Jean-Luc Godard

Is Bande à part the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

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.

Is Vivre sa vie the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I started this project for two main reasons. First, I asked a dozen people what their favorite movie was and wanted to push myself to watch all of them. Second, I wanted to educate myself better about movies I wouldn’t otherwise watch. Over the last five years I’ve watched between 100 and 200 movies a year, which is already too many, but I wanted to work on gaps in my knowledge base. I simply spend the majority of time watching recent stuff in English, so I wanted to push into history.

Before I saw Breathless I read a lot about Jon-Luc Godard. There’s a steady thread through essays and retrospectives of his career that finds scholars and critics worried people will lose interest in Godard. This always seems overblown, especially given the way film history plays out. Most of these pieces are worried about people giving into blockbusters and popcorn films. The same arguments could be made today as thirty years ago. I don’t think this dark day is coming. It’s easier now to make an art film and it’s more likely today that you’ll find something that fits your specific tastes. It’s easier now to stream the classics, as well. This idea that people will watch more Marvel movies (or whatever the stand-in for Marvel movies was then) and fewer all-caps IMPORTANT movies is one people keep bringing up, despite it never fully happening.

Do people still watch Godard, and more importantly, does that question, asked that way, matter? If you want to understand cinema then you never stop trying to fill in these gaps and you will invariably start with someone like Godard. If you don’t care, you probably never were going to care. I don’t think one kind of movie really overlaps with the other and I don’t think any trend in popular film today makes the other less likely to continue. You don’t have to watch French classics, but if you want to, it’s easier today than it ever was. That’s a victory, no matter what you feel about what you imagine the desires of future cinephiles to look like.

Today’s film is Vivre sa vie, or My Life to Live in some countries. It stars Anna Karina, Godard’s wife at the time, as Nana, a woman who runs away from her family and struggles to connect with life around her. It’s an oversimplification to say it follows her career as a prostitute, but it must be said that is the narrative thrust. It more importantly follows her search for meaning, or at least understanding, through several artistic forms and philosophical discussions.

The film is told in twelve scenes, each prefaced with a title card. This artificially breaks up the film into distinct portions with clear breaks between moments. This is a technique Tarantino lifted, as are the camera angles behind Nana’s head as she speaks. These angles are deliberate, but they hide the conversation behind her head and force us to imagine much of what’s happening in the frame we can’t see. So much of modern film, especially quiet, character-driven work, owes just a tremendous amount to devices like these.

And it’s so watchable, even six decades later. Breathless is a caper, you know why you’re watching who you’re watching and you’re wondering what will happen to them. Vivre sa vie doesn’t have the same built-in tension, so it relies more heavily on Nana. The fact that it works is a tremendous testament to Karina’s performance, but also the overall production. Nana turns on a jukebox in one of the film’s most famous scenes and we see her dance around, briefly engaged in life a clear way though no one else in the room embraces the mood. Another, though opposite reaction finds her at the movies, seeing The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her date tries to put his arm around her as she is visibly moved to tears by the power of the silent film. Again, she is not on the same page with the men in her life, but we are inarguably on her page.

The 11th of 12 scenes is a discussion between Nana and a philosopher who apparently played himself. This approaches, but does not fully go over, the line of “too much.” For me, scenes like this will always fall into the same bucket as the strangest parts of David Lynch’s work. Out of context, a philosophical discussion about if thoughts and speech are actually different things is extreme stuff. In context, it’s a contrast to the matter-of-fact discussion of the rules of prostitution that Nana gets from another person in her life. I feel the same way about a man sweeping the floor for five minutes in Twin Peaks. You can choose to accept that as part of the work and wonder why it’s there or you can abstract it, that’s your call.

Overall, yes, you should still watch Godard, even if you’re starting with this one. It’s quick and beautiful, which aren’t necessarily terms that go together often in classic cinema. If nothing else, you’ll gain an appreciation for how many people have cribbed from this one, and that’s reason enough to experience it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, I prefer this to No Sudden Move. Very different themes at play in these two and the institutions that the characters battle are different. This is much more a story of internal lives, which goes back to the differences between this and Breathless. You could draw a connection, but it would take forcing one.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I will still say Persona is better, though this is a much closer one than most have been. I really enjoyed this and it’s really inspired me to continue my trek through French cinema. Stick around, let’s do it together.

You can watch Vivre sa vie on HBO Max or The Criterion Channel. 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.