Here’s a strange thing. All our lives, movies have taught us that for love relationships to happen, men must be tall and smooth-skinned and lookgreat in Levi’s (let’s not even think about how women must be). Yet the very people responsible for generating the myth are often polar opposites of the characters they create. I’m talking about guys like Alfred Hitchcock, Bernardo Bertolucci, Quentin Tarantino — at first glance they look like total noncontenders in the dating market. But as we all know, their names are coupled with the most glamorous women in the world.
And what about Jean-Luc Godard? I still recall the utter shock of seeing him in one of his movies (it was “Prenom Carmen”). There I was, imagining some James Dean lookalike wearing beret and border T-shirt and discovering him to be . . . please, don’t make me say it.
Well, that sealed my puzzlement about French tastes. Consider that when Jean-Paul Sartre was cancer-ridden and incontinent, he still had nine lovers. As for Godard, he’s known to have worked through a long string of celebrated beauties that included Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau. So what happens to the tall and smooth-skinned men?
For more insights on this fascinating theme, see Godard’s 1964 film “Bande a part (Band of Outsiders),” in which the chubby, bearish klutz gets the girl and ruins her life. And she’s not even sore about it. As for Tall and Handsome, he’s completely under the thumb of the klutz and rarely says more than two sentences at a time. As far as I can make out, the moral is this: Filmmaking could be romance’s greatest equalizer. If I come back in the next life as a chubby, bearish klutz with extravagant tastes in women, I’ll remember to enroll in film school and stay far away from film reviews.
“Bande” is part action-thriller, part menage a trois love story. Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) are best friends but with very different personalities. Franz is introverted and cautious, Arthur is reckless and rude. Franz tells Arthur of his secret love object: Odile (Anna Karina) who’s in his English conversation class. Arthur is interested and accompanies Franz, where he is immediately attracted to the lovely Odile. But instead of paying her compliments, Arthur fascinates her by coming on as a mean, mercenary lech. Odile rejects timid advances from the handsome Franz in favor of the insults flung at her by the stocky, balding Arthur. Franz is crushed but plays it cool. Arthur rushes Odile to bed ASAP.
To make herself seem more interesting, Odile tells the two men that a hoard of cash is hidden in her aunt’s (Louisa Colpeyn) house. Her aunt’s lover has been evading taxes and has stashed his fortune in an old cupboard. Arthur decides at once to rob him blind and ropes in Franz and the reluctant Odile. She becomes frightened and confused — she can’t even remember anymore if she actually saw the stash. Arthur shows no mercy and turns violent. Together with Franz, he barges into the house two days before the planned date, a ski mask pulled over his face and waving a gun. Odile is taken by surprise and tied up. Her aunt is shoved into a closet.
The brilliance of “Bande” lies in its unpredictability, largely dictated by Arthur’s personality. He’s incapable of sticking to plans, his mind jumps around at the oddest moments. In a cafe where the three discuss the robbery, Arthur suddenly suggests dancing. They all then perform a perfectly synchronized rendition of the Madison (the only scene in the movie that was practiced and rehearsed many times) but before long, Arthur is bored and leaves the floor, Franz on his heels. That’s the kind of guy he is, an adolescent punk with the world’s shortest attention span. Yet, Arthur looks no younger than 35, wears an Argyle sweater and comes off like an insurance salesman.
At the time Godard made “Bande,” he already had nine feature films under his belt and was the undisputed prince of Nouvelle Vague. Having just come off the set of “Le Mepris (Contempt),” Godard was in the mood for something fun and undemanding. He got his staff together, slapped up a screenplay and completed the entire project in 25 days. “Bande a part” shows Godard on a temporary detour into the early days of his career, returning to the basics (small staff, hand-held camera) and recapturing the reckless buoyancy of “Breathless.”
Shot in black-and-white, deploying a lot of close-ups and scattering improvised non-sequitur lines like bread crumbs, “Bande a part” is considered by many to be the best thing he ever did. Certainly the Godardism-density level is off the charts. Tarantino by the way, named his production company after this movie.