At the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater Aug. 24 to 30
The official line is that Band of Outsiders is one of Jean-Luc Godard’s simplest films, an almost-impromptu adaptation of an American pulp novel: Two would-be tough guys fall in love with an innocent young womanand the pile of cash she tells them could easily be swiped from the house where she lives. Shot in 25 days, the movie was a sort of prison break from the ordeal of making the big-budgeted, second-guessed Contempt, Godard’s previous film. Dismissed at the time of release as slight, Band of Outsiders has become the model for a new generation of self-conscious gangster flicks. Quentin Tarantino named his production company, A Band Apart, for the movie’s French title, and he’s just one of several American directors who have paid homage to the 1964 film’s exhilarating scene of the trio of Odile (Anna Karina), Arthur (Claude Brasseur), and Franz (Sami Frey) dancing the Madison in a Paris cafe.
Newly reissued in the first new 35 mm print made in 35 years, Band of Outsiders is revealed as a slacker film. It’s not merely a tale of three aimless young people; it’s a tale in which aimlessness itself upstages the noirish thrills of the crime that caps the film’s events. The three central characters take an English class together, wander downscale eastern Paris and its suburbs, play at being Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, encounter a man walking a tiger, read lurid crime news to each otherincluding, eerily, news of a massacre in Rwandaand gallop through the Louvre in an attempt to set a new world record for traversing its galleries.
Before they visit it, Odile doesn’t know what the Louvre is, and her companions aren’t much more savvy. Godard knows, though, and he stuffs the film with cultural references, although they’re less conspicuous than in most of his work. At one point, Arthur says his surname is Rimbaud, and Franz’s could be Kafka. Odile’s last name is Monod, providing a wealth of associations: Odile is the title of a Raymond Queneau novel that is quoted in the movie, Godard’s mother’s maiden name was Odile Monod, and Monoprix is a Paris bargain-store chain, one branch of which is prominently displayed. “Classique = moderne,” the threesome’s English teacher writes on the blackboard, so Band of Outsiders can depict a world of both Coca-Colawhich Odile orders in a cafeand semirural precincts that seem unchanged since the 19th century. (Godard said he wanted to convey a “prewar atmosphere.”)
The opening sequence sets flickering images and jumpy ’60s-style typography to old-timey music, recalling another film about a love triangle, François Truffaut’s 1961 Jules and Jim. At the time, Jean-Luc Cinema Godard (as he identifies himself in the credits) still considered himself a member of the French New Wave’s band of outsiders, and it’s been suggested that sensitive Franz can be seen as Truffaut and crude Arthur as Godard. (Odile, of course, is played by the woman who was then Mrs. Godard.) There are many other references to films of the director’s friends and idols, most notably several musical nods to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Jacques Demy’s then-new musical was scored by Michel Legrand, as was Band of Outsiders, whose credits puckishly announce that Legrand’s music is being heard “for the last time on the screen.” (In fact, Legrand subsequently scored dozens of films, although never another Godard feature.)
Band of Outsiders is less stylistically provocative than most of Godard’s ’60s films, with fewer camera movements, flashy cuts, and Brechtian alienation effects. It artlessly surveys the streets of wintry, working-class Paris, the rivers and canals on its outskirts, and Karina’s wide eyes and girlish vitality. Godard’s passion for her is clear, although contemporary audiences may wince at how she’s treated, especially by the brutish Arthur. Alas, there’s an undercurrent of hostility toward Karina in all the films Godard made with her. In a 1964 interview, the director identified the movie’s triumvirate as “characters right out of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” the 18th-century advocate of “natural man,” yet Godard’s ’60s films are casually misogynistic even when they include no Arthurlike figure to embody this antagonism.
Although its offhand quality gives the film considerable charm, Godard couldn’t make an everyday pulp fiction if he tried. Acting as both narrator and prime mover, he cuts the sound for a “minute of silence,” drops out the music to tell us what each character is thinking while dancing the Madison, and muses on various subjects that Odile, Arthur, and Franz probably wouldn’t understand. Still, most of the characterssave Odile, who professes to hate cinemashare Godard’s love for Hollywood crime movies. Like the Jean-Paul Belmondo character in Breathless, Arthur and Franz imagine themselves as players in a B-movie, only to learn that they really are. When that tragic realization strikes in the midst of this mostly comic caper, however, it just proves that Godard’s idea of a genre picture is a genre unto itself.
Venice is often depicted in films as a place with a malevolent enchantment, irresistible but dangerous and perhaps even deadly. That Venice is not the city discovered by the heroine of director Silvio Soldini’s Bread and Tulips. While on a bus trip with her family, underappreciated Italian housewife Rosalba (Licia Maglietta) is delayed by the lightheartedly symbolic task of fishing her wedding ring out of a rest-stop toilet and thus left behind. Only temporarily disconcerted, she soon decides to enjoy her freedom, hitchhiking to Venice, a city she’s never visited.
Soldini’s Venice isn’t populated with the chic predators of films such as Eve and The Comfort of Strangers. Instead, Rosalba meetsand befriendssuicidal Icelandic (!) waiter Fernando (a seriously weathered Bruno Ganz), holistic masseuse Grazia (Marina Massironi), and Fermo (Felice Andreasi), a leftist florist still stirred by century-old political struggles. When Rosalba decides that she wants to stay in this friendly (if rather dingy) Venetian quarter, Grazia becomes her best friend, Fermo her boss, and Fernando her landlord (and love interest). Back home, Rosalba’s bathroom-fixtures-baron husband, Mimmo (Antonio Catania), has a mistress to handle his sexual needs but no one to do his laundry. So he dispatches Constantino (Giuseppe Battiston), an aspiring plumber who enjoys detective novels, to locate his wife. Of course, Constantino is just the sort of amiable loser who’ll fit into Rosalba’s new circle of friends.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the film is to compare it with its possible Touchstone remake. Hollywood would never cast a romantic comedy with such unglamorous, unapologetically middle-aged people, set it in a low-rent district without picture-postcard views, or shoot it in such low light. If the film’s look is agreeably naturalistic, however, the script (by Soldini and Doriana Leondeff) speaks the universal language of the sitcom. Bread and Tulips shows Venice as it’s seldom been seen before, but move the film to Queens or the San Fernando Valley, and no one would look twice. CP