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Band of Outsiders

The French New Wave roared in like a breath of fresh air in the late 1950s/early '60s, with directors like Truffaut, Rohmer, and Rivette upsetting film conventions and pushing cinema in new ways. But the most
groundbreaking of the Nouvelle Vague directors was Jean-Luc Godard, who burst onto the scene with Breathless in 1959 and was responsible for some of the '60s most indelible films: My Life to Live, Contempt, and Weekend.

In comparison to those landmark works, Band of Outsiders, first released in 1965 and opening in Chicago in a new print, seems positively trivial. Yet its story of a couple low-level thieves and a beautiful girl is emblematic
of the most exciting aspects of the New Wave--the formal creativity, the playfulness, and the sheer joy of making movies.

The story, such as it is, concerns Franz and Arthur, two cynical Parisians who are low on cash. They meet Odile (played by the incomparable Anna Karina) in an English class. Franz and Odile cast glances and then words in a cafe (portrayed in the audacious opening credit sequence), and she lets out that there's a huge stash of cash in the room of a lodger that lives with her and her aunt. Franz and Arthur are both attracted to Odile, but they're more attracted to that money; and they concoct a plan to steal it, with Odile's help.

The problem is that Odile is a complete innocent. She still dresses up in schoolgirl outfits with pigtails, and thinks that French kissing involves sticking out your tongue as far as you can. So she's reluctant to help the boys, even as she starts falling for Arthur, the more dangerous of the two.

The narrative itself is a rip-off of a fairly pedestrian, B-grade crime pic, but what Godard does with this trio of "outsiders" lifts it into the sublime. It begins with the aforementioned credit sequence, which is just a series of rapid cuts between Franz and Odile set to a fantastic jazz beat. Then a droll narrator (a clear inspiration for the narrator in Amelie) introduces the setting and characters, offering wonderful asides and jokes. But unlike so many voice-overs, which are designed to instruct the stupid in the audience, Godard's narrator provides the tone of sly wit and romance that forms the core of the film. Godard cleverly undermines the very idea of the narrator when he recounts the first 15 minutes "for those who've walked in late." But the summary is merely a few words like "two boys," "a pretty girl," "money" that would make no sense to anyone who missed the first reel. Later, the narrator intones, "we will now describe how each of our characters feel . . . but that's pretty clear already. So we'll let the images speak for themselves."

The images in Band of Outsiders are wonderfully complemented by Michael Legrand's beautiful jazz-inflected score. There's a gorgeous scene when Odile speak-sings a romantic song (actually a poem by Louis Aragon) about humanity while riding the subway. That's followed by Arthur and Odile walking down Paris streets at night that will make even the most cynical audience member want to hop a plane for France.

My favorite scene by far, however, takes place in a cafe. It's a courtship scene, with both Arthur and Franz vying for Odile's attention. The three are constantly switching seats, while they drink (Arthur spikes Odile's soft drink) and laugh. Then they put on a record, Odile steals Franz's hat, and the three dance The Madison, a "non-partner" dance which involves clapping and choreographed movement. It's impossible to describe the energy and the sublime joie de vivre of this moment. The phrase "worth the price of admission" is almost always an exaggeration, but it applies here.

Also worth the price of admission, at least for many men in the audience, will be a chance to watch the inimitable Anna Karina. Godard's muse for much of the '60s, she combines a marvelous sense of innocence with an awareness that feels distinctly French. And when she and her compatriots race through the Louvre in nine minutes and 43 seconds (a hilarious sight gag), well you can't match the smile that crept over my face.

Not everything in Band of Outsiders works so well. The crime plot is rather perfunctory, and there are too many "talky" scenes. But there isn't a movie out right now that's as much pure fun as this one. Don't miss it.

J. Robert Parks 12/5/2001


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