Band of Outsiders (1964)

I just picked up the blu-ray for Godard’s Alphaville and realized I had a few reviews of his films from back in the day.  This review originally appeared on Celluloid Moon about 11 years ago, but in anticipation of writing up Alphaville I happily present this (and a few others) for your reading pleasure on Cinema Dual!

It’s strange, but until watching Band of Outsiders my only exposure to Jean-Luc Godard was Breathless (reviewed here) almost eight months earlier.  Kind of a long wait between films, especially after the wonderful taste Breathless left in my mouth, but that wait may have made my feelings toward Band of Outsiders a little sweeter than they would have been otherwise.

Coming four years after his debut, and off of his first real flop (Les Carabiners), Band of Outsiders feels like the younger, more accessible brother to Breathless – an exuberant movie about youth and crime, embracing everything Godard loves about the classic American cinema of the 30s and 40s while at the same time continuing the cues and tricks that signaled the French New Wave was not a flash in the pan movement. The “jump-cutting” isn’t the presence it was in his debut (I’m hard pressed now, only a day later, to recall any in fact), but Godard, again relying on cinematographer Raoul Coutard to shoot in a lovely, natural documentary feel, inserts his references in other, oftentimes more subtle ways. Lines of dialog, characters names, even the credits are lovingly crafted from his influences and friends at the time.

Godard’s “outsiders” are Franz, Arthur, and the beautiful innocent Odile, who all meet in an English Language class. Franz and Arthur are two sides of the same coin: Franz is always thinking, always looking inward and debating, while for Arthur there is only the moment, the black and white of his wants and desires. They dream of the outlaw life: would-be gangsters on the lookout for a big score, mimicking the gunfights of Billy the Kids and wanting to go away to someplace, anyplace more exotic than where they are now. Odile, played by Godard’s wife Anna Karina, is the shy flower, living with her aunt and a lodger, Mr. Stolz. She’s the image of young beauty, trying to prove she’s worldly and knowledgeable even as she betrays her naivete when asked to show that she knows how to kiss:

The basic plot is that these three come together when Odile lets slip that the lodger who stays with her and her aunt, a Mr, Stolz, has a bureau filled with money. Arthur is determined to steal the money with Franz and Odile’s help. Things get complicated as Odile begins to regret throwing her lot in with Arthur, and the film moves along to its perhaps inevitable conclusion with a shootout, the band torn apart, and the inklings of a new life and a continuing story. But simply following the plot isn’t what Godard intended, and indeed Band of Outsiders works best as a series of wonderful diversions, rather than anything so serious as a crime film. So much of it has become the stuff of film legend, starting with the “Madison” sequence, which starts with the “Moment of Silence” – the sound is completely cut off as the three attempt (unsuccessfully, it turns out) to observe a moment of silence. But then we get to the famous dance sequence, where the entire world seems to stop as Odile, Franz and Arthur dance:

The music swells and cuts as the narrator (Godard) provides insight into the heart of each person. It’s a lovely scene, at odds with what we think the movie’s supposed to be about: why would three would-be thieves stop to dance? Ask Quentin Tarantino, who does the same thing in Pulp Fiction and whose production company is called Band Apart which, incidentally, is the French title (spelled slightly different) for Band of Outsiders.

And then there’s the run through the Louvre. I think this moment, more than the Madison sequence, speaks to the unrestrained joy that Godard and others in the French New Wave were able to capture so delicately, timeless no matter when you see it:

Looking through the scenes again, I can’t help but again comment on how spectacular Band of Outsiders looks. Shooting on location, Coutard manages to convey a look that is both immediate in its realism and still maintain a sense of the unreal that lets you slip away into the fiction of the story. It’s a aesthetic shared by his contemporaries, and it never fails to fill me with wonder whenever I see it done with this level of care and craft, like in BREATHLESS, and the films of Françios Truffaut and, over on our side of the pond, Nicholas Ray.

It may not have the impact and sense of importance that its older brother does, but Band of Outsiders is still a treasure of a film, taken on whatever level you wish to bring to it.  Criterion’s release is excellent (as expected), and if you have a chance to watch it be sure to also check out the visual glossary, which goes through the film scene by scene, commenting on the various inside references and jokes Godard made a habit of inserting in his films.

I have an inkling my next Godard film is going to come a lot quicker than eight months…


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