Home Video Hovel: Band of Outsiders, by Scott Nye
I feel bad for all those other films that don’t get to be Band of Outsiders.
Now, I suppose that’s a sort of ironic thing to say, given that I prefer dozens, if not hundreds of films more than Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 classic, and on my list of favorite Godard pictures, it’s certainly not at the top. Which is not to diminish it, not one bit. Band of Outsiders has a spirit to it from which nearly all other films could benefit. It has a melancholy quality somehow enhanced by its flights of fancy for which it’s (justly) better remembered. It can be cruel and bitter, but also unbelievably generous. It can be a gangster film one second, a romance the next, a travelogue after that, a comedy all mixed up in there, and a musical, even apart from its most famous section. Its characters always move in dance, atop wheels or in fights, the way they lean against walls or dodge the man checking identification in front of the schoolhouse. They don’t possess the natural cool that Belmondo and Seaberg had in Breathless, but they’d like to, and in this way, they’re closer to us, and somehow cooler for it.
Godard’s films are full of these contradictions, as characters proclaim their love for one another, only to treat them like shit, or vice-versa. They’re at once incredibly naturalistic (Raoul Coutard shoots Godard’s black-and-white features like documentaries) and almost painfully stylized (Godard’s dialogue is meant to be spoken, but not like we speak). It’s an external expression of internal conflict, the raging desire to be something more than we are, but trapped by our limited capacities. Odile, Franz, and Arthur (Anna Karina, Sami Frey, and Claude Brasseur, respectively) don’t quite to seem to fit in with any crowd, except the one they clumsily create together.
Franz and Arthur are both in love with Odile, naturally (not only because this is that kind of story, but because you can’t help but love Karina), but we almost get the sense that Odile isn’t used to this kind of attention. At the beginning of the film, she carries herself awkwardly, dressed in a very old-fashioned manner and hesitant to speak up. Once she spends a little time with the boys, she’s leading them in a dance, leading them to run through the Louvre, leading them on. Once she spends a little too much time with them, she’s bound and gagged, her stockings serving as masks for her accomplices, who have at least in part used her in order to get at a pile of money in her aunt’s house. Who knows, maybe marriage is in the future? It’s all about contradictions, wild impulses towards unthinkable acts of the Id. The French title is Bande à part; when read in the English language, it’s an even lovelier incongruity.
People say it’s one of Godard’s most accessible films, and I suppose that’s true, as far as it goes. It was the first one I ever saw, and I fell for it instantly. I didn’t understand its many allusions then, and I certainly don’t understand them all now. The more intellectual qualities of Godard’s work is not the cinema to which I respond. It’s in glances, gestures, ways of speaking and posing. The longing, more than anything – to be understood, to be loved, to even be noticed, but unable or unwilling to express oneself totally. Odile, Franz, and Arthur have a raging sea of emotion buried far too deep to tap into. They’re the perfect Godard protagonists, certainly, but they’re also the perfect subject for cinema, the one form in which we can watch somebody closely, endlessly, and come to understand them without ever hearing a word of dialogue. We just have to watch them fidget in a chair, or see how they pass time while waiting for someone to show up.
But to our unending benefit and joy, we get to watch them dance.
The Criterion Collection’s new release of Band of Outsiders on Blu-ray is spectacular, a massive improvement over their DVD release (which, I must say, I loved quite a bit). The image is sourced from a new restoration by Gaumont, and has nearly all of the virtues associated with such a modern endeavor, and very few of the pitfalls. Yes, I’ll admit, there is a bit of digital noise reduction applied, smoothing out the grain of some shots and giving a slightly waxy look to the images. This is not representative of the entire affair, however. Most shots retain the grain one would expect in a film of this age, and it’s no coincidence that these sections of this transfer are also the clearest. Overall, this tension is managed nicely, with a sparkling, filmic, crisp and clear image, the contrast much better handled than its DVD incarnation, revealing areas in gray that were once represented as more solid blacks. I noticed none of the damage that was once quite prominent. This is one of those films you just want to live in, and this transfer makes that prospect all the more compelling. It’s presented in its original aspect ratio, 1.33:1.
The special features are all replicated from Criterion’s original DVD release, though I will say the organizing principle present there is the one area in which that earlier release remains superior – they had the good sense to call the supplements section “The Loot.” Here, it is listed merely as “supplements.” Oh well. First up is a visual essay of sorts, pointing out the references and quotations found in the film. It’s a little on the dry side, simply showing a scene and then explaining, in recorded narration, where it comes from, but it’s certainly of interest for those looking for an insight into Godard’s process.
Much better are interviews, recorded in 2002, with Karina and Coutard, who are probably better-equipped than just about anybody to discuss Godard’s personal and professional habits. Both make mention that he could be an extremely serious person, especially on set, but there’s very little overlapping information here, and quite a bit worth learning. Easily the best features of the set.
The most fun feature, however, is a short silent film directed by Agnès Varda, starring Godard, Karina, and Frey, which appears more prominently in Varda’s magnificent 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7. It’s a blast to watch, in no small part because it mocks Godard’s most famous fashion choice at the time to always wear dark glasses. Lastly, there’s a short documentary on Godard, featuring behind-the-scenes footage of Band of Outsiders, as well as a great booklet, featuring a very cool essay by Joshua Clover, character descriptions by Godard that originally appeared in the film’s press book, and a 1964 interview with him. Godard is unusually adept at speaking about his own work, though I often find myself disagreeing about his ultimate interpretation of his work, a natural tension that is doubly suited to a filmmaker famous for improvising a great deal of his features; even he admits he doesn’t always know what he’s making while he’s making it.
Anyway, it’s Band of Outsiders. It’s a classic, justly so, and Criterion has nicely upgraded their already pretty-damn-swell package for your modern viewing pleasure. Give it a look.