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Race inside the Louvre: The Nouvelle Vague, Godard and Bertolucci

It is astonishing to recognize the chimeric power of cinema. Unimaginable moments have been immortalized by the "the seventh art" (Canudo, 1923), such as the scene of three young rebels attempting to break an imaginary record by visiting in the shortest possible time all the rooms inside the Parisian Museum Louvre. The film Band of Outsiders was created under the direction of French director Jean-Luc Godard in 1964 as an adaptation of the American pulp novel Fool's Gold by Dolores Hitchens, who returns to the traditional love triangle of novice criminals constantly immersed in conflicts. The film introduces us to the delicate Odile, played by Anna Karina, also muse and a real-life lover of J. L. Godard, along with Franz and Arthur, played by Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur. A marvelous coincidence will unequivocally unite the destinies of the characters through the attendance of an English class: the three will form a jovial bond and eventually devise a plan to enrich themselves by stealing the hidden money of a guest in Madame Victoria's house, Odile's wealthy aunt. The trio of characters represents Godard's desire to depict the spirit of the time.


Band of Outsiders speaks about a generation of discontent individuals whose unconscious desire drives them to an unrelenting search for their own identity, a youth infested of popular culture, corrupt cinema, and crime novels. Like other works by the director, Band of Outsiders is the result of Godard's deep passion for American noir novels, as he will comment: "An American gangster film is better than a French film written by an academic from France or an established screenwriter, or extracted from a novel by Gide" (Gilodi, 2007, pp. 19). As a result of the absence of films during World War II, the majority of international releases did not reach France until after the war. Filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Howard Hawks flooded French cinemas and inspired intellectuals and cinephiles of the time, with their new narratives and artistic movements. Unlike the original novel, the director chooses to discard excessive psychological rationalization of the characters and the dark suburbs in favor of a light representation of the rebel and innocent youth in 1960s Paris. This freshness and reality are what the director found in the new artistic movement called the Nouvelle Vague which would shape all the artistic and philosophical direction of his productions.

Figure 1: Franz, Odile and Arthur in "Bande à part" (Godard, 1964).

In the dramatic political-economic context of 1950s France, with the end of the colonial adventure in Indochina and the emergence of the Algerian case, the fall of the Fourth Republic, and subsequently the birth of the Fifth Republic (Gilodi, 2007, p. 23), the country undergoes radical and disruptive cultural changes as a result of socio-economic and political destabilization. This would be reflected in the themes explored by directors of the Nouvelle Vague, an existential state of precariousness, uncertainty, disorientation, anxiety, and day-to-day difficulties experienced due to ideological, ethical, and consumer changes. The French youth of the 1950s experiences their own coming-of-age in a problematic historical moment (Gilodi, 2007, p. 23). In this complex context, the major studios controlled the film industry, reaching a larger audience through generous distribution and substantial budgets, actions that many filmmakers considered restrictive and elitist: there was no space for independent cinema or auteur films, and for many artists, the art was repressed and it might need a paradigm shift.


Alexandre Astruc, a film critic and novelist, wrote an extensive article in 1948 titled "Naissance d'une Nouvelle Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo" (Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Pen), which was published in the 14th number of the magazine L'Ecran Français. The article announced that:


Cinema will gradually move away from the tyranny of the visual, from image for the sake of image, from immediate anecdote, from the concrete, to become a medium of writing as flexible and subtle as written language... [...], a language so rigorous that thought can be written on the film (Astruc, 1948, pp. 208-209).

A general opinion of the decadence of cinema generated a boost in a selected group of young individuals that rejected the traditional trends of French cinema and opted for a personal and authorial cinematographic language, a culture characterized by authenticity, and an identity-driven cinema. In 1951, film critics André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Joseph Lo Duca founded Cahiers du Cinéma, the first revolutionary film magazine that would go down in history for its creation of avant-garde academic articles. Various personalities, mostly directors such as François Truffaut, André Bazin, Eric Rohmer, and even Jean-Luc Godard, participated in the magazine. This marked the birth of a new aesthetic and identity-driven wave: coined by Francoise Giroud in the pages of L'Express in 1958, it originally referred to a new, youthful spirit making itself felt in French films. It quickly gained currency and became a versatile catchphrase to describe any cultural phenomenon that was seen to be new or rebellious. Colloquially, "New Wave" soon degenerated into a synonym for "Avant Garde," although it had a connotation that was perhaps less stodgy.

Figure 2: Cahiers du Cinéma magazine covers (n.d.).

The production of films was challenging for the directors of the New Wave because they adapted their philosophy to the creative process of a movie: no professional actors were generally involved, and they often filmed on the streets with natural light or used handheld cameras making the human contact between the directors and the process of creating a movie more personal. The critics from Cahiers du Cinéma also supported the idea of creating cinema independently from the studios, François Truffaut commented that the directors of this movement wanted to portray the humanity and universality that was lacking in commercial cinema. They focused on themes such as freedom, equality, and brotherhood. The film Bande à part unfolds within this context, directors like Godard understood cinema as a critical medium, often challenging mass culture and the profanation of art, an example is the scene of Odile, Franz, and Arthur running through the halls of the Louvre.


During this race, the camera focuses on Jacques-Louis David's painting The Oath of the Horatii. Godard wanted to communicate the story behind the painting, which portrays the heroic oath taken by the three brothers to their father, promising him to challenge the Curiazi of Alba Longa in order to end the war between Rome and Latium, and to defend Rome until death. By including this scene, Godard aims to evoke in the viewer the paradox of contrasting ideals between the Orazi brothers, who symbolize the triumph of virtues and the political and social commitment by the decision of fighting in the name of their homeland to stop the conflict. Considering the year of the painting, it also reflects the proximity with the future French Revolution of 1789, so the messages become clearer. On the other hand, he also shows the three young protagonists of the film as individuals immersed in a shaped reality by popular culture, this immersion makes them unable to recognize the heritage of their history, and are portrayed as naive and reckless humans with lost ideals, the opposite of the Orazi brothers.


