Reviews

Effortlessly Cool and Youthful: 'Band of Outsiders'

While Band of Outsiders is less frequently canonized than certain of Godard's other works, it can still rightfully be read as a touchstone in the development of film form and cinema history.


Band of Outsiders (Bande à part)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Anna Karina, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: NR
Year: 1964
Release date: 2013-05-07

Ever since Blu-ray emerged as the most viable successor to the DVD, the folks at the Criterion Collection have been selecting titles for re-release in the new format. Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders is one of the latest to get this treatment.

Forty-nine years after its initial release, Band of Outsiders still looks and feels effortlessly cool and youthful. While I do not subscribe to the commonly held critical notion that sad and dark is more "real" than happy and light, there is little question that Band of Outsiders is elevated by showing its protagonists, Odile (Anna Karina), Franz (Sami Frey), and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and their milieu, mid-20th century Paris and its inner-suburbs, in states of listlessness and melancholy as well as being stylish and fun.

Indeed, one of the more interesting observations I have about the film from this most recent viewing is how Godard and cinematographer Raoul Cotard show Paris as an ordinary city, rather than as the icon of romance that dominates its image in mainstream Hollywood movies.

The establishing shots of Paris eschew the usual central city landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, in favor of a nondescript intersection and river crossing in the inner suburbs. Opening with a high angle, long shot of traffic at the crossing/intersection, it's only when Franz and Arthur appear in their convertible that anything of interest comes into view. The consistent use of deep focus flattens the images of the Paris cityscape, furthering the impression of a mundane, rather than extraordinary, city.

The point here is not that Paris isn't a romantic, fantastical place, but rather that the city is also where people actually live and grow up, work at boring jobs, and struggle to figure out who they are and where they belong, which is a struggle enacted by Odile, Franz, and Arthur.

In this quest for the selfhood, Franz and Arthur look to American pop culture for escape from their everyday, re-enacting scenes from US history and mythology, taking inspiration from American genre fiction, and scripting a plot to score some fast cash that is straight out of a Hollywood caper. Arthur in particular exudes "rebel without a cause", while Franz, in his fedora, suits and ties, affects the look of an American gangster.

Odile seems less preoccupied by such things, at one point she tells her Aunt Victoria (Louisa Colpeyn) that she, "hates the cinema", but she is also shown taking English at a local school, ordering Coca Cola, and, now famously, doing "The Madison" with Franz and Arthur.

Clearly for these French youth, and for Godard, America, and not so much Paris, was the romantic place, or at least America as imagined through its stories and heroic archetypes. In addition to the cultural fixations of its characters, whenever the movie wants to convey a sense of whimsy or coolness, Michel Legrande's jazzy musical soundtrack erupts to accompany the action. And yet, the way that Arthur and Franz's Hollywood plot plays out, the emptiness of their fantasies, suggests that there are severe limits to utopian ideals about distant, and all too real, places.

While Band of Outsiders is less frequently canonized than certain of Godard's other works, notably the similarly Hollywood and pop culture-inflected Breathless (1960), the film can still rightfully be read as a touchstone in the development of film form and cinema history. Anyone with an interest in movies with artistic and expressive ambition will find the film gratifying to watch.

Beyond the question of the film itself, its release on Criterion Blu-ray also raises more specific questions, notably:

  • If I own the DVD, should I buy the Blu-ray?

  • If I want to watch Band of Outsiders for the first time, or re-watch, should I seek out the new edition?

  • If I want to buy the film to add to my home collection, should it be the Blu-ray or the DVD, or, put another way, is the Blu-ray worth the extra $8.00 (the discs are currently listed at the Criterion store at $23.96 and $31.96, respectively)?


After comparing the two versions, my answers to these questions are, in order: probably not, maybe and maybe.

The Blu-ray image is noticeably sharper and clearer, and, I think, marginally brighter, than the DVD. In addition, The Blu-ray edition was made from a 2010 restoration, and lacks certain film print artifacts, such as lines and scratches, that are visible on the DVD.

At the same time, the Blu-ray image is also noticeably grainier than the DVD. An argument can also be made that the comparatively "muddy" and "flawed" DVD offers an image that more closely approximates actual film.

These judgments are highly relative. In the absence of the Blu-ray, I doubt I would be making much note of any problems with the DVD image, and in the absence of the DVD, I doubt I would remark on any impression of coldness in the Blu-ray. Indeed, in his review of the DVD for PopMatters, Michael S. Smith makes particular note of the image as, "crisp and well defined; [cinematographer Raoul] Coutard’s black and white palette is perfectly sharp, with no apparent washout or bleeding" (see DVDs: "Band of Outsiders [Bande à part] [1964], 28 February 2003). Criterion has built its reputation on taking care of the titles in their catalog, and that shows in relative qualities of their two versions of this film.

The careful treatment of titles extends to the extra features, which are rarely incidental or perfunctory on a Criterion disc. This is true here, but one of the reasons for answering, "probably not" to the question of whether current owners of the DVD should buy the Blu-ray, is that the extras are essentially the same in both versions. They include: interviews, a catalog of cultural references, documentary features, an Agnès Varda short film featuring the cast of Band of Outsiders, trailers, and a booklet with a critical essay by Joshua Clover, Godard's character descriptions, and another interview. Each of these is interesting, but, aside from the new transfer and format, nothing of note is different between the two editions.

One could reasonably prefer either the DVD or the Blu-ray; this is, I think, largely a matter of personal taste and aesthetics, particularly as the choice is between two high quality versions (Band of Outsiders is not one of the Criterion titles available for streaming on Huluplus). Whatever you have access to, or the ability to play, or even, see it twice.

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