Avant-gangsters

Jean-Luc Godard’s original band on the run.

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Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part, 1964), his seventh feature, looks back to the B-movie gangster homage of his 1959 debut, Breathless. Like his fellow New Wavers (Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer et al), Godard’s love of American films was wide-ranging. But he was particularly drawn to the monumentally unpretentious output of those small Hollywood studios collectively known as poverty row — Republic, Monogram, PCR — where, during their ’40s peak, movies were routinely shot in less than two weeks and for less than $100,000. Most of these were artless genre exercises, tedious beyond endurance, but also beyond the interfering interests of more monied productions. In the hands of a talented director, a small gem could be made (Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1946 Detour is the most celebrated example).

Godard was well aware of the lyricism that could be tweaked out of a banal story shot in a hurry and Band Of Outsiders, despite its relatively elaborate budget of $125,000 and expansive shooting time of 25 days, is a poverty-row art film.

The director had made an auspicious beginning with Breathless, a low-budget movie which made a decent return and which was a cultural sensation. But his ensuing five features, while engendering much critical commentary and controversy, had been met with dwindling public interest. His progressively expressive style, experimenting with layered commentary and disjunctive narrative, was too explicitly avant-garde for the general public and the tenor of his films was seen as either too archly political (Le Petit Soldat and Les Carabiniers), too obscurely whimsical (A Woman is a Woman) or too astringent (Vivre Sa Vie, his first masterpiece, and Contempt). With Band of Outsiders, Godard made his last willful attempt at an audience film before returning to the tending of his increasingly intricate vision.

The film is based on a potboiler by Dolores Hitchins called Fool’s Gold and beautifully shot in black and white by Godard’s frequent collaborator Raoul Coutard. It takes place under the perennially overcast winter skies of Paris, its muted ambience suggesting both a claustrophobic fatalism and a glaze of nostalgia (both feelings being heightened in the current new-print release). Two over-aged punks and proto-slackers, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), have inveigled a naive and not-too-bright young girl named Odile (Anna Karina) into aiding them in the robbery of her rich employer. Given that plot is something usually shoved aside and left to sulk in the corners of Godard’s spliced-and-diced scenarios, this one is relatively straightforward and up front.

Franz and Arthur are two movie-shaped tough guys, acting out shoot-outs and generally behaving badly. Franz has a sensitive side, aroused by Odile, while Arthur (who claims his last name is Rimbaud) is more wholly hard-boiled; it’s he who decides, according to the deadpan narrator (Godard himself) that, as the robbery approaches, “they’d wait until nightfall in keeping with the tradition of bad B-movies.” Odile, as played by Godard’s early-period muse Karina (this is the fifth of the seven features they would make together), seems impossibly young. Fearful and anxious to please, surly with the lady she works for and turned on by the attention of Arthur’s sexual bullying, she could be a 15-year-old who’s been tucked away in some corner of the world all her life.

The movie has two famous sequences which still seem fresh, despite their somewhat faded aura of ’60s cheekiness: a “spontaneous” dance sequence in a café and a record-breaking run through the Louvre. The tone throughout is a mix of playful and mournful, with an edginess maintained by the director’s signature sound drops (as in Vivre Se Vie, Michel Legrand’s lovely score has been chopped into disconcerting pieces).

It’s the director’s long goodbye to the type of film he once admired but knew he couldn’t make (by dint of artistic temperament, if nothing else). As the narrator says of Odile, “one only had to look at her to realize that the world was crumbling around her.” The usual imperatives of fictional storytelling had already crumbled for Godard and, from this point on, he would become increasingly discursive, difficult and demanding. But here, poised between an audacious beginning and a long career as a natural outsider, he has composed one last love letter to that which originally inspired him, with literature in the footnotes and poetry in the margins.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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