“I wanted to make a simple film that would be perfectly understandable,” Jean-Luc Godard told an interviewer shortly after completing Band of Outsiders, easily the most brilliant of the genuflections bestowed on the American gangster movie by the French New Wave. So it is a simple film, if only in the sense that the customary hail of Godardian quotations and allusions — in this case, to Shakespeare, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Truffaut, Kafka, Fritz Lang, the Parisian version of Woolworth’s, Pat Garrett, Jack London, the Indie 500, and a store named the Nouvelle Vague, among others — is more deeply buried in the action than usual. In principle you could enjoy the movie as a day in the life of three Parisian crackpots fumbling through a heist they hadn’t planned on. Except, of course, that you can’t, because Godard the commentator is buzzing about in voice-over — underscoring, undermining, digressing, even as he tells you the image is everything.

Made before the New Wave sank into a mere ripple, before Godard and Truffaut severed a close friendship with an exchange of denunciatory poison-pen letters, before Godard began playing revolutionary scold to Truffaut’s bourgeois comedian, before Godard decided that Hollywood was all bad after all — Band of Outsiders has itself become one of the most quotable pictures in cinema history. The famous Madison dance sequence alone, the scene by which most people I know remember the film, has found its way into several American movies, most recently Pulp Fiction, whose director is such a Godard fan that he named his production company, A Band Apart, after the movie’s French title.

It’s easy to see why Godard became a hero to so many American filmmakers with ambitions beyond Hollywood. His was the cinema of endless possibility, in a decade that insisted on endless possibility, before both cinema and the ’60s fell apart. Watching Band of Outsiders now, spiffed up in a smart 35mm print and newly translated subtitles, one is struck less by its pioneering games with genre or its radical aesthetic and cultural critique than by its light heart and relaxed charm. Uncharitable spirits have called the literary and philosophical musings that litter a Godard film mere name-dropping, but his elusive allusiveness — the way he keeps peeling away from genre convention into silent reverie or the apparently irrelevant gesture — grasps perfectly the mad jumble of platitude, longing and unexpected moments of truth that constitute a human mind on the job. At his best, no one describes the mechanics of inner life better than Godard.

Band of Outsiders’ surface structure may carry echoes of Jules et Jim — two men and the girl they love, each in his fashion, tool around Paris, drunk on fragile liberty before it crumbles around them — but it’s a tougher bird altogether. Crueler, too, in Godard’s sacrifice of his then wife, Anna Karina, on the altar of dumb innocence. As Odile Monod, the ingénue who’s picked up by two amateur thieves and instantly coughs up information on a stash of money in her guardian’s house, Karina is no sophisticate. She’s an exquisite tabula rasa, ready to be stamped with the desires of the two men — the worldly predator Arthur (Claude Brasseur), who sees only her breasts and her use-value, and the Americophile Franz (played by the impossibly handsome Sami Frey), wallowing glumly in unrequited love.

Based on an American pulp novel by Dolores Hitchens, Band of Outsiders is a subverted gangster movie hitched to a subverted Hollywood romance — the gullible girl who scorns her soul mate in favor of the attractive louse who ridicules her marital aspirations, then takes her to bed before browbeating her into becoming his unwilling accomplice. It’s also an essay on the pleasures of freedom, and its cost. From their first meetings in an English class whose absurd assignment is to translate Romeo and Juliet back into the original, the three are inside society, but not of it — clattering arm in arm through the Louvre, rushing down into the Métro (“the center of the Earth”), and when everything falls apart, whizzing past a café called Tout Va Bien. Unlike Truffaut’s arty trio, these three are Rousseauian, even feral figures, continually reinventing the day (and the genre) as need dictates. Yet Godard — driving his relentless wedge between dialogue and inner chatter, between word and image — invests them with the intellectual and emotional life we all live between the lines. “Now is the time to describe our feelings,” intones the narrator solemnly as Odile, Arthur and Franz dance the line dance in perfect unison, dreaming their various dreams of living outside the rules, and wondering, like their creator, “if the dream is becoming the world.”

BAND OF OUTSIDERS | Written and directed by JEAN-LUC GODARD | Adapted from the novel Fools’ Gold, by DOLORES HITCHENS | Produced by GODARD | Released by Rialto
Pictures | At the Nuart, August 17–23

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