Long before it became fashionable for filmmakers to dismantle the fourth wall, Jean-Luc Godard had devoted himself to the cinema of self-awareness: He was in the business of making movies, the saying goes, that made viewers intently aware they were watching a movie. This is as true of his still-wondrous 1960 debut, "Breathless," a form-busting riff on American gangster-movie traditions, as it is of his 39th feature, "Goodbye to Language," an eyeball-searing ode to the disruptive properties of 3D.
That self-deconstructing impulse may not seem as much in evidence in the exquisite "Band of Outsiders" (Bande à part), an excellent digital restoration of which (courtesy of the invaluable Rialto Pictures) will begin a series of limited theatrical play dates across the country on Friday. In the 50 years since its initial U.S. run, this 1964 French New Wave touchstone has often been characterized — and sometimes dismissed — as the most conventionally accessible of Godard's works. That may be true, even if it is a bit like pointing out the world's shortest croquembouche: Modest though it may seem compared with the others, a towering achievement it remains.
Adapted from Dolores Hitchens' 1950s pulp novel "Fools' Gold," "Band of Outsiders" tells the simple, linear story of a girl and two guys who, after some desultory flirtation, embark on an equally desultory home-burglary attempt. But a thin summary of an already thin plot doesn't begin to account for the film's strange intensity of feeling, or its eerie sense of suspension between cinematic fantasy and hard-scrabble reality. From its opening, rapid-fire barrage of closeups to its sly parting gesture, Godard's gangster-musical pastiche is suffused with a strange and melancholy understanding of how irrevocably the movies have shaped our collective dream life — which means, of course, that they've shaped our truest sense of who we are.
And so you don't quite believe it when Odile, the sad-eyed, sweater-clad gamine played by the great Anna Karina (Godard's eternal muse and then-wife), lowers her eyes and declares, "I hate movies." (In the next breath, she will note that she also hates dancing, and the film will again memorably prove her wrong.) Much like Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), the young amateur crooks who draw her into their scheme, Odile isn't just the sort of character it's impossible to imagine existing outside a movie; she seems to have almost no conception of life beyond the movies themselves. Everything about these kids — their words, actions and gestures, the clothes they wear, the fantasies they indulge — seems to have been lifted wholesale from the B-movie romances and pulp fictions of yesteryear.
In an early scene, after scoping out the house they're planning to break into, Franz and Arthur pretend to be Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, staging a phony shootout on a nearly deserted country road. It's a throwaway gag but also a crucial moment of foreshadowing; when the actual gunplay arrives, it has the same air of weirdly exaggerated pantomime. At once more and less real than the violence we're accustomed to seeing on-screen, the scene is piercing in part because it's so odd, so jarring, as if we didn't know these youths could actually bleed. To watch it now is to be reminded of something Pauline Kael wrote in her 1966 review of the film: "Because Godard's movies do not let us forget that we're watching a movie, it's easy to think he's just kidding."
The characters here manage the peculiar effect of seeming at once oblivious to their actual reality and deeply, matter-of-factly trapped by it. Their world is as shabby and constricted as the room in which they gather for an English class, their paths in life as circumscribed as their Metro routes. The Paris we see, shot in chilly monochrome by brilliant cinematographer Raoul Coutard, looks cheerless and overcast; it's a city from which almost all charm and glamour have been carefully stripped away, and Michel Legrand's score seems to echo the sentiment with its weary, wistful refrain. (A briefly overheard snippet of Legrand's glorious music from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," released in France the same year, provides a notable contrast.)
If "Band of Outsiders" is frequently heartbreaking, it's never depressing. The genius of Godard's filmmaking is that we can see both the futility and the necessity of his movie love, as expressed by his characters' reckless schemes as well as every movement of his camera. The moments we remember and cherish most are those that seem to have arisen from a joyous, spontaneous impulse — the scene in the cafe where Arthur, Odile and Franz do the Madison, and their record-breaking run through the Louvre — and which have been referenced and immortalized in any number of films since, from Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" to Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers." It is perhaps history's way of asserting that these beautiful, foolish young people belong to the movies, which is another way of saying they belong to us.
'Band of Outsiders'
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes