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Band of Outsiders

(France, 1964, 95 minutes, b&w, 35mm)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Anna Karina . . . . . . . . . . Odile
Claude Brasseur . . . . . . . . . . Arthur
Sami Frey . . . . . . . . . .Franz

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Beginning in 1946, with the arrival in the United States of Rome: Open City, Roberto Rossellini's striking film of the Italian wartime resistance, a new epoch in the cinema began. The next fifteen years saw the heyday of the international art cinema. Directors like Ingmar Bergman, Luchino Visconti, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Andrej Wajda, Joseph Losey and others brought to the screen visions of postwar life that were both light and dark, wry and serious. Individually, they made extraodinary contributions to the visual and sonic arts of the cinema. In independent theaters, film societies, and campus screening rooms, audiences throughout the world saw a mosaic of cinematic styles that seemed to ignore national boundaries in a search for transcendent meaning.

But for all their cinematic individualism, the great international directors of the postwar years had much in common: a humane view of the world. Rossellini, Bergman, Kurosawa and the rest were deeply engaged with the realities of the world, with its sufferings and strivings. Their films, however grim in subject matter, offered hope -- the hope that individual, ethical human action could begin to cure the woes of the world. But that action, argued these directors, must begin with reflection.

And then along came Jean-Luc Godard.

The most stylistically iconoclastic of the French New Wave directors, Godard had something like contempt for the humanistic position. He rejected the idea of the cinema as an allegory of the human condition (films like Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries), and he disdained the "little film" about ordinary human beings struggling to achieve a reconciliation between private soul and public role, films like Kurosawa's masterful cinematic miniature Ikiru or Ray's exquisite Pather Panchali trilogy. For Godard, the cinema was a means of social analysis, the screen a cultural space on which he could project his ironic take on modern society, with all its ambivalences and contradictions. He invested little time in the construction of traditonal characters; all that individual psychology and motivation, he seemed to feel, was a distraction from the larger forces which animated mass society. As he moved farther away from the conventions of the international art cinema, Godard's films became surreal, Maoist spectacles, essays on collective consciousness.

From 1960 to 1972, from Breathless to Tout va Bien, Godard used the cinema to take apart not only the harsh realities of class, race, nationalist ideology, capitalist economics, and commodity culture, but he also mercilessly deconstructed the hopeful human cinema of the great international directors. During these years, every new Godard film seemed a fresh, witty epigram on the decay of modern society. Band of Outsiders, oddly, seems at first to return us to the landscape of Breathless, Godard's groundbreaking first film. Both are burlesques of the crime film, but Band of Outsiders shows the deepening of Godard's sense of the absurd. The film marks an important stage in Godard's movement to a point beyond politics.

Band of Outsiders was shot in February and March of 1964; it was Godard's sevenmth feature in five years. A riff on the gangster film (New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael famously called it, "a film about a girl and a gun"), Band of Outsiders avoids the glowering sense of doom which permeated the great American gangster films which Godard loved as an obsessive adolescent cinemagoer. Instead, it is a film of delightful nihilism, as we follow a crew of lesser criminals on a spree which continually assaults the dour realism usually associated with the gangster film; here, it's difficult to tell fantasy from reality, especially when the gang breaks into a musical number. The gang seems to live beyond the borders of class and politics. They are on the run from the law, yes, but it's a leisurely run. In their world, violence is a fact of life, and the film refuses to wag at a finger at them for their way of being in that world. Godard spoke later of "my Band of Outsiders mood," of "characters who live off the cuff." Refusing neither to romanticize nor condemn his criminals, Godard offers a revolutionary possibility in this, one of his most characteristic films: that humanity is frequently inhumane, and that cruelty is not so mucn perpetrated by guilty persons on innocent persons as it is simply a condition of existence. Godard's people live with shame, without guilt, and finally, almost without reflection, without any of the inward turnings of the spirit which had made the international art cinema so important a testament to hope.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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