Band of Outsiders

92/100

For the casual observer, Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders may as well be titled The Eyes of Anna Karina. The famously radical director’s follow-up to the hit film Contempt isn’t a favourite of American movie buffs for its politics or its thematic rigour. Instead, it’s a veritable spoof of film noir–at times a near-farce–involving a couple of small-time schemers who take their cues from Hollywood. Though Band of Outsiders is thought of as one of Godard’s most accessible works, it’s also one of his most dissonant. It’s a gritty crime drama wrapped around a light romance; a breezy comedy shot through with intimations of the geopolitical landscape of the 1960s; an homage to U.S. culture that incidentally imagines the decline of the American empire. In Godard’s body of work, Band of Outsiders–its story based on a novel by American mystery writer Dolores Hitchens–can be read as the connective tissue between the bones of Breathless, which is full of loving references to American cinema and pulp fiction, and the later Weekend and Tout va bien, which are explicitly critical of western culture in general and capitalism in particular.


What endures in the popular imagination is the movie’s erotic energy. Franz and Arthur press Odile, a lovely but naïve Parisian English student, into service to assist in a small-time heist (a burglary, really), but matters are complicated when the would-be gangsters fall in love with the girl. The opening passages have a denseness of plot that Godard himself mocks just a few minutes into the film as he recounts the set-up, in laconic voiceover, “for latecomers.” Basically, Odile (Anna Karina) has for some reason mentioned to her English classmate Franz (Sami Frey) that a lodger at the villa in the suburb of Joinville–where she lives with her aunt, Madame Victoria (Louisa Colpeyn)–has a sizable stash of cash. Franz clues his shadier buddy, Arthur, in on the deal, and wheels start turning. Franz and Arthur plan to steal the dough from the lodger, and Arthur plans to steal Odile from Franz. Odile is a magnetic beauty who disclaims any interest in the cinema or the theatre in favor of nature; Arthur is a bully who becomes her lover. And largely, in all this, Franz turns out to be a bystander.

The love triangle is a time-honoured narrative tradition, of course, but Band of Outsiders still feels a bit like Godard’s answer to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. (Godard all but name-checks his buddy Truffaut, describing Odile’s “soft skin” in his voiceover as a reference to Truffaut’s then-current release.) But where Jules and Jim is lyrical and transporting, Band of Outsiders is more grounded in drab realities. Godard avoids picture-postcard locations, shooting in southeastern Paris and its less-romantic suburbs. In the very first conversation between Arthur and Franz, as they case the house, Franz is complaining of his unemployment. When the English teacher (Danièle Girard, giving a marvellous and subtly comic supporting performance) asks Arthur why he wears his heavy coat to class, he responds, “Everything’s at the cleaners and I don’t have any money.” Later, he complains: “It’s impossible to get anywhere.”

These cats are down and out. They may not be desperate, yet, but they have big dreams of easy money–not to mention intimations of mortality. In that same introductory scene, Arthur brings up Billy the Kid, and Franz, instinctively assuming the Pat Garrett role, shoots him dead on the street with a thumb-and-fingertip revolver. It’s here that Godard invites viewers to read more into the film than quite meets the eye–the scene transparently foreshadows tragedy to come, implying that Godard means to criticize the duo’s avaricious infatuation with western pop legends. But are these two victims of American cultural imperialism, starstruck naiveté, or their own mercenary ideals?

Global politics are present here, but muted. One scene depicts Franz and Arthur reading newspaper stories aloud–miniature crime dramas marked by jealous rage and premeditated murder. When Franz stumbles across a more comprehensively disturbing story about genocide in Rwanda, including a report that “Rwanda’s rivers are choked with the bodies of 20,000 victims,” his intonation suggests he considers that atrocity just another crime of passion. Like the earlier play-acted shoot-out in the streets of Joinville, this scene could be said to ominously prefigure the burst of violence at the end of the picture, except that the characters seem so utterly unperturbed. At another point, Franz is said to have dropped out of English class with plans to enrol in Chinese, since “England is done for and it’s the Chinese who’ll win”–a decision that seems prescient of Godard’s own 1967 film La chinoise, about Maoist student activists in Paris.

A little later on, Franz, Arthur, and Odile mark time before their burglary by dashing headlong through the Louvre. This may be the most famous scene in Band of Outsiders–indeed, it’s one of the most remarked-upon in Godard’s entire oeuvre–because their unconventional approach suggests a prankishness and youthful joie de vivre. Yet there are two levels to the joke about their gleeful irreverence: Franz proposes the adventure only because he had read about an American (of course) who made it through in under ten minutes, which must be Godard’s jab at Americans’ behaviour abroad. And then, even as the trio sprints through the museum, we can clearly see them shooting glances at the paintings, taking in the statuary racing by, as if mere seconds might be all that are required to digest those great works of art. Their accomplishment–reducing culture to the basest form of consumerism–is dubious at best and myopic at worst. It’s their unthinking hubris that leads to the picture’s conclusion, when their underbaked robbery attempt goes almost comically wrong, marked by a double-cross, an apparent accidental homicide, and a highly theatrical death scene that take place within a few minutes of screen time. It’s a comeuppance for Franz and Arthur–and Odile, too, who is implicated as their reluctant accomplice.

