Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 3: Band of Outsiders (1964); A Married Woman (1964)

Day 3 brought me a couple of Godard films from 1964, one an acknowledged classic that I am fairly lukewarm on, and the other a lesser known gem that proved to be quite surprising.

Band of Outsiders (1964); viewing: second

After the troubled production and disappointing box-office return of Contempt, Godard conjured up Band of Outsiders, a much more accessible and critic friendly offering. Ostensibly a crime picture, Outsiders deals with Odile (Anna Karina), a lonesome and easily impressed schoolgirl who falls in with a couple of young criminals (Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur), and who together decide to rob an old man living in Karina's house. The plot is simple enough, but of course it merely works to service Godard's intentions of flouting conventions and giving this genre tale his own, distinct spin.

It's tough for me to pinpoint exactly why, after two viewings now, Band of Outsiders has failed to have much of an impact on me. Richard Brody's excellent book Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard says of Outsiders: "Though otherwise free from direct interference from Columbia's executives, Godard did too good a job of internalizing their standards and fulfilling their wishes. Band of Outsiders is one of Godard's least substantial and adventuresome films, as well as his most conventional one." The word that sticks out to me there is "adventuresome". It occurs to me that this adventurous feeling is a big part of what makes these 60's films feel so alive and potent. Even if that sense of adventure doesn't necessarily come from the content of the narrative itself (Vivre sa vie), it is nevertheless always present in one form or another. If that adventure is in Band of Outsiders, then it is present to a much lesser degree; despite its warm and free atmosphere, the film sometimes just feels like it's lacking a charge. Karina does a good job, but the limits of Odile's character inhibit her from being able to bring all that much to the part. Likewise, Frey and Brasseur are fine as Franz and Arthur, but part of the problem is that these characters, who have their occasional charm, are mostly just flat and unappealing. Even some of the typically "Godardian" touches added to the film feel a bit unsure, such as Brasseur's over-the-top demise.

Of course, there are some glorious moments. Probably the best known scene (and my favorite) is the Madison Dance, a sequence where Karina and the two guys do a charming dance to a jukebox in a diner, and Godard as the voice of the omniscient narrator tells us precisely what's going through their heads during this seemingly joyful act of expression. Another great little moment comes when the trio, killing time before their big heist, decide to break a world record by running through the Louvre as fast as they can. Band of Outsiders, I should make clear, is not a film I dislike at all, and though I've harped on some of the negatives, I actually do still have an affection for it. Godard continues showing a striking command of his visuals, and you can always count on him to at least make an interesting movie, which Band of Outsiders certainly is. It just simply feels slight compared to what I've watched up until now.

A Married Woman (1964); viewing: first

Why isn't this movie more well known? It's actually really wonderful. I quite frankly had never heard of it before putting together this marathon, and only included it after being told it was an essential part of Godard's 60's oeuvre. Like other Godard films of this time, the broad plot outline is fairly simple: A married woman, Charlotte (Macha Meril) is engaged in an affair with older actor Robert (Bernard Noel), while living out a mundane, materialistic day-to-day life with her husband Pierre (Phillipe Leroy) and son. When she finds out from the doc that she's pregnant, and she doesn't know who the father is, she must make a decision on how to proceed with her life.

Godard made A Married Woman in the wake of his divorce from Anna Karina, after finding out she was having an affair. This obviously accounts for some of the deep connections the film has to Godard's real life situation: Meril's hair is of course done in the typical Anna Karina style giving her a remarkable resemblance, and as Brody points out in Everything Is Cinema, the age of the actors playing the roles all corresponded to their real life counterparts; those being Godard, Karina, and the actor she was having an affair with. But aside from those touches, what also makes A Married Woman feel like an extremely personal film (maybe his most personal yet), is that it is the most overtly philosophical work Godard had done at this point in his career, possibly reflecting an existentialist mindset he was experiencing in the wake of his divorce. It also has a very abstract and experimental visual style as well, and for me it very often felt like an early draft of the kind of thing he would go on to do with 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Meril's narration is mostly comprised of a string of associative, stream of conscious thoughts that bolster this existentialist mood. The full title of the movie is A Married Woman: Fragments of A Film Shot in 1964, and indeed many of the shots we get of Charlotte are only as fragments, individual body parts, being caressed and cared for as almost materialistic items, disconnected from a person.

Godard also employs all kinds of visual tricks and interesting editing throughout, making this a compelling follow up to the charming yet slight Band of Outsiders. I am baffled as to why this is not as well known as his other 60's work; it is equally as impressive and original as any of them. It's a fascinating film to watch, and felt like Godard both trekking into new, exciting territory and laying new ground for things to come. A Married Woman was the first of four films in a row in my marathon that I will be viewing for the very first time, and if this was any indication of things to come I should be in for a real treat.


Doniphon said...

It's odd because Band Of Outsiders was the first Godard I ever saw (hell, it was probably one of the first "foreign films" I ever saw) and I fell absolutely in love with it. I still am. I haven't read Brody's book, but I assume he was referring to its lack of polemical thrust and political content. It's certainly among his most narratively conventional films (although it is by no means conventional), but I would use "slight" as a compliment rather than as a criticism. Although I love Godard, I am not particularly interested in the political implications of his or anyone else's cinema, and what I love about this film is how people-oriented it is, and how poetic his treatment of the characters is.

