Bande à part (Band of Outsiders): New Waves #15

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Bande A Part

This time round one of the best loved movies that starred 1960s cinematic icon Anna Karina. Sadly, Anna died on Saturday, with details of her death being released yesterday.

She’ll be best remembered for her collaborations with one time husband Jean-Luc Godard during the heyday of the Nouvelle Vague such as Une Femme Est Une Femme, Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou but most especially for Bande à part (Band of Outsiders).


‘We had fun. Lots of fun,’ Karina told Jason Solomans in 2016 after a screening of the film at the BFI. ‘I have to say we didn’t think about making great careers or things like that – we just wanted to be actors and play.’

Bande à part was shot quickly and certainly appears playful – even though Karina in reality was in a bad place at this time, suffering from depression. Bande à part looks as spontaneous as just about any movie ever made but this is often an illusion. Seeing for the first time, I might have guessed that the famous dance scene was entirely improvised. It wasn’t. Three weeks of one hour’s dance practice each night preceded Godard shooting it. It was by far the most carefully rehearsed scene in the film.

Godard incidentally claimed to have invented the Madison dance but was lying. It was already a craze in the land of a thousand dances just like the Twist, the Stroll and the Cha-Cha-Cha.

Bande à part can be spontaneous too. It was made cheaply and shot in only 25 days. Godard would write much of his dialogue at the last minute, meaning his actors would not have the time to rehearse as thoroughly as they normally would. Additionally, he would generally insist on only shooting one or two takes.

Released in France during the summer of 1964, Bande à part wasn’t the critical or box-office success that you might have imagined. Godard himself was far from fond of it. Over the years its reputation has grown though, and this owes more than a little to Quentin Tarantino repeatedly talking it up during the 1990s, together with his decision to name his production company Band Apart in homage.

With its range of cinema/literature/pop culture references and in-jokes throughout its ninety minute run time, it’s easy to see why he was such a fan.

Band a Part - Nouvelle Vague

These include the two male leads, Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), jokingly re-enacting the gunfight between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett; Arthur and Odile walking towards the Place de Clichy at night and passing a shop called Nouvelle Vague; and then there’s the man who bills himself here as Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard narrating early on: ‘The story till now, for people who’ve come in late. Three weeks ago… A hoard of money… an English class… a house by the river… a starry-eyed girl.’

If you want more detail, here you go. Odile (Anna Karina) stays with her adoptive aunt in a large, isolated villa on the outskirts of Paris and by a river, obviously. She’s naive and fragile and studies English in a night-school class with Arthur and Franz. Both predictably become besotted with her and continually compete for her affections. She mentions that a man who very occasionally stays at her home Monsieur Stoltz has carelessly stashed a pile of money in the cupboard of his room. Arthur and Franz being petty crooks, begin planning a burglary with her reluctant help.

Arthur, Odile and Franz

Our Band of Outsiders are far from the sleek thieves of many modern Hollywood movies who can audaciously rob casinos and banks with forensically detailed plans and high-tech gadgetry. This trio are incompetent to the extent that they might just manage to bungle taking candy from a baby. It’s probably best if the three people planning a robbery aren’t all part of a love triangle.

Bande à part can be great fun and exhilarating, as when the trio dash around the Louvre in an attempt to break the world record for the fastest time to run through the gallery. It can be melancholic too. ‘People always look sad and unhappy in the Métro,’ Odile observes at one point while sitting on a Métro carriage looking clearly sad and unhappy herself.

Quirky and inventive with well cast leads, this is Godard’s most accessible work along with A Bout de Souffle. The director has spoken of the three characters being equals – hence the rapidfire edits of close-ups of them that introduce the film but Odile is the heart of the film. The camera utterly adores her, just as much as Arthur and Franz do, even when she’s wearing a dowdy coat and looking utterly despondent.

Filming Bande à part proved therapeutic for Karina. She later claimed it saved her. She divorced Godard not long afterwards although she still happily agreed to star in his next film Pierrot le fou and says that this was the most fun she ever had while filming.

Band a Part - The Louvre

Of course, Karina didn’t only make movies with Godard. Over her long career, she also worked with Agnès Varda, Roger Vadim, Jacques Rivette, Volker Schlöndorff, Tony Richardson and Rainer Werner Fassbinder to name only six huge talents.

In 1973, she also made a movie herself, Vivre Ensemble (Living Together) which debuted at Cannes. Victoria was her second and final outing as a director came out in 2008. A French-Canadian musical road movie, she appeared in this one too, her acting swan song.

Anna Karina (Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer): September 1940 – December 2019

Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961) – New Waves #4

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Une Femme est une Femme

And now something from the Big Daddy of cinematic new waves, the French Nouvelle Vague, and a movie I mentioned last week.

‘It was my first real film,’ Godard once declared, although during the 1970s he also denounced it as a ‘bourgeois experiment’. I disagree with him on both counts. Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) was his first real film and if Une Femme est une Femme really was a ‘bourgeois experiment’ then I’ll take it over any of his output from his interminably dull and often impenetrable political period.