But Band of Outsiders is at its liveliest in the long duration between the hatching of the plan and its execution, as the two men vie for a place in Odile’s heart and bed. The mere presence of Odile in a shot–sweet, naïve Odile, a fruit ripe for the plucking–all but hijacks the movie. (“She’s not all there,” Arthur shrugs at one point.) Odile may be an incurious naïf, but Godard loves her–and not simply because she’s played by his wife and muse. Her eyes are incredibly expressive in this film, conveying mostly curiosity, fear, and apprehension. There are times when Godard encourages the audience to identify with Odile in the same way that horror directors foster sympathy with slasher victims. In conspiracy with the great French New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Godard makes great use of negative space, consistently composing the image to dwarf Karina and somehow corner her in the frame, as if she wishes she could disappear into the walls she leans against.

Early on, Odile confides to Arthur that, although Madame Victoria wanted her to be a nurse, she didn’t have the heart or stomach to work in a hospital. Arthur offers this rejoinder: In her position, he would have found a wealthy patient and treated him well, all the while ushering him towards death’s dark doorway with the expectation of inheriting the old man’s estate. Odile recoils from his calculations, stepping into the next room and closing the door on Arthur. He pushes through, and she shrinks away from the camera, into a closed-in little alcove. Again, he pushes towards her. There’s a moment in this shot where Karina draws on her cigarette and glances directly at the camera. It feels like a flub, and it might seem odd that Godard selected that take. Then again, he wasn’t big on multiple takes; the unpolished performances and imperfections that other directors may have rejected are part of what gives his films their flavour. It does play as a fetching nervous tic, with the actress’s glance towards her director somehow signalling the character’s general lack of confidence, or self-consciousness. It’s an extraordinary shot at any rate, nearly three minutes in length. It’s interrupted at the one-minute mark by Franz’s clueless passage through a scene of fairly intense flirtation that climaxes with Odile presenting herself, comically open-mouthed, to Arthur, who descends on her for a kiss like a vampire sinking his fangs into a nubile teenager.

Godard’s voiceover throughout, which lapses regularly into poetry (some of it borrowed from Arthur Rimbaud, the namesake for the character in the film), is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, another new wave landmark. (Godard would make his own unconventional venture into sci-fi a year later with Alphaville.) They don’t have much in common otherwise, but Godard’s soft voice gives the movie an elegiac and even lyrical feel that isn’t evident in the visuals. Written and recorded after everything was shot, the narration has the unusual feeling of an artist commenting on his own work. And that’s another level of dissonance: Band of Outsiders without Godard’s narration versus Band of Outsiders with it–what we see on screen versus the image Godard conjures in the mind. When Arthur and Odile take the subway at the Place de Clichy, Godard sees it this way: “They went down into the centre of the earth.” At the conclusion, he describes the sea as resembling a theatre where the horizon is the stage and beyond it is nothing but sky–a definitively happy ending, maybe? But then he immediately undermines the pretty picture with the glib and empty promise of a sequel in CinemaScope and Technicolor.

If that’s a downer, it’s more than balanced by tour de force scenes like the ones Godard deploys, apparently effortlessly, in a long sequence at the movie’s midpoint where the trio of protagonists converse in fits and starts over drinks at a café. Odile’s trip to the (apparently unisex) restroom, where a woman is reading from a magazine article and applying eye make-up as a man urges her to hurry it up already (before propositioning Odile for a three-way), is underscored with a song from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg written by Michel Legrand, who also scored this film. Outside, as conversation grows awkward, Franz suggests a minute of silence, and the audio obediently goes dead for just under 40 seconds. (Franz gets impatient and cuts it short.)

Less than a minute later, Odile and Arthur are pantomiming Chaplin’s sad little finger-dance from The Gold Rush, then claiming the middle of the restaurant as a dance floor, where Frank rejoins them for a phenomenal coup de cinema as they do the Madison. Legrand’s jaunty soundtrack drops out abruptly, though the rhythmic clamour of snapping fingers and stomping feet remains as Godard announces, “Now is the time for a digression in which to describe our heroes’ feelings.” And we learn that Arthur watches Odile’s feet but thinks about her kisses. That Odile hopes the boys notice her breasts pressing through her sweater. That Franz thinks generally deep thoughts of the sort that fail to get one laid. Time stands still. The three of them move in effortless, if imperfect, sympathy.

If you were pressed to offer proof positive that Godard was a major filmmaker in five minutes or less, you could do it by screening the Madison. Justly famous, it’s one of the most audacious and magnificent scenes ever committed to film. It’s spectacular, like that transporting, boggling shot from 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her… where Godard seems to capture the whole universe in a coffee cup, a scene whose text and subtext are everything and nothing in equal measure. Crowd-pleasing? Yes. Myopic? Hardly. Despite the movie’s slyly mixed messages and apparent contradictions, not to mention its prescient hints of the coming upheaval in 1968, Godard’s dancing fools are, here and forever, avatars of cool. They are young and they are beautiful, and, like the great works in the Louvre, they’ll live forever.

