“For latecomers arriving now, we offer a few words chosen at random: Three weeks earlier. A pile of money. An English class. A house by the river. A romantic girl.”
By the start of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film Bande à part, or Band of Outsiders, the aforementioned girl, Odile (Anna Karina), has already made the mistake of telling Franz (Sami Frey), a classmate from her English lessons, about a large stash of money hidden in the house she shares with her aunt (Louisa Colpeyn) and a Mr. Stoltz. Franz subsequently passed this information on to his friend Arthur (Claude Brasseur), a would-be criminal who’s determined to get his hands on the cash. To him, the naive Odile is a perfect pawn.
Although there’s already a budding romance between Odile and Franz, Arthur quickly sets about seducing her himself — partly to facilitate the theft, partly as a way of one-upping his friend. After sending notes to her during an English lesson, he makes his move while the class is on a break:
Arthur: Ever kiss a guy?
Odile: Sure I have.
Arthur: You know how?
Odile: Sure, with the tongue.
Arthur: Okay, then. Let’s do it.
The camera follows Arthur as he takes a few steps away from Odile, then pans back to her and finds her waiting for him, eyes closed, mouth open, tongue hanging out halfway down to her chin. Without missing a beat, Arthur kisses her anyway.
It’s a humorous moment, unexpected in spite of Odile’s obvious anxiety during the preceding conversation, but it also encapsulates the two characters and their troubling relationship. Odile is a sheltered young woman, very much under the control of her aunt, whom she always refers to as “Madame Victoria.” She tells Arthur that her aunt wants her to become a nurse in spite of her strong aversion to hospitals, and when he suggests that they sit in a car and listen to the radio, she replies, “I’m not allowed to do things like that.” As the kiss illustrates, she longs to appear more sophisticated than she really is. There’s a similar example during the earlier classroom scene. In one of his notes, Arthur writes, “You look old-fashioned with your hair like that,” so Odile, not wanting to look old-fashioned, unties her ribbons and lets her hair hang loose. Later, she blithely says, “After all, screw it all,” prompting Franz to ask, “You know what ‘screw’ means?” “No, what?” “Then don’t say it.”
The world around Odile is decidedly unromantic: men leer at women; the newspapers are full of stories about love gone wrong; she even gets propositioned by a stranger as he waits for his wife or girlfriend to finish fixing her makeup, though she rebuffs his advances. (“Got connections at Renault?” “No, why?” “Too bad. You could’ve traded in your dumb looks for a car.”) As the narrator says, though, she is a romantic girl. (Amusingly, the narrator’s words are often contradicted by what happens on the screen. At one point, Arthur is said to be at a loss for words yet immediately begins speaking, and at another, the narrator notes that Odile “looked away” from Franz, but she doesn’t move. Godard narrated the film himself.) Because Arthur seems so worldly, she tries to hide her romanticism, though it comes out anyway. One night, despite only knowing him for a few days, she tells him that she loves him. “Arthur said such love talk was crap,” the narrator says. “Odile said she’d blurted it out but meant it.” She also startles him when he asks what she sees in him and she replies, “I don’t know. A husband.” Recovering himself, he asks, “Is that what interests you? What exactly does it mean to you?” Her response, like the earlier kiss, suggests only a vague conception of sex, that of a young adolescent: “It means offering your breasts and thighs.”
A conversation between Odile and her aunt highlights one of the many differences between Odile and Arthur, and it illuminates his character as much as it does hers. Madame Victoria is dubious about Odile’s English lessons:
Madame Victoria: Someday I’ll check that you’re not going to the movies.
Odile: I hate movies.
Madame Victoria: The theater, then.
Odile: I hate theater.
Madame Victoria: Or dancing at Mimi Pinson’s.
Odile: I hate that too.
Madame Victoria: Or strolling on the boulevards.
Odile: I hate the boulevards.
Madame Victoria: What do you love, then?
Odile: I don’t know. I love nature.
In contrast, Arthur is interested in and influenced by films, a fact made explicit when he decides that the robbery should not begin until nightfall, “in keeping with the tradition of bad B movies.” For all of his apparent worldliness, Arthur is something of a romantic as well, although his romanticism is one of money, guns and death, nurtured by things he’s seen on the screen; as such, he bears more than a passing resemblance to the Humphrey Bogart-worshiping Michel of Godard’s Breathless. When he picks up a gun, he delivers a rather trite speech solely for his own ears: “The situation is clear enough. But what isn’t clear is the part I personally have to play in it.” He and Franz also act out violent scenes in the street, such as the shooting of Billy the Kid, complete with imaginary weapons formed by their hands. If Odile often seems like a young adolescent, they sometimes seem like little boys. It’s no surprise that Franz tries to reassure Odile by describing the robbery as “child’s play.”
That said, Arthur is hardly harmless. Movies are a major influence, but so is his criminal uncle, who wants a cut of the money. Moreover, Arthur has little apparent conscience or strong human feeling. At a shooting gallery, for instance, Odile asks him, “How would you feel if a live man was in your sights, like in battle?” His answer is cold: “I feel that if there was one, right now he’d be dead.” The way he manipulates Odile and takes advantage of her innocence is similarly heartless. Right after he bullies her by insisting that she’s their accomplice simply because she told them about the money, he changes tactics: “Don’t cry. Now that we love each other, everything will be fine.”
To some degree, she falls for his act, yet she’s not oblivious to his bad qualities. A tenderhearted, sensitive soul, she’s frequently appalled by the very idea of the crime and by Arthur’s callousness, as when he suggests killing off “some rich old fogey” in the guise of a nurse in order to get his money, or when he says that he keeps Franz around in case anyone takes a shot at Odile: “It’s like in the movies. He’d make a good shield.” Franz has many flaws of his own — he’s a nervous yet willing participant in the robbery, and like Arthur, he disparages Odile’s intelligence, primarily because he’s jealous that she’s cast him aside — but he does express sympathy for the girl, who’s in over her head. “Why?” Arthur asks. “We’re doing her a favor. Saving her from a lifetime of drudgery.” Odile may not think of the situation in those terms, but she is drawn to the excitement, even the danger, that Arthur offers, and her misgivings are not strong enough to conquer this attraction.
Unlike many of Godard’s subsequent films, or even earlier ones such as Le Petit Soldat, Band of Outsiders does not deal overtly in politics, nor is it as heavy as Vivre sa vie or Contempt. It’s full of playful moments: the minute of silence, the dance in the cafe, the run through the Louvre. Still, like the kissing scene — humorous on the surface, but symbolic of something much more serious — it’s far from being all fun and games.
This post is part of the You Must Remember This… A Kiss Is Just a Kiss Blogathon, hosted by Second Sight Cinema. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.