It’s hard to believe, but Jean-Luc Godard began his career as a director not 30 years after the French began to make talking pictures—and his Band of Outsiders often resembles René Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris more than it does a film from 1964. Clair’s film, one of the most breathtaking of the early sync-sound masterpieces, shares with Band of Outsiders not only its intermingling of generic components (love triangle, gangster melodrama, musical), but its vision of the fabled city, a place that’s playful and vibrant but also enshrouded by perpetually overcast skies, where bitterness and regret are never too far away. More contemporaneous to Band of Outsiders, Godard owes as much, in terms of texture and tone, to Jacques Demy’s Lola.
This is the “early, fun one,” as rank generalizations of Godard’s career have it. But such judgments founder against the tide of his overall body of work, which is rife with contradiction and misdirection: “early, fun one” could equally describe A Woman Is a Woman, while Band of Outsiders itself is as mournful and elegiac in tone as Vivre Sa Vie, a.k.a. “the tragic one.” On the other hand, it’s wrong to conclude that Godard lost his sense of humor after 1968: Few films are as playful as Tout Va Bien, Keep Your Right Up, King Lear, the shipboard and gas station segments of Film Socialisme, to name just a few instances where Godard paid homage to the old masters of movie comedy: Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Frank Tashlin, and Jerry Lewis.
It’s a gangster film/musical pastiche, a home-movie version of what Godard had seen of George Cukor and Nicholas Ray’s film. It doesn’t quite work—pastiches rarely do, but Godard’s missteps (the anemic heist plot, Anna Karina’s endless run through the wilderness, a slight overuse of a few Legrand tracks) are more than repaid by the film’s substantial pleasures: the opening “trick” montage that starts us out on a high before shifting to a lower, more somber tempo, the classroom scene, the aborted minute of silence, the Madison, the Louvre race, and Odile’s melancholy, night-train nocturne.
More than lifting from and reconfiguring the artifacts of auteurist Hollywood, Band of Outsiders sees Godard parsing out his feelings for Karina, then his wife (they divorced soon after the film was completed), and meditating on the mercurial nature of his own preoccupations: He was then, as he’s remained to this day, impatient with his own interests and quick to move along. As would happen in several other collaborations, Karina is both exalted and debased by the cinema—a camera’s objet d’amour whose sex is won by a coin toss.
The tortured ambivalence that characterizes Godard’s feelings about the medium are not so different: Since he began making pictures, Godard has gone to great lengths to illustrate how the movies befoul everything, including itself, how it turns everyone who encounters it into a whore. The contradiction is, he illustrates these points with impatient, brilliant innovations and reconstructions as only the movies will permit.