"Franz thinks of everything and nothing. He wonders if the world is becoming a dream or if the dream is becoming the world."
In my review for Jean-Luc Godard's scathing 1960s satire, 'Weekend,' I expressed how some of the director's overtly analytical sensibilities can sometimes leave his films feeling a bit tedious and distant. With 'Band of Outsiders,' however, a few of those same tendencies go on to fuel a surprisingly playful spirit. Marked more by cinematic curiosity than critical disdain, the movie features a few standout sequences that radiate with delicate exuberance. An atypical gangster flick fueled by a precarious love triangle, the film is home to gleeful fits of breezy passion, cool indifference, and meta-fictional panache, oozing soul into every rhythm, beat, and free-flowing note of its jazzy style.
Arthur and Franz (Claude Brasseur & Sami Frey) are two small time crooks who become infatuated with a naïve young woman named Odile (Anna Karina). Odile is currently living with a wealthy family, and naturally the two thieves want to enlist her help to rip them off. After she reluctantly agrees to their plan, the trio plots a heist while Arthur and Franz both continue to compete for Odile's affections. But when it's finally time to go through with the robbery, things don't go exactly as planned, leading to a few dangerous snags that bring the threesome's love triangle to a head.
Brasseur and Frey are both solid in their roles as petty thieves, with the former taking on a more aggressive persona and the latter filling in as a more sensitive alternative. With that said, neither really leaves that big of an impression, placing most of the heavy lifting on Anna Karina's shoulders. Thankfully, Godard's frequent muse (and ex-wife) is very much up to the task. Wide-eyed, simple, innocent, and inexperienced, Odile is clearly in over her head. Karina brings just the right amount of childlike naivety and enthusiasm to the role, wavering between a frequent expression of coy excitement and distressed worry. She's simultaneously drawn to Arthur's brash, bad-boy attitude and made at ease under Franz's gentler demeanor. Torn between her attraction to both men, her desire to break away from the monotony of her life, and her loyalty to the very people she plans to rob, the character finds herself in quite the conundrum, and Karina clearly wears all of Odile's dueling burdens and delights across her face.
Distorting and discarding many gangster flick conventions, the thin narrative focuses more on diversions and asides than typical dramatic beats. Arthur and Franz are far from professional criminals, and instead the two seem to have picked up everything they know about crime from old films and B-movies. The majority of the loosely structured script doesn't even focus on their illicit activities, and instead much of the runtime is dedicated to the preamble of their heist, focusing on the downtime between their plotting where they each attempt to woo Odile. Some of these courting scenes are filled with a surprisingly sentimental air, though the director never loses sight of a certain cynical edge that remains layered beneath the bittersweet romanticism. When the robbery does finally occur in the third act, Godard once again subverts expectations, mixing traditional, sensationalized aspects of silver screen heists with something much more ordinary, problematic, bumbling, and even a bit brutal -- heavily inspiring many contemporary filmmakers like Tarantino.
Filled with numerous quotations and references to other works, Godard infuses the movie with a series of allusions to books, films, plays, and aspects of culture and society that he finds interesting. The story itself is based on an American novel, "Fool's Gold," but its influences extend much further than that, paraphrasing individual lines of dialogue or narration and even certain scenarios and actions from a multitude of varied sources, including Charlie Chaplin, Francois Truffaut, and Shakespeare. Rather than merely throw these citations randomly at the screen, Godard recontextualizes these bits into something new, using fleeting pieces of other mediums or past films to create something wholly unique and cinematic (a tactic many later directors would go on to repeat using elements of Godard's own movies).
In the included special features, the director discusses his attempts to break some of the so-called rules of filmmaking, and while his methods here aren't quite as overt as in some of his other efforts, that's still precisely what he does. Standard coverage is mostly avoided in favor of extended shots with deliberate cuts, and sporadic flashes of unabashed formalism are infused into every aspect of the production. Likewise, a jazzy air of handheld camera work and panning shots also help to enhance the cinematically rebellious aesthetic. Though the film predominantly uses natural lighting and real locations, Godard isn't content to simply let his images and scenarios mirror the cadence of reality. Instead, the director occasionally uses the movie's form to draw attention to the film's existence as a piece of cinema, sprinkling in a few meta-fictional techniques and observations. An omniscient voice over narration (provided by Godard himself) furthers this self referential layer, keeping the line between cinema and reality in a constant state of flux.
