There's been a lot of reverent talk lately about Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's candy-coated carte postale to the splendor of Paris. Jeunet's warm, sweet, uplifting film centers on a beautiful, defiantly eccentric bohemian girl who staves off existential sadness with escapades of imaginary espionage, and eventually finds love.
La la la, fine. I loved Amélie too, the way I love a nice Napoleon. What I don't love is the way critics, in their never-ending quest to raise the stakes of effusion, talk as though Amélie was the birth of French levity. A typical review asserted that Jeunet had made a film that "finally liberated French film from the smoky shadow of pretentious cinéastes like Jean-Luc Godard and made it safe for audiences to enjoy." It's a nice thought, and an easy line, but it only works if you've never seen one of Godard's films.
Amélie is the exact opposite of the stereotypical idea of Godard. It's expensive, straightforward, and optimistic, and at no point does anyone make the case for Communist revolution. In fact, however, the film is a clear descendant of a tradition that began with Godard's work of the early '60s, a period during which he exploded (among other things) the rules of onscreen behavior.
The spontaneous energy of his early films represented a brand new sense of humor for actors, built not on traditional verbal or physical comedy--though both were incorporated--but on a kind of mischievous naturalism; their laughs came from the sheer surprise of nonsensical but believable actions.
Godard's rarely shown 1964 Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part), re-released after years of unavailability, is ideal evidence; it's full of unlikely-familiar moments so exuberant, you can't help but swoon. Because it's Godard, however, those moments bump up against a philosophical realism that Amélie wants no part of.
Genre-wise, Bande's archetypes are all crime noir: Ostensibly, it's about a robbery that goes awry. But Godard basically forgets about the robbery for long stretches of the movie's short duration, choosing to focus instead on the shifting vectors of love, loyalty, and affection between two male friends, Franz and Arthur (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur), and the object of their affection, Odile (Anna Karina), who just happens to live in the house they plan to rob.
After cursory introductions ("For those arriving late, we offer a few words chosen at random: '3 weeks earlier, a pile of money, an English class'"), Arthur semi-seduces Odile, Franz tags along, and Godard embarks on a series of increasingly random set pieces, puns, and interludes. These include sprinting through the Louvre, playing cowboy in the street, silly walks, doughnuts in a muddy parking lot, and a chance encounter with a man selling a tiger.
The two greatest moments occur in a café, where, after shuffling for seats and spiking and switching one another's drinks, Arthur, Franz, and Odile observe a minute of silence--but it's not just them; the entire soundtrack cuts to nothing. The film interacts with its characters, and with itself, and for 60 seconds we are in the realm of innovation. Shortly thereafter, Bande leaps into the sublime with an out-of-nowhere dance number. Godard had visited this territory before (most notably in A Woman Is a Woman), but never with such sheer frivolity. To make the moment perfect, Godard's narration announces, "Now is the time for an interlude in which to describe the characters' feelings." As if we don't know already.
The sense of making it up as they go is crucial to the film's success. Without improvisational energy, neither the humor nor the deep sadness of the world around these characters would register. The infectious silliness arises out of the quotidian misery of real life--poverty, loneliness, and despair surround the characters; the entire film is cold, gray, and damp. "People never form a whole," says Franz near the end. "They remain separate. Distrustful and tragic." This sentiment is a big part of what drives the fairy tale of Amélie, too. But Godard is too pessimistic, too realistic, to let his characters off the hook with a happy ending. The best they can hope for are interludes of unconstrained merriment within the hopelessness of life.
Bande à Part ends with a great dismissive joke in which the narrator promises "an upcoming film in CinemaScope and Technicolor" to follow the adventures of Franz and Odile "in the hot country." Godard never made that film; he never wanted to see it. He left that task to Jean-Pierre Jeunet.