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BANDE À PART: Jean-Luc Godard’s playtime

The penalty of Godard’s fixation on the movie past is that … old movies may not provide an adequate frame of reference for a view of this world. Then we regret that Godard is not the kind of artist who can provide an intellectual structure commensurate with the brilliance of his style and the quality of his details. Because, of course, we think in terms of masterpieces and we feel that here is a man who has the gifts for masterpieces. But maybe he hasn’t; maybe he has artistry of a different kind.’ – Pauline Kael, review of Bande à part, The New Republic, September 10 1966

We had fun, lots of fun. And I have to say we didn’t think about making great careers or things like that – we just wanted to be actors and play.” Anna Karina in conversation with Jason Solomons at the BFI, January 16 2016

If anyone had earned the right in 1964 to bill themselves, however mischievously, as someone whose middle name was CINÉMA, it was probably Jean-Luc Godard. After the international success of À bout de souffle six years earlier, the writer and director had been responsible for a varied string of challenging, thrilling and innovative films – a hot streak without precedent, consisting of Le Petit soldat, Une femme est une femme, Vivre sa vie, Les Carabiniers and most recently Le Mépris. The latter, starring Brigitte Bardot, filmed in dazzling Italian sunshine during the summer of 1963 and funded with French, Italian and American money, had been an arthouse blockbuster: something of an oxymoron but no less true for that. Utilising Technicolour, Cinemascope and some tactical nudity shot at the insistence of the film’s American co-producers, Godard delivered ‘the greatest work of art produced in post-war Europe’ (Colin MacCabe) and a box-office smash. CINÉMA was 33 years old.

Godard’s next feature film, then, could be interpreted as a reaction to the circumstances surrounding the making of Le Mépris. Bande à part swaps technicolour for black and white, the Isle of Capri for the Paris suburbs, mediterranean sunlight for winter mist. It was shot cheaply, in a matter of weeks rather than months. And it reunited Godard with his wife Anna Karina, the Danish actress who had starred in three of his previous films, and with whom he had formed the production company Anouchka Films – this would be its inaugural project. Above all, where Le Mépris is langourous and considered, Bande à part feels spontaneous and above all playful.

The delight Godard takes in the relative informality offered to him by Bande à part is present in its opening titles, from ‘JEANLUC CINÉMA GODARD’ to composer Michel Legrand’s credit: ‘FOR THE LAST (?) TIME ON THE SCREEN, THE MUSIC OF MICHEL LEGRAND’, an in-joke Legrand only knew about when he attended the film’s premiere. It’s also there in the use of Legrand’s ‘I Will Wait for You’, the hit song from Jacques Demy’s recently-released Les parapluies de Cherbourg, first whistled by Franz (Sami Frey) as he and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) speed along a road next to the Seine, then later playing tinnily on a radio as Odile (Karina) descends the stairs to a café basement.

There are numerous other examples of this: the camera casually passing an illuminated shop sign on the place de Clichy which reads ‘NOUVELLE VAGUE’; the play-acting of the two ‘boys’ shooting one another like characters from a gangster film or a Western (specifically Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid); Godard’s droll narrative recap: “The story till now, for people who’ve come in late. Three weeks ago … a hoard of money … an English class … a house by the river … a starry-eyed girl”; the bilingual Franglais Shakespearean note Arthur slips to Odile in their English lesson, ‘tou bi or not tou bi contre votre poitrine, it iz ze question’; and the justly celebrated race through the Louvre, subsequently recreated in colour by Bernardo Bertolucci for The Dreamers (2003), a whistle-stop tour of the museum and an expression of pure joy achieved in just three shots.

And, of course, there is the Madison sequence. To which we shall return shortly.

The superficial ‘spontaneity’ and playfulness of Bande à part are just the sorts of knowing cinematic illusion – and allusion – Godard revelled in. When speaking of her work with Godard, and this film in particular, Anna Karina is at pains to dispel the notion that it was the product of on-set improvisation or that there was anything informal about its air of informality. Everything was rehearsed and prepared. The nonchalance of that stroll past a neon ‘NOUVELLE VAGUE’ for instance: written into the script, manufactured on demand, erected over a suitable boutique, framed with seeming carelessness by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Similarly the apparently carefree nature of Franz, Arthur and Odile’s loop of the Louvre is largely down to inspired discipline in the editing suite.

Bande à part was an adaptation of an American crime thriller called Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens; or more accurately perhaps, a filmic meditation on an adaptation of an American crime thriller. (It’s almost surprising to discover that some of the original plot and a few chunks of the novel’s dialogue did make it into the shooting script, alongside Godard’s trademark rifling of classical and contemporary sources: Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Queneau, Breton and so on.) As Pauline Kael noted fifty years ago, ‘Band of Outsiders [the film’s American title] is like a reverie of a gangster movie as students in an expresso (sic.) bar might remember it or plan it.

However, just as the spontaneity of Bande à part is largely manufactured, so too its playfulness conceals a deeper melancholy, what Kael calls ‘the sadness in frivolity’. Joshua Clover has pointed out that the film does not concern itself only with the ‘vexed romance’ of Arthur, Odile and Franz – surely intended to evoke Truffaut’s Jules et Jim – but with the city of Paris and its suburbs too, at night and during daylight hours, black and white and ghostly grey. First we see Arthur play at being shot; later we see Arthur being shot. As in so many of Godard’s films Bande à part is both a film about film and also a film about the limitations of film. The reverie of a gangster movie, like a movie itself, cannot last. Playtime will soon be over.

Which brings us to the Madison, one of the sweetest, saddest, most profoundly cinematic things Godard ever committed to celluloid. All the contradictions of Bande à part are present in this one short scene. Like every great film dance routine from Astaire to Fosse, its informality was the result of weeks of rehearsal by the three participants; and because this is cinema, there is a manipulation of sound – music, silence, voiceover – and image to create an illusion of spontaneity whilst simultaneously disrupting that illusion. Our three outsiders band together in a dance that is both synchronised and separate: side-by-side, moving in harmony, three loners. Like the gang itself, this is a provisional arrangement; and like a film, it won’t last. But for the three minutes it’s happening, time seems to be suspended – another contradiction. And Godard lets the viewer see this scene come together and fall apart, as first Frey exits the floor and the frame, then Brasseur, leaving Karina to dance the Madison alone until she is called to a halt by an off-screen voice.

The Madison is an apotheosis. Three years later, ‘JEANLUC CINÉMA GODARD’ would bring Week-end, and the first phase of his career, to a halt with the notorious words ‘Fin de Cinéma’; perhaps it was to the spirit of Bande à part, this scene and to himself he was referring. But more than fifty years on, Franz, Arthur and Odile are still dancing. And we are still watching them.

NOTE: This essay was commissioned by the BFI for the booklet accompanying the new Blu Ray edition of Bande à part, available now.

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