Near the beginning of Band of Outsiders, our heroes, Franz and Arthur (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) are cruising around the streets of Paris in a top-down convertible as they simultaneously plan a robbery and rush to make it to English class on time. As they pass through a busy intersection they decide to ignore the traffic law and pull the car up on the sidewalk and reenter the street farther down, and by doing so they not only bypass the congestion but also set the tone for the entire film.
To say Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 crime thriller/comedy/drama is a movie is to do it injustice. Band of Outsiders (Bande à part in French), a flagship of the New Wave movement, is more of an anti-movie. Previously, movies were reserved for big things—wars, adventure, high romance, remarkable characters, all that jazz. But this film’s characters are more the less normal people doing silly things. And hell if it didn’t change the way movies are made. Really, look around you—how many movies these days are about normal people doing silly things?
Perhaps a very concise history lesson is in order: In the late fifties and early sixties, a few aspiring filmmakers with more than a few screws loose were running around France, talking about these movies they were going to make. These guys, which included Godard as well as the equally notable François Truffaut, started making these movies, and soon realized something that would seriously alter their film styles—they had no money. As such, they improvised. They shot in black in white, they took few takes and cut unwanted bits right from the middle (the advent of jump cuts), and while they were doing those weird things, they figured, what the hell? Let’s do some other new things too, for no other reason than that we think they’re cool.
Band of Outsiders is littered with such bizarre little tidbits, which seem right at home given its equally bizarre plot. Two guys (I understand “guys” is a bit generic, but the audience isn’t really given much more information about who the hell these people are) catch wind of a wealthy man who’s knocked off an exorbitant amount of money from the government by cheating on his taxes. A girl who lives in his care, Odile (Anna Karina) tells them about this money for some reason, and they all decide to rob the guy.
There’s really not much related to the story going on after the premise, however, and much of the film is dedicated to watching these misfits gallivanting about Paris and wasting time, all the while knowing that they’re going to pull off a heist. That frees Godard up to include his silly little bits of business, including a choreographed dance in a café, a nine-minute-and-forty-three sprint through the Louvre, and a moment of silence held in honor of there not being anything to talk about (during which Godard slyly cuts the film’s audio completely). The overall effect of such nonsense is surprisingly easy to identify with. It’s not hard to imagine that if my friends and I decided to pull of a big heist, that would of course entail “preparing” for the caper by devoting much of our prep time to screwing around the town. And that’s the feeling Band of Outsiders give us—we know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that they could easily be us.
It’s not all fun and games, though. There is dangerous heist at hand, as well as some dangerous flirting and (forgive me) dangerous liaisons. But all that takes a backseat to screwing around. So it’s not surprising that these guys hopping a curb in a convertible—and no one looking at them as if that’s out of the ordinary—should essentially sum up the movie in a few quick seconds.
To be fair, Band of Outsiders didn’t single handedly change the way movies were made. But it was part of the movement that did. Wes Anderson wasn’t the first to make such goofball movies with unusually quirky characters in almost painfully un-dramatic situations (Rushmore is perhaps the least remarkable story anyone ever had the audacity to put on film). And furthermore, people who call Quentin Tarantino such a great innovator of film should perhaps take note that he did name his production company A Band Apart. Sound familiar?