Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bande à Part

Over the past month, I have stumbled across two French films --- Le Cercle Rouge and Pepe le Moko --- that were pretty terrific, and that surprised me.  It's not that I have a problem with French cinema (so far, anyway), I just don't know much about it or know where to start.  I put in about two minutes of research on the all-knowing interweb and saw a few mentions of Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à Part (or, Band of Outsiders to English-speakers) being a fairly accessible introduction into French New Wave cinema, so I rented it.

To put Bande à Part simply, it is the story of a planned heist.  Odile (Anna Karina) meets a couple of young men in her English language class, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur).  I'm not sure how old Odile is supposed to be, but she's definitely young; she smokes and works as a maid (or something), but she also dresses like a schoolgirl and is naive.  Franz and Arthur are also pretty young, as shown by their goofiness, but they appear to be older than Odile.  Is that important?  Perhaps.  Odile happened to mention that her employer, a man she seldom sees, has a large amount of money hidden in his home in a ridiculously unsecured spot.  Franz and Arthur fancy themselves criminals --- and who knows, maybe they are --- and tell Odile that the three of them are going to steal that money.
Do hardened criminals reenact Billy the Kid's death?

That's pretty much the bare bones of the plot.  The only problem with my synopsis is that this movie isn't really about the crime.  It's not even necessarily about the low-key love triangle that forms between Odile and the boys, as charming as it is.  More than anything, I think this is a classic Cary Grant movie, as seen through the cultural filter of an artsy Frenchman, director Jean-Luc Godard.
French New Wave gives me beautiful headaches, too

Whatever the intent, Bande à Part is a movie with a lot of endearing character moments, scenes that would have felt flat with lesser performances.  Anna Karina had a fairly thankless role in the film, being the girl dumb enough to be a romantic, but she made it work.  She was excellent as the coy girl, flattered by the flirtations from the boys, but she showed a bit more range once the heist actually began.  Claude Brasseur began in a similar fashion, appearing to be little more than a Lothario without much money; when we see him away from the other two, though, many of his earlier actions and reactions made more sense.  Sami Frey seems to do less than the others, from a strictly character perspective, but I found his presence magnetic on-screen.  Maybe he's just a sexy dude.
Who should she choose: Cary Grant or Bill Cosby?

Director Jean-Luc Godard was notoriously laissez-faire in his approach to films, according to the bonus features on the Criterion Collection.  He apparently wrote each day's script to this film the night before, with no definite idea of what would come next.  That could be (accurately) described as a lack of preparation, but you could also argue that lack of concrete vision allows Godard to pursue some truly inspiring impulses.  Bande à Part is at its best when it is reveling in the trivial moments that don't directly propel the main plot forward.  Arthur and Franz having mock gun play is cute, but the time spent with them simply reading grisly news items over each other was surprisingly interesting.  The way the trio shuffled seats to better gain Odile's attention was another cute moment, but this dance sequence is simply sublime:

And the minute of silence (which isn't even a minute) was pretty cool, too.  I don't know how much I admire Godard's overall approach to storytelling and filmmaking, but these little moments take a fairly standard plot and turn it into something unique.  I saw several homages to America in this movie, although I don't know for certain how many Godard intended.  Still, the fascination with American outlaws, the faux-Motown sound in the cafe, the Bogart-esque way Arthur knocks Odile's chin --- they all speak to a fascination with America that I have never seen in a French film before.  Even that ever-so-French landmark, the Louvre, gets involved when the trio decides to break the world record (held by an American, of course) for speed-sightseeing the museum.
Only Americans French actors would be stupid enough to speed through the Louvre

Much of the look and feel of Bande à Part is thanks to the work of cinematographer Raoul Cotard.  I was impressed with his unusual close-ups technique (a few appear to be taken with a wide-angle lens) and his blend of hand-held cameras (still rare at the time) with dolly-based cameras, so I watched the Criterion interview with him.  If you're interested in camera work, I highly recommend it, but the gist is that he overcame some severe technical and location-related restraints to make a beautiful film, without the benefit of studio cameras or lighting.  Pretty cool stuff.

Despite all that, Bande à Part is not as satisfying as I would have liked.  Yes, the silly, goofy, and charming moments are great, and this is a film whose influence can still be felt --- Quentin Tarentino's film company was (or is...it's a little unclear) named A Band Apart, and the Pulp Fiction dance scene is clearly indebted to this film's --- but there are a lot of bizarre points that I just don't get.  I'm okay with Jean-Luc Godard's poetic narration, but it only serves as an extra layer of foreignness to me; some of the things he chooses to say are just odd.  I'm not quite sure why Odile breaks the fourth wall at times, and I've tried to figure it out, which frustrates me.  Maybe this film simply speaks to a time and place that I am woefully ignorant of.  Whatever the cause, I was left with some questions:
  • Do French drivers really use the sidewalk for the odd hundred yards when pulling a U-turn?  
  • Are tigers on the front lawn a common occurrence?  
  • How ridiculous is the cartoonish death stumble toward the end?  
  • Is the promise of a South American sequel a joke, an homage to Hollywood, or just an idea that never made it to film?
There are other, smaller moments that bothered me, too, but those were ones that really pulled me out of the moment.  Of course, I also prefer films that are based more on plot than style.  Still, Bande à Part is undeniably entertaining, just a bit lopsided in its tone.

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