Review: Bande à Part (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in maybe 2000?]

My adolescence belongs to the Nouvelle Vague, to Godard in particular. Double bills at the Electric, Channel 4’s mammoth Cinema Cinema Cinema season, samizdat videos in a barren school. At last, alongside the opportunity offered by the NFT’s two-month season of Godard’s work, and a four-day symposium dedicated to Godard at Tate Modern, come BFI-sponsored releases for three of Godard’s finest early works: first Bande à part, to be followed by Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (6th July), and Vivre sa vie (later in the year), all in new prints.

Bande à part, based on Dolores Hitchens’ novel Fool’s Gold, takes place over three days, and centres on a couple of petty gangsters, Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), and their attempts to persuade Odile (Anna Karina), who attends Franz’s English class, to help them steal a large amount of money from her aunt’s lodger, Mr Stolz.

Like A bout de souffle, a poetic treatment of the crime genre, Bande à part, which Manny Farber, in his Godard menagerie, called a “whooping crane”, has proved an inspiration across the medium – to Hal Hartley, Steven Soderbergh (especially in Schizopolis) and Quentin Tarantino (who named his production company A Band Apart). Certain scenes in Godard’s film will seem familiar – the celebrated dance scene, homaged in Pulp Fiction, Arthur’s death finding a Hartleian spin in Amateur. Filled with sly asides, and a literary, omniscient, deictic narration (partly a response to those critics who attacked his previous work for being excessively elliptical), Bande à part continues to wrestle with “the director’s modern methods”, as Franz’s English teacher has it, the delicate seesaw of “classique=moderne” (the prominent placing of bottles of Ajax and Omo in Arthur’s flat serves to underline this.)

His technique, then so disjunctive and startling, mingling banality, randomness and fantasy, still feels free and ravenous. Godard’s experimentation with tradition offers a trio of characters whose own attitudes to tradition differ enormously. In the opening scene, neither Arthur nor Franz is content with looking through the car windscreen, and insist on standing up and looking over it. Arthur, in his grotesque mock death scene at the start, is as self-absorbed as he is later in the dance scene in the café. When he actually dies, he stays upright and self-possessed long enough to kill his killer, his own uncle. Odile, something of an ingenue, seems in thrall to Arthur and her aunt. At the end, she finds a semi-romantic resolution with Franz, before, in the narrator’s words, “another film in which you will be told, in Cinemascope and Technicolour this time, of the adventures of Odile and Franz in the tropics”, another mock-affectionate homage, this time to serial narrative films.

The overriding feeling of the film is, as Susan Sontag noted, one of speed, “verging sometimes on haste”. Scene after scene involves one of the trio running at full tilt, or driving at high speed, but round in circles (a result of Franz’s obsession with the Indy 500 – travelling a great distance without actually going anywhere). Arbitrariness – of appearances, of where scenes begin and end, of the visual environment, of language and communication – forms a key part of Godard’s aesthetic, and his mangling of linear narrative, oscillating between dynamism and inertia, is counter-pointed by a refusal to submit to conventions of character-drawing. As in so much of his prolific early period, each character seems an accumulation of props, attitudes, quotations and oddly, alienatedly slow reactions.

The Nouvelle Vague was given its name by Francoise Giroud, who placed it in the same tradition as Dior’s 1947 New Look, and the Nouveau Roman in the 1950s. During that early period, 1957-1960, 67 new directors made their first features. Not that many have survived, reputations intact. Godard has, although his preference for video has marginalised him somewhat, and Bande à part, flawed though it may be, like most of his early work, is a testament to the vigour and freshness of the conception of director who had the cheek and self-irony to credit himself on this film:

JEAN-LUC
CINEMA
GODARD.

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