French critic cum filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, but he could have done it with less. As an artist, Godard vacillated back and forth between incendiary agitator and devoted cineaste, often colliding within the same movie.
For his seventh feature, Godard wanted to make something cheap, something fast, something commercial. As Richard Brody writes in his seminal study of Godard, Everything is Cinema, “Godard took no chances with the material: he declared that he wanted ‘to make a simple, legible film.’”
That film was to be Band of Outsiders (Bande à part). Fellow Cahiers du cinema critic and filmmaker François Truffaut recommended Dolores Hitchen’s novel to Godard, figuring it would be a good fit for the director. In it Godard found similarities to another novel he wanted to adapt, the prewar Banlieue sud-est by René Fallet, and decided that this could be his opportunity to make a movie he could sell cheap to an American distributor. And he did, getting Columbia to pick up the tab to the tune of $100,000 — a sum so low they must have purchased the rights out of sheer befuddlement.
The plot of Band of Outsiders is simple: a guy, Franz (Sami Frey), likes a girl, Odile (Anna Karina), and introduces his friend, Arthur (Claude Brasseur), to her. Odile prefers Arthur to Franz, Arthur prefers the riches stashed in her aunt’s house and Franz prefers American gangsters and Hollywood pictures. They plan to rob Odile’s aunt, but on the day of the robbery, Arthur is shot and killed. Franz and Odile escape to South America — à la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — and the movie ends.
But Band of Outsiders, indeed any Godard, is not about plot (the trailer Godard cut for the U.S. re-release in 2001 manages to burn through the entire movie in a matter two minutes), it is about the sheer pleasure of the watching. Watching boys act like men act like gangsters, watching Karina move and dance, watching people race through the Louvre and watching them stare at one another. Reviewing the film in 1966 for the New Republic, film critic Pauline Kael wrote: “It’s as if a French poet took an ordinary banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines.”
That beauty and romance is largely due to the presence of Godard’s wife and muse, Anna Karina. Writing in the Band of Outsiders 1964 press book, Godard provides character sketches of Arthur, Franz and Odile. For her, he writes: “A young and beautiful girl like Anna Karina was needed to play this part — which exists in reality but never in the drama class. … Anna (she’s my wife and I love her, but that really changes nothing) knows how to let a little fresh air into this exalted but suffocating framework, so that one can breathe a very modern perfume, that of the improvisation dear to Italian comedy, the neorealism of an earlier age.”
Godard’s interest in Karina for the role went beyond her abilities and their love. Prior to Band of Outsiders, Karina had attempted suicide, her second, and Godard saw Band as an opportunity to bring her back. “I had no more desire to live,” Karina recounted years later. “I was doing very, very badly. This film saved my life.”
To make matter personal, Godard changed the main character’s name from Karen to Odile, his mother’s name, and established a new production company: Anochka — his pet name for Karina — Films.
Godard claimed: “Every film is a documentary of its actors.” But Band of Outsiders is more; it is a documentary of Godard’s affection for Karina. An affection that is evident in every frame of the movie. Comparing the life captured on camera in Band to the austere and rigorous qualities of A Married Woman — the movie Godard made the same year starring the beautiful and lively Macha Méril as a woman torn between her husband and her lover. A Married Woman is about Godard. Band of Outsiders is about Karina.
Band of Outsiders was released to little fanfare and box office success. It was booed at the Locarno Film Festival on July 29 and when Band was released on August 5, Cahiers gave the movie an unfavorable review. Godard himself considered the movie a diversion, and many fans of the filmmaker, then and now, place the movie just left of the director’s canon.
Yet, Band of Outsiders persists. 52 years on, it hasn’t lost one step in it’s often imitated Madison and continues to be shown to budding cinephiles in conjunction with Godard’s 1960 groundbreaking debut, Breathless. Both movies are revelations: this is what is capable when you allow a film to breathe.
Writing in 1969, Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert penned his appreciation for the director and, correctly, predicted his influence on the future of cinema: “Like Joyce in fiction or Beckett in theater, [Godard] is a pioneer whose present work is not acceptable to present audiences. But his influence on other directors is gradually creating and educating an audience that will, perhaps in the next generation, be able to look back at his films and see that this is where their cinema began.”
Even at 85 Godard continues to reigns supreme. The same is true for Karina, who presented the newly restored Band of Outsiders at the TCM Classic Film Festival. There, the 75-year-old princess of the French New Wave drew a sold out house of devotees and fresh eyes alike as she commanded the theater. 52 years on, the still come, they still watch and they still rise for Anna.