THE BLU-RAY DISC

It feels odd to see the Columbia Pictures logo in front of Band of Outsiders–in today’s Hollywood, the opening-credits sequence alone, what with its potentially seizure-inducing (eight times every second) cuts between close-ups of the three lead actors, would be seen as utterly insane. The Criterion Collection logo, however, seems a perfect fit, and this new Blu-ray represents a state-of-the-art overhaul of the company’s 2003 DVD. That original release was created from a then-new HD master–supervised by cinematographer Raoul Coutard himself–scanned by Criterion from a 35mm duplicate negative. The master might have been OK, but the DVD picture suffered from an abundance of edge enhancement, creating strong halos that interacted poorly with the heavy film grain to create MPEG-2 mosquito artifacts. The new transfer was scanned by Gaumont in 2010 from a 35mm composite fine-grain master, presumably a single generation removed from the camera negative, with a finer layer of grain than the dupe negative. Criterion’s new transfer is predictably gorgeous, featuring strong black levels, wide dynamic range, and none of those pesky halos from the DVD. The image is also much more stable this time around (though a hint of gate weave remains, the DVD was noticeably shakier), with many fewer visible instances of print damage in the way of dirt and scratches. The improvement to the audio is almost as dramatic, a richness of sound apparent in this disc’s uncompressed PCM track that was missing from the DVD’s thinner, treble-heavy Dolby Digital track. The soundtrack is lively, mixing location recording with studio overdubs for a sound that fits well with the neorealist-inflected spirit of the nouvelle vague.

Extras pretty much duplicate what was on the DVD–no extra effort was put into the Blu-ray upgrade. An 18-minute “visual glossary” is a helpful compendium of references, allusions, and other borrowings made by Godard over the course of the film. (How else are you supposed to understand what the hell it means when Franz responds to comments from an apparent stranger with “Bravo, Mr. Segalot–that’s real furniture”?) It’s accompanied by video clips in standard definition. The DVD version had a nice interactive interface where you could navigate the glossary by browsing and clicking thumbnail images, but the BD has only a plain-text list of chapters formatted to fit the Criterion Blu-ray template. Just over five minutes in length, “Godard, 1964” is a fascinating set of clips from the documentary La nouvelle vague par elle-même in which the director speaks for himself, and avows his desire to break the rules of filmmaking set–and sometimes slavishly adhered to–by the generations who came before him. It’s been upconverted to 1080i.

The arguable centerpiece of the disc is the interview with Anna Karina herself (18 mins., 1080i), wherein she describes her effort to create the character of Odile. “We started with an outdated hairdo and not too much makeup,” she recalls. On Godard’s directorial style, she notes that he considered it an insult if his actors didn’t attend dailies screenings, and says he wasn’t much for coverage, or even retakes–almost everything that he shot ended up in the film. She even tells a good story about DP Coutard and how he helped salvage a difficult sync-sound shot in Pierrot le fou after Godard appeared to have all but given up. The woman is terrifically entertaining, and her presence here is genuinely moving. Coutard lacks her movie-star good looks, but he hangs around for about 11 minutes in his own interview segment (1080i), in which he talks about how his experience as a war photographer prepared him for the shooting style of the New Wave masters. A key problem was Godard’s desire to capture picture in a handheld shooting style with synchronized sound, since cameras that could record in sync tended to weigh 100 pounds or more. According to Coutard, the three-wheeled “western dolly” was invented to solve this problem on Band of Outsiders, allowing a 220-pound camera rig to pan back and forth unsteadily, as though it were being balanced on a camera operator’s shoulder.

“Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald” (3 mins., 1080i) is a delightful short film in the style of a silent comedy, starring Karina and Godard themselves, that originally appeared in Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, also part of the Criterion Collection. (It made me wonder for a moment if I had ever before seen Godard without eyeglasses on.) Additionally featured is an HD transfer of Godard’s original theatrical trailer for Band of Outsiders (1:53) along with — for some reason — a slightly longer presentation of the very same trailer (with titles added at head and tail) as it appeared to promote a Rialto Pictures reissue in 2001.

Of course, Criterion does liner notes as well as anyone in the business, and these constitute arguably the meatiest extras. Again, they reproduce the contents of the booklet for the old DVD release: “Madison-sur-Seine,” an excellent essay by critic Joshua Clover; “The Characters According to Godard,” helpful excerpts from the director’s notes on the film’s three main characters as they appeared in the original press book; and “No Questions Asked,” a Godard interview by critic Jean Collet that touches on many of the picture’s quotations from other media, Godard’s filmmaking style, and his ultimate understanding of the characters. “The characters…don’t know how to discuss,” he says. “They have the mentality neither of thieves nor of capitalists. They’re like animals.” All told, this fairly streamlined package does a commendable job of contextualizing Band of Outsiders in ways that aren’t always obvious, even to the movie’s sizable fanbase.

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