A Series of Crimes: Band of Outsiders, by Aaron Pinkston
Jean-Luc Godard, like his French New Wave contemporaries, was fascinated by Hollywood genre films, especially the gangster film. Many of his early works took conventional genre plots and turned them around, resulting in very Hollywood stories made in very non-Hollywood ways. Band of Outsiders, Godard’s seventh film (in his first four years as a director) is certainly a crime film, but it is a lot of different films. Drawing from the gangster film, musicals, slapstick comedy and romance, it is a doomed love triangle between young Parisians who model themselves after popular culture.
Like Godard, his characters are obsessed with American culture. They are constantly quoting texts, name-dropping writers and performing like their favorite movie stars. The way Odile, Franz and Arthur talk, dress, act pays a debt to Cagney and Bogart and other idols of pulp Hollywood. Strangely enough, they couldn’t care less about the classical arts, rebelling against the establishment — their only interest in the Louvre is running through it in record time. This of course mirrors Godard’s view of French cinema’s “Tradition of Quality,” which prioritized stuffy classics and established directors over those with new and vibrant ideas of filmmaking. Classic American crime films may not be cool or hip to modern generations, but you can see what attracted Godard and the French New Wave — these films weren’t stodgy, they dealt with current political and economic issues, were teeming with sex and violence. Because of Hollywood censorship and the Hays Production Code, much of this was subtextual, which was not a problem for Godard’s independent film culture. Working outside of the French film machine, he could use what he liked about these films and ditch what he didn’t — specifically morals, established storytelling and editing. He’d hang onto the sex and violence, though.
Unlike American gangsters, the three main characters in Band of Outsiders aren’t career criminals. They are more like a group of bored kids looking for something to do. There isn’t any elaborate plan for their heist, really – it’s a crime of convenience. Franz and Arthur meet Odile and she mentions a big ol’ pile of money stashed at her aunt’s house, ready for the taking. Franz and Arthur don’t necessarily seem meant to be criminals, but two men inspired by their favorite criminals in books and movies. Odile certainly isn’t a criminal. It is often difficult to say why she goes along with their plot; sure, for their love, but she’s not like the thieves and killers in American crime stories that need to take care of their families. On the other hand, like Rocky Sullivan or Cody Jarrett, these three are made criminals by their environment, albeit in a much different way.
As I mentioned before, Band of Outsiders is through-and-through a crime film, though much of its plot has little to do with crime. Though the seeds of the plot are sprung early on, we instead watch these characters loaf around, fall in love, and dance (and, oh, how they dance). Like its characters, the film is casual yet never static. It almost feels like it forgets it is a crime film, or possibly just doesn’t care. In the third act, however, once the plot is in full motion, it really hunkers down and takes it all very seriously. The act of crime is simple, though of course it all goes wrong. It’s a pretty thrilling sequence, sticking out because our nonchalant characters are fully invested in this game. This is their chance to play out their fantasies, to become their heroes, and they act the parts well.
My biggest takeaway from Band of Outsiders as it relates to the crime film is that these films are supposed to be fun. None of the films in this series so far have been pure comedies (one or two to come may be), but none have been so dreadfully serious — even M, which involves a killer of children has some brilliant moments of satire. Band of Outsiders, though, is the most purely enjoyable picture so far. The mish-mash of genres and quoted texts, coupled with the film’s light but vibrant attitudes, make it effortlessly cool. I feel that Godard gets a bad wrap from the mass audiences that haven’t seen his films. He’s easy to be labelled as pretentious and antagonistically radical. His ideas and politics were very serious, but when he’s at his best, he can convey them in films that aren’t so serious. Many of his films are playful in the best ways — sure he can take it too far and make the joke on his audience (especially later in his career), but there isn’t a stodgy frame in his work from what I’ve seen. Band of Outsiders exemplifies this.