“Band of Outsiders”: Jean-Luc Godard 101

The French New Wave master's 1964 classic, here in a new digital print, is a love triangle, a crime caper, and an ode to classic Hollywood

If you happen to be an aspiring cinephile, intent on exploring the work of the greatest filmmakers, but have thus far been intimidated by the often thorny resume of one Jean-Luc Godard, take heart. This weekend, the Northwest Film Center is screening a new digital restoration of Godard’s 1965’s “Band of Outsiders,” the best possible entry point to Godard’s world. (For goodness’ sake, at least don’t start with his newer stuff!)

It’s a caper film, a tribute to the Hollywood B-movies so beloved by the French New Wave crew, and a comedy (until it’s not). It features the luminous, adorable Anna Karina, the suavely handsome Sami Frey, and the rough but charming Claude Brasseur as three corners of a classic love triangle. And then there’s that iconic dance scene.

Claude Brasseur, Anna Karina, and Sami Frey in "Band of Outsiders"

Claude Brasseur, Anna Karina, and Sami Frey in “Band of Outsiders”

Franz (Frey) and Arthur (Brasseur) are planning to rob a big old house on a forlorn island in the Seine. Through flashbacks and Godard’s own laconic narration, we learn that, three weeks earlier, the pair had met Odile (Karina) in an English-language class where the teacher reads Shakespeare. As they vie for her affections, she reveals that there’s a stash of cash at the house where she lives with her aunt.  The plotting of the heist alternates with whimsical episodes like a mad dash through the Louvre, but the robbery itself goes darkly off course.

The story, accessible as it is, is only part of the appeal. The almost jarringly rich score by Michel Legrand, the black-and-white cinematography of a lost Paris by Raoul Coutard, and the inventive sound design are all superb. The lead performances ooze a wry vulnerability of the sort that unconsciously becomes emblematic of an era.

This was Godard’s seventh feature, although it was made only four years after his first, “Breathless.” Like that film, it flaunts its maker’s love affair with culture, both pop and otherwise. Franz and Arthur dress, as did Belmondo in “Breathless,” like characters from a 1940s Hollywood film noir, and Odile is lit like a 1930s goddess of the silver screen.

On the Criterion Collection DVD of “Band of Outsiders,” a “visual dictionary” runs through the multitudinous references in the film, from the excerpts of Legrand’s “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” score that pop up, to the Dolores Hitchens book the movie’s ostensibly based on, to Raymond Queneau’s 1937 novel “Odile.”

In later Godard films, getting these sorts of references is practically essential, but here they’re much more playful, acting as ornamental filigrees on an already appealing frame. In the opening credits, Godard pops the word “cinema” in between his first and last names, and rarely has his sheer love of the medium been more evident. That besottedness, along with the jagged but never random shifts in tone from light to dark, are surely what inspired Quentin Tarantino to name his production company “A Band Apart” after this movie’s original French title. (Tarantino’s admiration for Godard was such that he once falsely claimed to have acted in Godard’s 1987 “King Lear.”)

It does seem warranted to point out that the emblem of 60s French cool that is Odile/Karina is in fact a rather problematic figure, gender-equality-wise, from today’s perspective. Her motivation to befriend, and become romantic with, these rather brash and immature dudes is never really explained. And before the film is out, she allows herself to be treated really quite lousily by them. Godard, like the Nouvelle Vague in general, isn’t known for his feminism, at least above a rather cold intellectual approach, so Odile’s objectification comes with the territory. Still, it grates a bit.

But then there’s that dance scene. About halfway through, our three antiheroes retire to a café, where eventually Odile leads them in a minutes-long, single-take performance of the dance known as the Madison. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody has a fascinating column on the making of this often-imitated sequence, but the simple fact is that you can’t watch it without a smile sneaking its way onto your face.

No wonder the ever-more-crotchety Godard has called “Band of Outsiders” one of his least favorite of his films. It’s fun. Who cares what the genius says—check it out.

(104 minutes, not rated, in French with English subtitles; plays Friday, Saturday, and Monday, August 5, 6, and 8, at the Northwest Film Center) GRADE: A-

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