Quick Answer: French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard reimagines the gangster film in Band of Outsiders. The film, which Godard has referred to as "Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka," deals with the dissonance between fantasy and reality. The characters live in a wonderland of gangster films and romantic literature, but when they commit a crime like one they saw in the movies, the consequences are real. Godard uses nostalgia as a device, placing his characters in dreamlike scenes and then cutting the air with metafilmic self-awareness.

In the 1964 film Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part), French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard reimagines the gangster film. Set in the melancholy backdrop of suburban Paris, France, the story follows two young men, Arthur and Franz (Claude Brasseur; Sami Frey), who enlist their mutual love interest Odile (Anna Karina) to help them commit a robbery in her own home. All three characters are experiencing some kind of existential dread, but for a short while, they take shelter in the fantasy narratives of their favorite films and books. They are a “band of outsiders,” rebelling against their mundane realities, but a sense of impending doom hangs over them in the winter air.

Band of Outsiders (Band à Part) opening sequence

Godard has called Band of Outsiders “Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka.” Like Alice in Wonderland, the film plays with the relationship between fantasy and reality. Like Kafka’s characters, the “band of outsiders” feels helplessly alienated by the rapidly expanding capitalist culture that engulfs them. Arthur, Franz, and Odile are a trifecta of romantic characters at odds with modern society, and in order to take control of their reality, they play pretend. They plan an armed robbery using details pulled from their favorite American gangster films and pulp novels, but unlike in a fantasy, the gun and the consequences of its bullets are real. 

One of the ways Godard depicts the characters’ romanticism is through his narration. The film itself is loosely based on Fools Gold (1958), a noir pulp novel by American author Dolores Hitchens, which is about rebellious adolescents in Los Angeles who get involved in a serious heist. Band of Outsiders is only based on Hitchens' novel in concept, but Godard narrated the film to adapt a literary feel onscreen. The narration plays on the characters’ romanticism, shedding light on their interior thoughts and motives. During the café dance scene — one of the most famous of Godard’s filmography — the narrator says: “Franz thinks of everything and nothing. He wonders if the world is becoming a dream or if the dream is becoming a world.” Godard uses the device of narration to create an air of nostalgia around the characters, but then he cuts through it with metafilmic self-awareness. At another point in the dance scene, the narrator says: “Now it is time for a digression in which to describe our heroes’ feelings.” Godard submerges viewers in a romantic dream, and then he jolts them awake.

Claude Brasseur, Anna Karina, and Sami Frey in the café dance scene

The “band of outsiders” wants to live outside of Paris’ commodity culture in a sentimental wonderland of film and literature, and Godard shows their influences throughout the film in references both subtle and overt. The main characters’ names are literary references in themselves. Franz is named after Franz Kafka, his character representing the “Kafkaesque” existential struggle, and Odile is named after French writer Raymond Queneau’s 1937 novel Odile. Arthur tells Odile his surname is Rimbaud, an overt reference to the 19th century French poet of the same name. While Godard’s Arthur is most likely lying about his name, he and the poet could both be characterized as restless libertines who died young. And after the scene in which the trifecta runs through the Louvre — another one of Godard’s most iconic moments — the narrator quotes from Rimbaud’s work “Les Illuminations.” He says: “Rien ne bougeait encore front des palais. L’eau etait morte,” which translates to, “Nothing was stirring yet at the front of the palace. The water was dead.”

Arthur and Franz reference films and novels throughout Band of Outsiders, especially once they begin developing half-baked plans to rob Odile’s uncle, Mr. Stolz. In the beginning of the film, Arthur and Franz reenact the shooting of Billy the Kid, a story they seem to know well, on the side of the road. As Pauline Kael wrote in the 1966 New Republic article “Godard Among the Gangsters,” “The two heroes of Band of Outsiders begin by play-acting crime and violence movies, then really act them out in real life.” Franz tells Odile that she reminds him of a girl he read in the book, and later on, they pull over at an embankment bookstand to purchase it. With time to kill before they commit the crime, Franz reads from the novel aloud in the car with the fog hanging over the Seine in the background. The narration reads: “Arthur said they’d wait till nightfall, in keeping with the tradition of bad B movies.”  The characters are stepping into the criminal roles that they know from behind the safety of screens and books, but when the time comes to rob Mr. Stolz, the gun Arthur holds is real, the gun Arthur faces is real, and then he really dies — an event Franz and Odile respond to with relative insouciance.

Band of Outsiders

In Band of Outsiders, Godard places “Kafkaesque” characters in a wonderland of gangster films and romantic literature, and he exposes the artifice of their daydream-like schemes through metafilmic self-awareness and true consequences of crime. In all of the “band of outsiders’” adventures — running through the Louvre, dancing at the café — you can feel their isolation in the public eye. There’s a great distance between the wonderland and the real world, and Godard reminds viewers of that every time the nostalgia makes them forget. Godard’s use of nostalgia as a device is a classic theme in many of his films: he turns what is old inside out and upside down to make it new again. Like the English teacher writes on the chalkboard at the beginning of the film, “Classic = Modern.” And then she calls on Odile to recite the words of T.S. Eliot: “Everything that is new is thereby automatically traditional.” Band of Outsiders ends with Odile and Franz fleeing for South America — an escape like in a Hollywood film — and the narrator concludes: “My story ends here, like in a pulp novel, at that superb moment when nothing weakens, nothing wears away, nothing wanes. An upcoming film will reveal, in CinemaScope and Technicolor, the tropical adventures of Odile and Franz.” Godard promises a romantic Hollywood ending, but gives the audience no reason to believe him.