With Jean-Luc Godard currently enjoying a wealth of Region 2 releases, Anthony Nield looks back at one of the first, the BFI’s handling of Bande à part.
During the sixties Jean-Luc Godard’s films left Paris on only two occasions. Both of these efforts, the anti-war picture Les Carabiniers and the sumptuous widescreen experience that is Le Mépris, were made in 1963 so it is perhaps unsurprising that when the director did, the following year, return to the capital, he would do so with a vengeance. Indeed, Bande à part also goes back to the milieu and style of his very earliest pictures, the shorts Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick and Charlotte et son Jules, and his debut feature A bout de souffle, replicating their crisp black and white photography, Academy ratios and playful, freewheeling style.
The credits to Bande à part are arranged in such a manner so that Godard becomes ‘Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard’ and it’s arguable that this return to the approach of his earliest ventures (he would later refer to the characters here as the suburban cousins of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s A bout de souffle lead) also sees a return to their sheer enthusiasm of the filmic form. All of the nouvelle vague hallmarks are here, from the jazzy score and location camerawork to the rough and ready approach and penchant for gags and asides (choice line of dialogue: “Whoever painted it white should be decorated”). Indeed, this sense of cinematic adventure – which perhaps makes Bande à part Godard’s most inviting and accessible work – is such that at times the film completely forgets that it is also a thriller. Adapted from Dolores Hitchin’s serie noire Fool’s Gold, the crux of the plot is that the titular outsiders (Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) are planning a robbery on a house just outside of the city limits. Yet whilst this prompts some forceful, unexpected and even quite sour moments, the impression given is that this loose adaptation is in place solely to provide a beginning, middle and end.
However, if we don’t particularly care for these characters’ escapades (or rather aren’t asked to), their relationships are certainly curious ones. Of course, the one between Karina and Godard is perhaps the most prominent (her first proper introductory shots are loving close-ups), but there is still plenty of interest in the on-screen couplings. Fittingly, with regards to Bande à part’s style, each is, despite their respective ages, rather on the juvenile side – they act like children during the English classes they attend and have a fondness for play acting – yet they seem strangely unsuited. The famed dance sequence (as infectious as anything produced on screen by Gene Kelly), for example, sees the trio in a line and in unison but never together as such, and there’s a dimension of cruelty and disdain in the way both of the men treat Karina. Of course, the ménage à trois aspect gives their interactions an edge, but more disquieting is the fact that though they claim to be in love, you can never imagine them being friends such is the tension.
But then for all the naturalism of many of Godard’s techniques they never seems like real people. Indeed, they’re an undeniably different breed that those who populating the films of Godard’s nouvelle vague contemporaries, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, inasmuch as they’re more in tune with the cinematic thereby seeming for fictional. Frey presumably only wears his hat and trenchcoat because he’s aware of the film noir aspects of the films he’s in, and there’s also an abundance of direct-to-camera glances and addresses. This prompts the question then as to whether Bande à part is a cold work or not, and whilst this is true to an extent (there’s little genuine dramatic weight), Godard’s sheer joy in the filmmaking process proves a more than adequate counterbalance. That said, such an approach makes the film seem a less complete work as, say, Alphaville or Sauve qui peut – la Vie and as such not representative of Godard’s finest, but as an introduction to the director you couldn’t find a better starting point.
Bande à part has been presented in its original 1.33:1 Academy ratio with a superb print. The black and white photography has a crispness that couldn’t be bettered and the instances of damage (in the form of the tiniest of scratches) could be counted on one hand. The only let down will be that the English subtitles are burnt-in, but otherwise this easily competes with the presentation of Criterion’s disc. The soundtrack is equally clean, retaining the original mono mix and again offering no problems.
As for extras, the assembled special features are slightly different to those found of the Criterion disc but still prove worthwhile. The centrepiece is an interactive A-Z guide that deals with all of the myriad references in the film, from Anouchka to “Ze Question” via Chaplin, Looopy the Lopp and Shakespeare. Each snippet varies in length from minutes to seconds, some taking the form of interviews (with, amongst others, Karina and Quentin Tarantino), others as a mini-commentary over selected scenes by Dr Roland-François Lack. Indeed, given the latter it is churlish to complain the film as a whole doesn’t contain a full talk track as all of the major reference points are touched on and this way the viewer doesn’t have to contend with any pauses plus has the option to jump direct to whichever subject they wish.
The other major piece here is an 11-minute interview with director of photography Raoul Coutard. Split into six chapters this piece understandably errs on the technical side, but its also wide ranging with Coutard touching on both Bande à part individually and the nouvelle vague as a whole.
The remaining extras are less important, but welcome nonetheless, and take the form a the original theatrical trailer, a brief on-screen biography for Godard and sleeve notes by Philip Kemp.
As with the main feature, the English subtitles contained on the extras are non-optional.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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