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Band of Outsiders



Gangsters Dancing the Madison
Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders

In 1964, Jean-Luc Godard made an entertaining little film about two would-be gangsters who plot to steal money from a girlfriend’s villa. Shot modestly in black and white the year after his big-budget, CinemaScope Contempt appeared, Godard’s Band of Outsiders feels jarringly quaint today—and therein lies its considerable charm, I think.

The two ‘gangsters’ (Franz and Arthur) boyishly tear around Paris in a beat-up sports car and play-act Billy the Kid’s death-by-gunfire as if they were kids in a friend’s backyard. In an English class, they pass notes, make childish faces and defy their teacher with harmless adolescent gestures. Odile, the timid girlfriend underplayed brilliantly by Anna Karina in a schoolgirl’s plaid skirt and knee socks, goes along with the robbery scheme largely because she has fallen in love with Arthur (she starts the film as Franz’s boyfriend). Even the robbery itself seems hopelessly, even comically, naïve.

Band of Outsiders was adapted from an American novel that was a part of the same Série Noire publications that produced the source material for François Truffaut’s own gangster film, Shoot the Piano Player. But as is often the case with Godard, Band of Outsiders’s seemingly straightforward noir / love triangle plot is in many ways simply a springboard for his wide-ranging cultural explorations. In fact, the references are so numerous that the film sometimes feels like its storyline exists simply to hold the allusions together. From Rimbaud to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, from T.S. Eliot to Charlie Chaplin, Band of Outsiders’s allusions could hog-tie a graduate seminar for a week—and that’s assuming they skip over the film’s fleeting (and now stunningly obscure) references to a French furniture ad campaign (“Bravo, Mr. Segot. That’s real furniture!”) and a French drugstore chain. (The reference to Hanna Barbera’s cartoon character Loopy de Loop should prove easier.)

Some of the references are legitimately relevant to the film’s thematic interests. (The multiple references to former surrealist Raymond Queneau’s novel Odile are particularly important.) Others are simply the unavoidable, stream-of-consciousness riffs of an improvisatory artist intensely preoccupied with exploring common ground between high and low cultures. Sami Frey’s character, for example, is named Franz because Godard thought the actor looked remarkably similar to Franz Kafka. (He does.) Thematically, it doesn’t add anything to the film, but it nicely underlines Godard’s fluid, associative concept of filmmaking. At their most extreme, Godard’s references can become hysterically—if unintentionally—funny: he once called Truffaut “the Ursula Andress of political militancy.” Who else but Godard could come up with such a phrase? In Band of Outsiders, though, he manages to tuck his allusions—numerous as they are—into the story so they don’t stick out so jarringly.

Band of Outsiders likewise draws from Godard’s standard bag of cinematic tricks without inordinately disturbing the film’s narrative flow. As Godard aficionados would expect, for instance, the soundtrack often stops abruptly mid-phrase rather than fade out (as, say, Truffaut might have it do; Godard doesn’t want us to forget we’re watching a film, not ‘real life’). He follows a similar tactic when the trio delightfully dances the Madison: the music periodically stops so the narrator (Godard himself) can describe the characters’ thoughts. Ironically, as spontaneous as the one-take scene feels, Anna Karina reports in a 2002 interview recorded for the new Criterion DVD release of Band of Outsiders that it was the result of two or three weeks’ worth of rehearsals. But its fresh, playfully exuberant quality contrasts favorably with the rather stilted—if vaunted—dance scene in Pulp Fiction.

That’s not to say that the film is entirely clear at first glance—or second. As Raoul Coutard, the film’s cinemaphotographer, reports in an informative interview included on the Criterion DVD, French films of the period were expected to be a certain length, and when he found Band of Outsiders was running short, Godard simply filmed his actors reading newspapers aloud and padded the running time a bit. So much for finding profundities behind Godard’s obscure devices.

Nonetheless, the frequently annoying indulgences for which Godard is known are joyously missing in Band of Outsiders. In fact, the film’s tone is so gentle and charming that casual viewers might be surprised at Godard’s subversive intentions. In a short excerpt from a 1964 interview included on the Criterion DVD, Godard declared that


This film was made as a reaction to anything that wasn’t done. It was almost pathological or systematic. “A wide-angle lens isn’t used for close-ups? Then let’s do it.” “A handheld camera isn’t used for tracking shots? Then let’s do it.” It went along with my desire to show that nothing was off-limits. An Inquisition-like regime ruled over French cinema. Everything was compartmentalized. It was difficult for anyone younger than forty or fifty to make any inroads. There were taboos and laws, and I wanted to show that it all meant nothing. The rules meant something when they were first invented, but when people began to merely copy them, it’s like I always say—When Carné made Port of Shadows, he made a great film because it reflected his era. He was twenty-nine years old at the time. It’s a great film. But with Les Tricheurs he made a bad movie. He was imitating, following the routine, without the inventiveness of before. The point of the New Wave was to go against that.


Happily, Godard’s revolutionary efforts in Band of Outsiders are quietly subversive, and the film should be particularly appealing to those cinephiles who find Godard’s standard fare too alienating for their tastes. I defy anyone to keep a straight face while watching the trio try to break the record for the fastest tour through the Louvre. Taken at a sprint and seeming to take the guards and other visitors by surprise, the actors laugh and slide with all the exuberance the early New Wave movement could evoke. Heady, impenetrable political films may have lain only a few years off for Godard, but Band of Outsiders is a delightful little time capsule.

—Review by Charlie Onion


Special Features of the Criterion DVD

• New high-definition digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Raoul Coutard

• Visual glossary of references and wordplay found throughout Band of Outsiders

• Interview excerpts with director Jean-Luc Godard and rare behind-the-scenes footage of Band of Outsiders from the 1964 documentary La Nouvelle Vague par elle-meme

• Exclusive interviews with Raoul Coutard and actress Anna Karina

Agnes Varda’s silent comedy Les Fiancés du Pont Mac Donald, featuring Godard and members of the cast of Band of Outsiders

• Two theatrical trailers, including Godard’s original

• Sixteen-page booklet including an essay by poet Joshua Clover, character descriptions by Godard and a reprinted 1964 interview with the director

• New and improved English subtitle translation



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