestures rather than a singular, coherent drama. Utterly seductive in its digressions, limned with Parisian nostalgia and metafilmic quips, it’s a movie in which the flimsy caper plot risks seeming pure pretext. “Un plan?” asks Odile, turning directly to the camera. “Pourquoi?” Arrogantly sans souci, such a strategy could have stumbled—particularly for a director just off his first bomb, Les carabiniers, and, perhaps just as disconcertingly, the success of his CinemaScope stab at the mainstream, Contempt (both 1963). But the gestures themselves are sure-footed, and too seductively goofy to dislike. And not even the narrator (Godard himself) seems capable of taking the main action too seriously: “A few words chosen at random,” begins the underwhelming overture. “Three weeks earlier. A pile of money. An English class. A house by the river. A romantic girl.”
Sure, but what’s that against the infinitely charming terpsichorean savoir faire of Arthur, Franz, and Odile? Godard claims to have invented the dance, but he didn’t, any more than he invented the quotes from Rimbaud, Breton, Éluard, Queneau, and the rest. It came from America.
Plenty came from America, of course—not just Dolores Hitchens’s source novel, Fools’ Gold (1958), published in France as part of the famous Série Noire line of pulp fiction. From Arthur and Franz’s playful opening reenactment of the death of Billy the Kid to the Hollywood ending, in which Franz and Odile steam off to South America between the Immigrant and Butch and Sundance, the characters make their claim on French reality by playing American fantasy. It’s as if they aren’t characters at all—they just think they are, acting out a movie they saw one Saturday afternoon called America. In that language class where boys meet girl, someone asks, “How do you say ‘a big one-million-dollar film’?”
For all of this, for all the sense of assemblage and borrowing, for all the silliness and set pieces, Band of Outsiders is a movie with a main motion—not that of a noir or a policier but of a love story. Like so many Godard films, it’s a love story with a bullet in it. And like the most fiercely involved romances, it’s a map of difficult frontiers: between big city and still rustic suburbs, prewar particularity and the masses of mass culture, natural light and the color of money. Characters meet, the director has noted, “at the crossroads of the unusual and the ordinary.” An encyclopedic litterateur, Godard recalls the sublime phrase of proto-surrealist Raymond Roussel, envisioning the art of the new century as “the marriage of the beautiful and the trivial.”
That may describe all of Godard; it certainly does all of this film’s characters. Still, beyond the vexed romance of Arthur, Odile, and Franz, there is a more encompassing love story. Shot by Raoul Coutard in a filtered black and white that renders the Bastille neighborhood flat and workaday, the suburban landscape charged and ghostly, Band of Outsiders is more than anything a melancholy love letter to Paris and to time. These are complicated relationships, to be sure. For the French New Wave, cultural nostalgia was conservative unto anathema. Godard has never been in the business of stopping time, from his celebrated jump cuts to the irrevocable destinies that sweep his characters before them. The movie doesn’t come to judge the future but to marry it.
It was just as Billy the Kid was dying in America that factories started appearing on the outskirts of Paris. Still, the spectral suburban landscape across which Karina makes a dash, gawky, nervy, and beautiful, could exist in mythical time (“A prewar, poetic climate,” Godard has called it); she makes a hero’s journey over embankment and escarpment, complete with rowboat bridge. It was on the Grands Boulevards that cash had become king, without even the niceties of a coronation.
That’s the secret justification for the amateur gang’s plan to rip off a promised pile of dough from the house where Odile lives with her adoptive aunt. We know that the guy who has it stashed doesn’t deserve it. But beneath that knowing, we sense the cash should be downtown, reveling in the new consumer capitalism, not lying fallow hidden away on a suburban estate. It literally has no business being out there. No wonder Odile, when she sets her eyes on the money, stares at it like it’s artwork.
Or maybe she’s just used to the camera staring at her that way. Godard certainly had no problem filming Anna Karina—a former model and his then wife, with whom he had just formed Anouchka Films and from whom he would soon enough be divorced—as if she were a lovely object. Yet her impossibly direct style remains surprising and affecting. Claude Brasseur plays Arthur as a stylish cynic, an old type; Sami Frey is bemused and naive, a Cary Grant who has decided to begin again from the beginning, with an open heart. But Karina bears the desires of the New Wave in every move. As Godard intones, “Odile said she’d blurted it out but meant it.” The reference is to her telling Arthur she loves him, but it might as well be an ars cinematica, the aesthetics of immediacy writ human. As we hear the phrase, Karina passes directly under that “Nouvelle Vague” neon.
None of them has a finer moment than the Madison, just a couple of minutes during which each manages to telegraph everything you might need to know about him or her.
If it’s a set piece, it’s also the heartbreaking heart of a total, complex movie; it makes a microhistory of the changes at stake. Godard must have been drawing not just on the dance brought to France by Harold Nicholas but also on Singin’ in the Rain’s title dance, the classic of boy-girl-boy choreography. That film, too, concerned moviemaking, industrial change, a bunch of singing and dancing on the border of two eras. But Godard sees in such a moment more complexity than a musical comedy would allow—or a grand tragedy, for that matter. There’s something of both in the joy and alienation expressed equally in Arthur, Franz, and Odile’s dance, choreographed to bar jukebox and internal monologue. Never have three people been so alone together, a band and apart, in a singular double exposure of one moment arriving as another passes away.
Joshua Clover has published two books of cultural criticism, The Matrix and 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About, and two books of poetry, Madonna anno domini and The Totality for Kids, the latter featuring a poem composed entirely of intertitles from Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie. He serves on the editorial board of Film Quarterly. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2003 release of Band of Outsiders.