The story is simple and not dissimilar to Breathless, though both films are certainly unique in their own way. Two young delinquents, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), with fantasies of criminal glory, conspire to commit a robbery and enlist the help of Odile (Anna Karina), a beautiful young woman they meet in English language class. The targets are Odile’s wealthy relatives. She lives with her Aunt Victoria and a Mr. Stoltz in a villa in Joinville, where she declares a large amount of money is stashed. When Odile sneaks into Stoltz’s room to sight the money she leaves suspicious evidence behind, prompting Stoltz to hide the money and change the locks, unbeknownst to Odile and the others when they finally attempt the heist.
The robbery attempts are both hilariously amateur and suspenseful, as we sense their desperation mounting and fear for their escape, with the events culminating in a violent shootout (shocking and effective, and oddly mirroring Franz and Arthur’s early recreation of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). Events get complicated when both men try and seduce Odile (and it becomes an awkward love triangle where feelings get in the way of their professionalism) and when Arthur’s uncle learns of the plot and decides to commit the robbery himself, prompting the young trio to put their plans in place faster than they initially hoped. What transforms this film into a memorable one are the quirky set pieces (Arthur’s seduction methods on the stairs outside their classroom, Odile’s method of crossing the river, and the muddy construction site where Franz drives around madly) and scenes that separate the scheming and the robbery.
With their naïve and deluded plans already set the trio kill time. Odile is nervous and frightened, but tingling with excitement, while the men are over-confident and certainly not as smooth or capable as the film characters they aspire to be. Arthur has been more successful in seducing Odile and the pair spends time together. Arthur and Franz feverishly read through crime scene accounts from the daily tabloid, they awkwardly sit in silence (literally) at cafes and decide to try and break the world record of circumnavigating the louvre with a mad dash through the halls. All of these scenes have become iconic in film culture.
The highlight of the film was this Madison sequence. In a quaint diner, the trio, who now have nothing to talk about, agree to have a minute of complete silence. Godard, the narrator throughout, revealing what the characters are thinking at times and at one point recaps on what has happened for those who “arrived late and missed the beginning”, also ceases the soundtrack – so no score or background noise from the diner.
The characters only sit in silence for 35 seconds (though it feels like a minute at least) before deciding to start an impromptu (but well choreographed, but not enough to eliminate the ‘spur of the moment’ feel) Madison sequence. It actually wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the characters performed it for the first time together on the spot, and that it was the one and only take. The scene continues for several minutes, before the men get bored and exit the floor leaving Anna Karina alone to continue the steps by herself. During this scene, my eyes never left Karina, and it really is startling how alluring a screen presence she is.
Sure, I have revealed nothing particularly new about this celebrated classic, but what more needs to be said. Utilizing stylistic flourishes, as only Godard knows how – including several long takes and the occasional jump cut – this is pure fun. It’s not meant to require too much thinking, though recognizing the influence and deciphering just how much work the performers put into making their characters unique and human, is a thrill. As always, Mrs. Godard is the alluring centerpiece. I know I will enjoy this one again and again. Up next is Peirrot Le Fou.