My initial interest in Godard was perked through being a fan of punk band Subway Sect and learning that their singer Vic had taken his stage surname after the French-Swiss director. When I discovered that a film by him was being screened at the Glasgow Film Theatre, I decided to investigate. This was Une Femme Est Une Femme.

Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Une Femme Est Une Femme opens in attention grabbing fashion. It announces that it won two major prizes at the Berlin Film Festival and then elongated words flash up in red, white and blue and dominate the screen. These include cast members, influences, genre and more.

Godard Opening Credits Typography

A voice off camera (which we’ll soon recognise as belonging to the star of the film) exclaims: ‘Lights! Camera! Action!’ And we’re off.

That star was Godard’s new wife Anna Karina. She plays Angela Recamier, a Danish striptease artist who works at a dowdy Parisian club called the Zodiac. Early on and dressed as a sailor, she performs a coquettish routine, singing:

‘People always wonder why / People stare when I pass by / But it isn’t hard to see / Why the boys all go for me.’

It certainly isn’t.

Anna Karina - Une Femme Est Une Femme

Une Femme Est Une Femme is usually said to be Godard’s tribute to the Hollywood musical, but don’t expect Singin’ in the Rain or anything resembling a musical in the traditional sense. This little number is as close as you’ll get to that.

Don’t expect a complicated plot either. Angela suddenly decides she wants a baby, and she wants one fast. Her boyfriend Emile (Jean Claude Brialy) also wants a baby but not so fast. He’d rather wait and get married before even starting to think about children. Waiting in the wings is Emile’s pal Alfred, who is also in love with Angela and who she might just think is father material too. You wouldn’t blink an eye if the same scenario was played out today in some kooky indie drama or sitcom but before the 1960s started to properly swing this might have been considered somewhat contentious.

Alfred Lubitsch is played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and the Lubitsch part is his name is intended as a little homage to German director Ernst Lubitsch, best known for his sophisticated comedies like Design for Living (the plot of which resembles Une Femme Est Une Femme). This is a movie with levels of cinematic self-referencing that might even make Quentin Tarantino raise an eyebrow.

Alfred mentions that he wants to watch À Bout de Souffle on TV, while later he just happens to be standing in a bar next to Jeanne Moreau. ‘How goes it with Jules and Jim?’ he asks the star of that film. ‘Moderato,’ she replies, Belmondo and Moreau having recently starred together in Peter Brooks’ Moderato Cantabile. Marie Dubois from Shoot the Piano Player by Godard’s fellow new wave pioneer François Truffaut also makes a cameo appearance as a friend of Angela. And guess which film they discuss?

Like À Bout de Souffle, this is very playful. It breaks the fourth wall repeatedly. Sometimes explanations of the film’s narrative are superimposed onto the screen and, as Alfred and Angela walk along a Paris street, Angela announces that she’d like to be in a musical and suddenly she is, although without Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly with choreography by Bob Fosse, which she also wants.

Anna Karina with red umbrella

Emile rides his bike around the flat. After an argument with Angela, the pair refuse to talk to one another and instead thrust books with insulting titles like Monster and Get Stuffed! into one another’s faces. There are sight gags and non-sequiturs and everything is charming bar when Alfred and an ex-landlord hurl abuse at one another.

Cahiers Du Cinema summed it up as ‘Cinema in its pure state’. It says little but says little so stylishly and in such a innovative manner that it’s still very enjoyable. Few actresses have ever looked as luminously beautiful as Anna Karina and, while smoking is a highly addictive and unhealthy, Jean-Paul Belmondo proves conclusively that it can also look amazingly cool. Well, if you’re Jean-Paul Belmondo anyway.

Belmondo & Karina

This are many highlights although but my favourite scene is Alfred and Angela sitting together in a bistro listening to Tu t’laisses aller by Shoot the Piano Player star Charles Aznavour on the jukebox. There’s no dialogue as the song plays, just close-ups of the pair and shots of the record revolving. Alfred blows smoke upwards towards the ceiling. Angela fidgets, sips Dubonnet, looks into a mirror and contemplates a photo that Alfred has decided to show her. The acting here is understated yet superb.

Decades after seeing my first Jean-Luc Godard movie at the GFT, Vic Godard was invited to select a movie for a Monorail Film Club presentation at the same venue, before taking part in a Q&A about Jean-Luc Godard and European cinema.

He chose to screen Pierrot le Fou, which is a better film than Une Femme Est Une Femme but really, all his early work should be seen if possible. If you’re thinking of seeking out anything he was involved in after he embraced Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book, then be prepared to be bored and baffled rather than breathless.

* If you like Une Femme Est Une Femme you might also like the work of François Truffaut. Very roughly speaking, Godard and Truffaut were to French cinema in the 1960s what The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were to British music.

If asked what would be a perfect introduction to the Truffaut filmography, I would choose either The 400 Blows or Jules and Jim.