Jules et Jim go bad?
By Michael Roberts
"I want to be together with everyone else but stay lonely." ~ Jean-Luc Godard
Equal parts revolutionary, comedian, iconoclast, mountebank, agent provocateur and imp, Jean Luc Godard could offer surprisingly sweet subversions and Band of Outsiders is a prime example. Made in 1964 at the dizzying pace of a 25 day shoot and his 7th film in 5 years, he crams many of his by then signature riffs into the madcap opening, calling himself ‘cinema’ in the titles, speculating on composer Michel Le Grand’s career longevity, cutting wildly between the 3 main faces to produce a visual pulp novel effect (with Keystone Kops soundtrack) and we’re barely a minute in, so much to subvert, so little time. Anna Karina, Godard’s wife stars again, this time as Odile, a restless young woman who hooks up with two boys Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur, played by Claude Brasseur, son of Pierre Brasseur, a star of classic French cinema such as Carne’s Les Enfants Du Paradis. Karina was 3 days out of a mental hospital, having attempted suicide, when filming began, a combination of her depression over miscarrying Godard's child and his regular abandonments of her in favour of his work. That a film so beguiling could come out of this personal and tragic situation is one of life's small miracles.
The notional source material was an American pulp novel by Dolores Hitchens called Fool’s Gold and Godard’s love of old Hollywood B pictures is given full reign in the process of transferring it to the screen. Other similarities exist with A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) as we find ourselves with a back seat view of the two boys driving out of Paris to the outskirts, casing the house Odile shares with her Aunt, talking vaguely about some crime they plan to commit. The energy evolves into play acting cowboys, falling down dead from air bullets as they speed back into Paris. Godard sets the expectation that these are childish boys, toying with the serious grown up business of crime. They meet Odile at her English class and plan to take the money from her house that is held by the owner, supposedly ill-gotten from the government. The two boys are head over heels in love with Odile and this dynamic informs the narrative from this point, which one will Odile favour? Odile is conflicted also, knowing it’s wrong to take the money, and when she checks out how much is there, to report back to the boys, it seems to be staring back accusingly at her.
The trio knock about town aimlessly, caught between the ennui of their day to day lives and the frisson provided by the impending crime. The famous cafe dance scene is sweet and memorable, an explosion of naturalism and movement after the stillness of the sitting, talking and the artificial imposition of one minute of silence. It may be the only moment in cinema where a boy leaves the dance floor while pondering on the nature of solipsism. Take that Descartes!. Arthur seems to have the upper hand in the romantic stakes, bedding Odile, who blurts out she’s in love with him, the kind of romantic love which he thinks is ‘crap’. The pace is quickened when a dodgy Uncle of Arthur’s presses him for the money he knows he’s planning to rob, and the wheels are in motion. Arthur picks up a gun en route to Franz, they arrive telling Odile it will be child’s play.
Odile sees the consequences in adult terms for the first time and backs away from the deal, but Arthur forces her, as she’s ‘an accomplice now’, and they are saving her from a life of drudgery anyway. The first attempt fails and they vow to return the next day. Unfortunately Arthur’s Uncle has sent a crooked cousin to intercept and Arthur is gunned down in a Billy the Kid type shootout as Franz and Odile watch, silhouetted in the tree line. Franz and Odile flee together, realising each is in love with the other, Godard tacking on a Hollywood ending sending them on a ship to South America with the title promising a film of the Tropical Adventures of Franz and Odile. And maybe Pierre Le Fou was a semi-realisation of that idea?
There may be a case for seeing a kind of schizophrenia at work in Godard, certainly his work after the 1960’s bore little relation to what came before. An iconoclast may see things in terms of black and white, and Godard was not one to suffer fool’s gladly, but that doesn’t mean there is not nuance in his work. In this film he sets the idea of ordinary, drab lives being played out on the Metro against the hoped for flowering of a life that forms a whole. The opinions formed of the viewed by the viewer is as much a product of the bias the viewer brings to the situation as of any objective reality.The protagonists discuss their feelings in an existentialist way, and Godard’s device of breaking down the 4th wall occasionally to do so aids this approach. Odile speaks directly to the camera a couple of times, once saying "a plan? why?" as if life is to be lived open to the kismet and vicissitudes of fate. She also sings a delicate tune, her manifesto in quavers and semi-tones if you will, where she does not want to be a ‘tender stone, worn down’ as she sees in the ordinary lives going on around her. As Arthur dies his last thought is of Odile, and he sees a mythic bird born without feet, unable to ever land, an image both transcendent and ineffably sad at the same time. Franz laments the ability to connect, "people never form a whole, they remain seperate", as they drive off into an uncertain future, where Arthur will be felt only in his absence.
Generations have been attracted to the superficiality in Godard, the ‘too cool’ post-modern hipster irony, which is there and is fun, but there is depth as well as playfulness in what he does here. Odile says, "I don’t know what to do next,…. yes I do", of course she does, she’s read the script. The lovers walk past a shop front at night with Nouvelle Vague in neon lights. How do you say "one million dollar film?" one of the students in the english class asks. Music counterpoints and contradicts the action, appearing and vanishing at abrupt times. They reference "a bad B movie" and race through The Louvre in record time beating the previous American held time of 9 minutes and 45 seconds by 2 seconds. Godard, who did the narration voice-over himself has the last laugh "the taste of ashes floated in the air" he says at some point, it’s the cinematic remains of all that’s gone before.
Jean Luc? funny guy.