(These notes were written for a re-release of the film in the UK in 2001)
After A bout de souffle in 1959, Jean-Luc Godard made five more features and three ‘episodes’ in ‘portmanteau’ films before he started work on Bande à part in early 1964. Many critics saw the new film as ‘slight’ – Godard was taking a breather after all the stress and strain of the big budget Le mépris. At the time, Bande à part was not given much critical support. But its current release has met with almost universal acclaim. Godard is back in fashion and for younger cinephiles there is the added bonus that Tarantino is such a fan of the film, quoting it in the dance sequence for Pulp Fiction.
How should we approach the film? After the lure of CinemaScope and Technicolor at Cinecitta with Le mépris, Godard is back in Paris and on the streets in black and white. The obvious comparison is with A bout de souffle and Godard himself has alluded to Franz and Arthur as ‘suburban cousins’ of the Jean-Paul Belmondo character in A bout de souffle. The similarities between the films are clear – ostensibly crime stories, both films are more about the characters, life in Paris and being young. Yet visually the films are very different – Godard has learned to do all the things he wants to do. Bande à part is controlled and fluid and the dominant image in many parts of the film is the long shot used to frame action. This seems to derive from Rossellini and also possibly from Truffaut. It is balanced of course by the tight framing of the three principal characters in their long bouts of waiting. Here the difference is of tone – much of it influenced by the presence of Anna Karina. If A bout de souffle was Belmondo’s film, then Bande à part, despite the sterling work of Claude Brasseur and Sammi Frey, belongs to Karina.
Married to Jean-Luc Godard in 1961, Anna Karina appeared in a total of nine of Godard’s films – Bande à part was the fourth. The bubbly stripper who wants a baby in Une femme est une femme (1961) and the more serious young woman who watches Dreyer’s Joan of Arc and becomes a prostitute in Vivre sa vie (1962), is now Odile, a childlike innocent in Bande à part (Odile was Godard’s mother’s name – Anouchka, the name of the production company, was his pet name for Anna). Anna Karina, like many of Godard’s female leads is not French. Born in Copenhagen, she takes her place alongside Jean Seberg, Marina Vlady, Joanna Shimkus et al. Godard himself is Swiss. Perhaps being an ‘outsider’ both suits the Parisian sense of being cosmopolitan and marks out Anna Karina as different from the other young women who flock to the city – for it seems possible to argue for Karina as an essential ‘face’ of the 1960s. She arrives in Paris as the country cousin, much as Rita Tushingham comes to London in The Knack (UK 1965), and like the young women in British Cinema of the period, she holds the fascination of the men she meets. Godard himself, in typically extravagant style, describes the character of Odile as:
“. . . in a direct line from English Romanticism of the 19th Century. But she comes also, and even more directly, from German Classicism of a century earlier. This means that in her are conjugated almost perfectly the spontaneity of Mary Webb’s gentle heroine, and the disenchanted pride of Hardy’s unhappy Tess.
Odile is never at the same time sad and gay, gentle and violent, tender and distant, as people are in a normal psychological film. She lives, on the contrary, each day as it comes, each emotion as it comes, which she plunges into one after the other, rather than all at once, which is the sign of a simple and gentle heart.
. . . Odile is Leslie Caron in Orvet or Lili; then suddenly she’s Cathy O’Donnell in They Live By Night. For three seconds she follows the winding river like Jennifer Jones in Cluny Brown, and suddenly fate brings her to the point of tears like Sylvia Sidney in Lang’s immortal film (You Only Live Once).” Jean-Luc Godard (quoted on the BFI website – but now not available)
Godard and Cinema
Robin Wood (1967) sees Bande à part as a halfway point in Godard’s development as a filmmaker. Still recognisably a (genre) narrative film, there is a much clearer sense of moving towards a more radical approach. Although elements of the earlier films had already shown evidence of Godard’s interest in disrupting mainstream cinema (e.g. the mismatching and abrupt editing of sound), they are here for the first time presented as an integral part of the whole:
“Stylistically and structurally the film is built on two tensions which characterise all of Godard’s work, but the opposing pulls in each here find a unique balance in the tension between traditional narrative and what I have called collage; and the tension between naturalism and stylisation, both pushed to extremes.” (Wood 1967)
Wood analyses the classroom scene in detail, pointing out that as a ‘straight’, narrative sequence it works well to set up the relationships between the three central characters, but as a classroom lesson it makes no sense, unless we are prepared to ‘read’ it in terms of the cultural references and juxtapositions between the characters in the room and the literary heroes of Hardy and Shakespeare. ‘Collage’ as Wood presents the idea, refers to the ways in which Godard attempts to persuade us to think across scenes in a ‘thematic’ way. The best example of this is possibly the running commentary on ‘life’ and ‘art’ that is the characters’ own understanding of gangster heroes in ‘real life’ and the cinema. The robbery attempts are shown, often in longshot, in a way that recalls the ineptness of early cinema clowns, but when the characters consciously ‘play’ at gangsters, in the famous shot of Arthur dying as Billy the Kid, the scene is structured to evoke the generic power of the Hollywood version. Other aspects of the film that continue the ‘collage’ effect are the dance scene in the cafe, Odile’s song, the stories the men tell and the race through the Louvre.
On a first viewing, Bande à part is a film that you tend to remember for the dance scene and the luminosity of Anna Karina. On a second viewing, the economy and fluidity of even the simplest scenes becomes evident. As Wood points out, Godard demonstrates that he could have made an elegant genre thriller, but he chose to offer us something else.
Much of the material presented here was found on the BFI website but has since been moved.
Robin Wood (1967) ‘Bande à part’ in Ian Cameron (ed) The films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Studio Vista