These stylistic sensibilities all come to a head in the film's most famous and celebrated scene -- the Madison Dance sequence. While Arthur, Franz, and Odile hash out their robbery, they take a momentary break from scheming to hit the dance floor in a café. What follows is a single continuous shot of the trio enacting a choreographed dance number where they all individually dance in unison with one another. As they move about the room, the music will periodically cut out, giving way to Godard's voice over narration which succinctly describes the characters' inner thoughts. The whole scenario is playful, poetic, silly, odd, and unnaturally hip all at once, creating an iconic instance of pure, unfiltered cinema. Other sequences throughout the film follow suit as well, including a literal moment of silence where the entire sound mix cuts out from the movie, and an energetic speed run through the Louvre, bringing a few bursts of joyful excitement and self-aware wit to the film's memorable images.
While many of Godard's films feature explicitly formalistic touches, these analytical flourishes are often tinged in a scornful malaise of discontent for the medium. But with 'Band of Outsiders,' these aspects take on a far less disdainful air. Though it might not have the heady, intellectual content or copious cinematic experimentation as some of his other efforts, the film does have something a few of the director's works lack: an incandescent spark of life. It's buried underneath a bit of wry detachment, mind you, but there is a genuine expression of filmic passion here -- a sense that rules can be broken and mediums can be pushed, not just with condemnation, but also with affection. The film is distant but spirited, tender but still cynical, dry but oddly heartfelt, and all while being effortlessly cool. It's often regarded as one of Godard's most accessible films, and it surely is, but that doesn't mean that it's dumbed-down or diluted. A perfect introduction (along with 'Breathless') to the director's work, it's an enduring and highly influential piece of French New Wave moviemaking -- one that blurs realism and post-modern style into a perpetually dancing celluloid dream.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'Band of Outsiders' in their standard clear case with spine number 174. The BD-50 Region A disc comes packaged with a booklet featuring an essay by critic and poet Joshua Clover, character descriptions written by Godard, and a 1964 interview with the filmmaker.
Sourced from Gaumont's 2010 restoration, the movie is provided with a black and white 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Faithful and nicely detailed, this is a strong video presentation with only a few minor issues.
The print is in very nice shape, but there are some negligible specks visible here and there. A moderate layer of grain is apparent throughout giving the picture some nice filmic texture. With that said, there is a fleeting shot or two where the grain looks static, particularly the ending scene. While the video can be on the softer side, clarity is solid, exposing nice fine details in clothing patterns and faces. The grayscale is well balanced with bright, but not blooming whites. Blacks levels are also good, but there are a few instances in nighttime scenes where blacks appear darker on the right side of the screen and slightly faded on the left.
'Band of Outsiders' isn't quite perfect on Blu-ray, but the resulting image is certainly strong, giving the film a respectful digital transfer.
The audio is presented in a French LPCM mono track with optional English subtitles. There are some inherent limitations to the source material, but the modest mix is solid.
Speech and narration are relatively clear, though some dialogue does have a comparatively thin, faintly muffled quality. Michel Legrand's jazzy score comes through well, but high frequencies can strain slightly leading to some very minor peaking in both music and dialogue. Ambient sounds like traffic or background TVs and radios all add some authentic atmosphere to the film, and the single channel of audio is well balanced. Thankfully, I detected no major signs of crackle, pops, or hissing.
The track is clearly a product of its time, but the sound design serves the movie well, with no major technical problems.
Criterion has put together a relatively small but worthwhile collection of supplements, including interviews and a short film. All of the special features are presented in upscaled 1080i with French Dolby Digital 1.0 audio and optional English subtitles (unless noted otherwise).
Though it's one of his simpler films, 'Band of Outsiders' is also one of Jean-Luc Godard's most spirited and enjoyable efforts. Filled with potent stylistic bursts, cinematic experimentation, and sometimes exuberant images, the movie is a great example of French New Wave filmmaking. The video transfer has been restored nicely, offering viewers a faithful and respectful image. There are some inherent limitations to the original recordings, but the audio is still very solid. Criterion has provided a worthwhile collection of supplements including some interesting interviews. This is an easy recommendation for any fan of classic world cinema, and even those who usually dislike the director's style should definitely consider giving this disc a shot.