Bande à part

Is Bande à part the Best Movie of All Time?

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If you read any review or review-like piece about Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 classic Bande à part, you will see the same word used: “accessible.” It’s not uncommon for consensus to build around a film, especially an “important” one by one of the masters, but it’s a little uncommon to see the same exact term. Some may go with “approachable” but really they are all saying the same thing. All of these reviewers want to tell you that even if you don’t normally watch Godard movies or even French cinema, this is the one for you.

What does that statement even mean when said about a crime drama carried out by stony-faced men that features an extended, nearly wordless, dance scene in the middle? I guess in comparison to something like Pierrot le Fou this is, sure, an easier film to parse and to follow, but it still feels like the wrong term. It also feels like it’s speaking to an imagined audience, like framing something as having the least space in a Star Wars film. I don’t think anyone would sit down to watch a movie like this and hope, first off, that it be really easily approached. The complexity for this era of French film isn’t necessarily the draw, but it certainly isn’t a hinderance, either.

Bande à part is a simple story. Two men named Arthur and Franz (Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey) meet one woman named Odile (Anna Karina) and the two men decide to rob the woman’s extended family. Odile is young and beautiful and a little naïve, we learn through her interactions with the two of them. She jokingly steals a hat and agrees to cut English class with them only after telling them that she certainly understands kissing, even “with tongue.” When she tells her new friends that she knows where a bunch of money is hiding, it’s clear that she isn’t necessarily suggesting they take it. It’s also clear that is exactly what will happen.

Parts of this will feel familiar even if you haven’t seen it. The three of them form a love triangle despite not really having anything in common or having any reason to feel affection. They decide to perform this robbery together despite Odile clearly being uncomfortable with the idea. The whole thing unfolds with a sense of dread, but more importantly it only starts out of boredom. We only see a brief window into Odile without the duo present, but there she insists to her aunt that she isn’t interested in shopping or going out or any of the things she’s supposed to want. It’s brief, but it says a lot about why she might get roped into what she gets roped into.

Just how complicit is Odile? This is the big question, as we see the men shuffle through life motivated by simple greed, though they both speak about Odile in lustful or romantic terms. Obviously there’s a love story here, but it’s so much more important to consider why this is all happening. You expect any movie about a risky robbery to be about the money, but this seems equally to be about rebellion. The title, Bande à part, even stems from an expression that means to do things separate from a group. The money matters because the gang wants to run away from society, but the question of why they want that in the first place is largely unasked and unanswered. It doesn’t need to be, because viewers felt the same way.

The director provides an infrequent narration through the film, sometimes listing the thoughts of characters and sometimes speaking to the next steps. It’s often funny, which helps to contrast with the seriousness of the crime and the grim determination of both men. I think this is the detail people are referencing when they say this film is “approachable.” The story beats are easy to follow and the narration doesn’t necessarily explain things, but it does help you track the mood. The settings are beautifully shot, especially some night scenes with the duo running through the city and falling in some kind of love.

Is it approachable? There are moments to like even if you don’t like movies like this, sure, including the most famous scene in the movie. It’s a dance scene where the trio dances to the classic Michel Legrand score. It inspired the dance contest from Pulp Fiction and has been referenced several times in other media. It fits with the tone of the film, but it also is part of the commitment to a shifting tone and only slight insights into our characters. I don’t think “approachable” is the right word, but I will agree with the overall assessment and say it’s fair to say this is worth your time even if you think it might not be worth your time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It feels a bit silly to compare Un Chien Andalou to anything, but such is this series. I think this is better and I think it’s a truly great and exciting film, even many decades later.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I still will stick with Persona. That said, I really do encourage you to watch this, even if you aren’t the sort of person who might. It’s slightly longer than Breathless but much faster paced. I think I’m more interested in the original, but I was more excited by this one. I kept wondering what would happen, right until the surprisingly absurd ending.

Bande à part is currently streaming in some countries, but in the United States you will need to purchase it from The Criterion Collection or another retailer. The company also sometimes streams it, but not as of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.