By Phillip Davis
Released in 1964 and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders (French title: Bande à part) is a brainy, postmodern, and, for all that, entertaining crime story in which hopeless Hollywood addicts Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) team up with (and try to seduce) the beautiful but inexperienced Odile (Anna Karina) to steal a bundle of cash from the mysterious M. Stolz, who lives with Odile’s aunt (Louisa Colpeyn). But the real Band of Outsiders is in digressions from this plot rather than the plot itself. In one, the trio breaks the record for fastest trip through the Louvre by two seconds just to kill time. In another, Franz decides they should have a minute of silence, and the movie’s audio actually cuts out (though only for 36 seconds), and only returns when Franz decides that “that’s enough of that.” Essentially, much of the movie is spent playing around.
These digressions contain encyclopedic references, both to classic literature and, more importantly, to then-current American culture. Arthur declares his intention to race the Indy 500, Franz reads Odile a book which reminds him of her (unsurprisingly titled “Odile”), and near the film’s beginning, they both re-enact the death of Billy the Kid (was the aforementioned minute of silence in Mr. Kid’s honor?). These grand allusions are also grand illusions, a cowboy aesthetic of both unattainable debonair and constant excitement that the characters seem to both aspire towards and despise. At one point, Odile claims she “hate[s] the movies,” yet is in thrall to the cinematic affectations of her suitors, who alternate between meta-fictional tricks and world-weary meditations, and sometimes do both at once (e.g., Arthur’s declaration that “The situation couldn’t be clearer. What’s not clear the is the part I’ll be playing.”) The audience is left to decide what to take seriously and what not, as the characters uncomfortably struggle with the same predicament.
When the protagonists go through with the robbery, both men turn hostile toward Odile in the heat of the heist, and, realizing what it’s really like to be a Hollywood gangster, she declares that she’s “sick of the world.” Then she escapes with Franz, the very Hollywood gangster she’d just decided she was disillusioned with. Indeed, oscillating between disaffected sadness and self-conscious conformity to stereotypes is what makes this movie so entrancing. Despite its bizarre dialogue and intentional absurdity, its characters are us, trapped in a world so overwhelmingly real that we can only seem to capture it by reference to caricatured movies and cultural touchstones. And while it’s fun to pretend, Godard wants us to remember that the implications of this pretending are too complex to leave unexamined.
Band of Outsiders is not easy to watch. With a fractured plot and a script fraught with voluminous quotations, one may question the film’s sincerity. But the viewer who gives it time and attention will discover a powerful and startling diagnosis of the modern condition, plus an incredibly cool cinematic experience.