Susan Sontag once admiringly described Jean-Luc Godard as a “deliberate ‘destroyer’ of cinema.” She could not have been more right. Godard’s films of the early 1960s were radical experiments challenging French cinema’s “Tradition of Quality” and Hollywood’s longtime conventionality. In a 1964 interview that is included on Criterion’s digital transfer of Godard’s Band of Outsiders, the director states it plainly: “This movie was made as a reaction against anything that wasn’t done… It went along with my desire to show that nothing was off limits.” Cinema had become too routine, and “the point of the New Wave was to go against that.”
This interview, recorded when he was filming Band of Outsiders, suggests Godard’s contradictions: he loved film so much that he felt compelled to attack it, as a critic for the influential French journal Cahiers Du Cinéma, and then reinvent it as one of the principal auteurs of the French New Wave.
Band of Outsiders is one such reinvention, a playful reworking of narrative form. Immediately drawing attention to his challenge to expectations, in the opening credits of the film, Godard gives himself the middle name “CINÉMA.” It’s a joke, referring to the New Wave’s rebelliousness. Here, the experiment involves combining generic elements in new ways. Band of Outsiders is about kids played by adults, a comedy, a tragedy, a buddy movie, a heist picture, a romance, an exercise in style, and a paean to B-movies and American gangster films. It is “pure cinema,” that is, pure invention, but at the same time, it’s a series of fanciful set pieces connected by a simple plotline.
This plotline focuses on Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), two friends who dress like gangsters and dream about a life of crime. They meet Odile (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife and star of seven of his pictures) in, of all places, an English class. She lives in a Parisian villa with her aunt, as well as a lodger, who has stashed away a large amount of cash. It’s easy to see where this is going—Franz and Arthur will coax Odile to rob her own house—but, then again, it’s not easy at all because Godard’s narrative is typically convoluted.
Instead of leading directly towards its ostensible end (the heist), Band of Outsiders sends its characters on seemingly random escapades: they drive through the wintry Parisian streets, run along broad boulevards, act out timeworn legends (such as Pat Garrett shooting Billy the Kid). They also smoke, drink Coca-Cola, ride the Metro, and run through the Louvre in an attempt to break a world record for the fastest visit. These adventures, widely imitated and celebrated, give the film a delicate charm, a veneer of spontaneity and risk.
At the same time, the movie offers a highbrow gloss on its lowbrow origins, paying homage to Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, U.S. cartoons, Charlie Chaplin, Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Jack London, Arthur Rimbaud, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, among others. Even Karina’s character has a literary source: Raymond Queneau’s roman à clef, Odile.
In keeping with this intellectual underpinning, the film also includes moments of reflection: Franz, Arthur, and Odile talk and talk. At one point, they sit in a café and, out of boredom, decide to observe one minute of silence: surprisingly, the entire film goes silent. And in another scene, the trio dances the Madison. The dance requires each to dance separately, without a partner, and Godard’s voice-over interrupts, describing the characters’ sense of detachment and loneliness. Franz underlines this sentiment later, when he ponders, “Isn’t it strange how people never seem to form a whole? They remain separate.”
Band of Outsiders repeatedly evokes such melancholy alongside its reverie (a mix that is common in New Wave films: think of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim). Its Paris is cold and dark, for the most part without the standard shots of historic landmarks and lovely neighborhoods. Raoul Coutard’s photography gives it a bold, stark look, intimating that Franz, Arthur, and Odile’s playfulness is prompted by their poverty and melancholy. Paris, and the loneliness it engenders, limits their dreams of escape to poorly conceived robberies and relationships.
Odile embodies such limitations in her meek, furtive gestures. When she observes, “People on the Metro always look so sad and lonely,” she’s really talking about herself. This becomes clear as she recites lines from Aragon’s Les poètes: “Misfortune only misfortune resembles / So deep, so deep, so deep / You long to believe in blue skies / It’s a feeling I know quite well.” As she speaks, we see several startlingly beautiful shots of sidewalk cafés, passers-by, city lights, before the camera closes in on her face, revealing her despair and radiance.
With such loving images, Band of Outsiders shows that Godard’s ostensible “destructiveness” is, more emphatically, a gift of creation. Its fragmentation and experimentation maintain a kind of wholeness, not by conventional linearity and causality, but by an emotional thread. In other words, Godard has made a new cinema out of pieces of the old.
Though adored by many critics and filmmakers, Band of Outsiders has long been available only on imperfect original or bootleg prints. This has only been recently rectified by a restored print and now, by Criterion’s release of this magnificently produced DVD. Images are crisp and well defined; Coutard’s black and white palette is perfectly sharp, with no apparent washout or bleeding. What is more, the DVD contains worthwhile features: the aforementioned interview with Godard, recent interviews with Coutard and Anna Karina, a visual glossary explaining the film’s cultural allusions, and New Wave director Agnes Varda’s silent comedy, Les Fiancés du Pont Macdonald. Originally a short film within Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962), this gem features Anna Karina, Sami Frey, and Godard himself as the lovelorn figure of the title.
Criterion has done a valuable service by making Band of Outsiders available. As an exhilarating challenge to familiar filmmaking, it stands alongside Breathless (1960), Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (1962), Masculin, féminin (1966), and Weekend (1967), as Godard’s finest work. Its greatest strength, though, lies in its expression of freedom and joy amidst urban misery.