Figure 3: "The Oath of the Horatii" (David, 1786).

Writer and film critic Renzo Gilodi shares about the movement, stating: La Nouvelle Vague affirms the relativity of morality, the devaluation of grand codified certainties and customary beliefs, the demand for a sincere and clear range of interpersonal experiences within the temporal parameters of the present, with a style that reinterprets its subject matter, hinting at literary and philosophical suggestions (2007, p. 107). The relativity of morality, the customary beliefs, and the devaluation of grand codified certainties are characteristics present in the psychology of the characters and the narrative itself.


The artistic movement was undoubtedly the rebirth of authorial avant-garde, and revolutionary cinema that would later mark the beginning of new critical directors full of temperament and admiration, as was the case with the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci. An example was the creation of his celebrated and much-criticized film The Dreamers (2003), where he decided to recreate the same Louvre race scene from Bande à Part film as a homage to director Jean-Luc Godard and the Nouvelle Vague.

Figure 4: Theo, Isabelle, Matthew in "The Dreamers" (Bertolucci, 2003).

The film The Dreamers, based on the novel The Holy Innocents by Gilbert Adair (who also participated in the screenplay development) and written in 1988, presents the same dynamics as the film Bande à Part through the characters of three young protagonists: Isa, Theo, and Matthew, portrayed by Eva Green, Louis Garrel, and Michael Pitt respectively. Similar to the three young individuals in Godard's film, these three lost souls find themselves unable to fit in and adapt to their contemporary society, which is predominantly comprised of dissatisfied university students, as a result of ruling politics, radical social changes, and fervent sexual freedom. To develop this decadent atmosphere, Bertolucci adapts the historical backdrop during the May 1968 events in France.


During those years, the youth gained prominence in a dialectic of being beneficiaries of the growing consumer society, but facing strong subordination in conservative and elitist practices, both in values and politics. Subcultures emerged and new leftist political parties arose, also the rejection of the "plastic life" offered by the consumer market, the capitalist organization of the post-war era was born (Urriola, 2018). Matthew, a young American, travels to Paris as an exchange student, where he meets the siblings, Isabelle and Theo during a visit to the Cinematheque. As a result, he becomes immersed in a toxic relational trio that the Siamese siblings use as a plaything. One of the many games that the trio engages in revolves around the recreation of classic film scenes, or the participation in lengthy political, cultural, and philosophical discussions. The Dreamers is a tribute to cinema, it shows a lot of cinematic references to it, the characters live a fictional reality based on the cinema culture they have, is the essence of meta-cinema.


Figure 5: The famous race inside of the Museum Louvre in "The Dreamers" (Bertolucci, 2003).

The creation of The Dreamers was for Bertolucci the return to the youthful ideal of changing the world, an interaction between the political and the everyday, the relevance of sex, death, the theme of duality, and revolutionary utopia (Alberich, 1984, pp. 12-13). Undoubtedly it is one of the many films that marked an era filled with contradictions and messages. Bertolucci presents it as an ideal remembrance of the ways of understanding Jean-Luc Godard's cinema and the majestic revolutionary period of the Nouvelle Vague. Both Bande à Part by Godard and The Dreamers by Bertolucci aimed to convey a message to their viewers: to fight for ideals and recognize the power of art as a revolutionary weapon.



Bibliographical References

Alberich, E. (1984). Bernardo Bertolucci. Catedra Editorial.


Bertolucci, B. (2010). La mia magnifica ossessione, scritti, ricordi, interventi 1962-2010 [My magnificent obsession. Writings, memories 1962-2010]. (Francione F., Spila P. E. Eds). Garzanti.


Bertolucci, B. (2001). Je me serais fait tuer pour un plan de Godard [I would get myself killed for Godard's frame], in Cahiers du Cinéma, in Cahiers du Cinéma, n. 556. Retrieved June, 3 2023 from https://bernardobertolucci.org/resource/mi-sarei-fatto-uccidere-per-uninquadratura-di-godard/


Gilodi, R. (2007). Nouvelle Vague: Il cinema, la vita [Nouvelle vague: Cinema and life]. Effatà Editorial.


Godard, J.L. (2007). Historia(s) del cine [Stories of Cinema]. (A. Cangi, T. Pizarro, Trans.). Caja Negra Editorial.


Monaco, J. (1977). The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. Oxford University Press.


Rafael, U. (2018). A 50 años del mayo francés de 1968: I) El contexto social [50 years from May 1968: I) The social context]. El mostrador. Retrieved June 5, 2023 from https://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/opinion/2018/03/10/a-50-anos-del-mayo-frances-de-1968-i-el-contexto-social/


Revueltas, A. (1998). 1968: la Revolución de Mayo en Francia [1968: the May Revolution in France]. Sociológica, 13(38), 119-162. Retrieved June 5 2023 from https://www.redalyc.org/pdf/3050/305026670006.pdf


Romaguera i Ramió, J., & Alsina Thevenet, H. (1980). Fuentes y documentos del cine [Sources and documents of cinema]. Gustavo Gili.


Truffaut, F. (1985). The films in my life (L. Mayhew, Trans.). Simon & Schuster INC. (Original work published 1978)

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