I don't think I've seen A Married Woman, or at least I don't remember have, which is somewhat bizarre. It must be his only sixties film I haven't seen.

Drew said...

Thanks for stopping by Doniphon! I am actually in total agreement with you as far as not really being interested the political implications of these works (which will clearly make the 70's films I have coming up a task), and I too put a premium on Godard's wonderful feel for his characters. My calling it "slight" had really nothing to do with any political or polemical aspects, but rather with it just lacking for me in many of the ways I enjoyed all of the previous films. Primarily, that I just simply found the characters to be, as I said, flat and unappealing. I'm not sure how much better I can describe it. I do still have an affection for it though, as there are many things to here to like. But I just wasn't crazy about it the first time I saw it, and went in with more than an open mind this time, and again found it underwhelming after the previous films I'd just watched

You really should see A Married Woman. I was pretty surprised it had flown under my radar, because it's quite good and as quintessential to his 60's work as anything I've seen from that decade yet.

Jake said...

Oh good, another person who finds A Married Woman underrated. I can't understand why it gets so little attention. I can get the low-key discussion of Le Petit Soldat, and I certainly understand why Les Carabiniers is neglected.

Band of Outsiders though I find delightful, more so than Breathless (which actually sits almost at the bottom of my list of the Godard's I've seen, though perhaps that's because it's the one most savaged by imitators and placed on the highest pedestal who've seen content to worship Godard on that basis even as they ignore damn near everything else).

Doniphon said...

Jake, agreed on Breathless. I much prefer McBride's remake with Richard Gere (yeah, I said it).

Drew said...

Jake, your piece on A Married Woman was the only other thing I read on it after my viewing (other than the Brody chapter), it was quite exquisite and obviously mirrored many of my own sentiments.

I admire the hell out of Breathless, but yeah I have some issues with it too. I've been led to believe the Gere remake was...not good; I may have to check it out now when all is said and done based on your comment alone Doniphon.

Drew said...

And I do readily acknowledge that I'm in the minority when it comes to Band of Outsiders; I can't explain it. There's just something there keeping me from meshing with it fully. It's not like I haven't wanted to really like it, I dunno. Of course I still find it to be an admirable picture.

Ed Howard said...

Sorry I haven't been around much for this series so far, but it's been a busy few days. I like Band of Outsiders much more than you do. In comparison to the rest of Godard's oeuvre, it lacks the restless experimentation of his other work, but like Jake I find it a delight, purely fun and charming, in large part because it's an opportunity to enjoy Godard's playful streak unalloyed by the more intellectual and darker elements running through a lot of his other films.

I'm glad you loved A Married Woman so much, though. I've been saying forever that it's possibly the most underrated of Godard's 60s films, and I'm not sure why that is, except that it's a real transitional work and, of course, that it's been unavailable on DVD in the US other than shoddy bootlegs. It's a fantastic movie, though, formalist and clever, breaking up the human body to emphasize all the ways these characters are disassociated: from their identities, their bodies, their sexuality, each other.

Jake said...

Ed's post (not to mention of course your review) reminds me that I need to order the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray from the UK. The region-free disc for Sunrise was astonishing, and that was a silent film. The screencaps I've seen look terrific.

As for the political content of Godard's films, you might want to strap in now, Drew. Pierrot le fou draws together most of the magic of Godard's genre pictures and puts it to a bizarrely yet magnificently nihilistic-Romantic film informed by growing political unrest, and Masculin féminin really builds on A Married Woman structural politics. I would consider both masterpieces, but I'm increasingly dreading hitting those Dziga Vertov years.

Drew said...

Great to hear from you Ed, thanks for the comments. Everything you've said about Band of Outsiders is certainly true, and I do appreciate it for its fun and charming vibe, I just unfortunately wasn't as struck by it as you guys were. Maybe down the line it's one I'll return to and find more love for.

Thanks for the warning Jake. I've had a bit of a taste of the later political films, and found them quite mystifying to say the least. However while I'm looking forward to both Pierrot le Fou and Masculin feminin, I like you am kind of hesitant about approaching the Dziga Vertov period stuff. Hopefully the Brody book will shed some light on them, as by all accounts they sound like works that will be fairly beyond my grasp. However it's all part of the process of appreciating the arc of Godard's career, which is my ultimate goal with all of this.

Ed Howard said...

I think the best way to approach Godard's more political work is to just see it as an extension of the formalist and playful elements in his other work. Although Godard's more didactic moments can be a bit trying, he never truly gives up on the wit and visual brilliance that characterize his more widely acclaimed 60s classics. And his intelligence and refusal to stop thinking prevents these films from ever truly becoming mere preachy political sermons. Some of the DVG films are mainly interesting as formal exercises, it's true, but there are some gems there, too: Vladimir and Rosa is pretty damn fun, if fun is the right word for a film about the Chicago Seven trial.

Drew said...

Thanks for the great advice Ed, that definitely gives me something to keep in mind. It's nice to hear those films won't lose that specific edge that makes the 60's stuff so enjoyable.

Vladimir and Rosa is of course one that I added to my list after originally speaking with you, and I must admit it looks to be quite interesting.

I think the only overtly political film of Godard's I've seen to date is Le Gai Savoir, which left me quite honestly flew right over my head, though I admired it aesthetically. Obviously I'll be giving that one another go here shortly, it should be interesting to see if I get any more out of it.