Band of Outsiders Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: An Odd, Wonderfully Fun Film from the French New Wave

During the 1950s a number of film critics began to criticize French cinema. It was too traditional, too literal, too confined to seemingly arbitrary rules.  These critics (including Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut) felt that movies should relate to their youth more, should be more free, and should deal with more current social issues.  

True to their word, many of these critics became filmmakers themselves and created the French New Wave.  Unlike more recent movements like Dogme 95, the New Wave did not have a set of official rules, rather the filmmakers involved worked around a set of general principles.  The main one being “be different.”  In an interview on the Criterion Blu-ray of Band of Outsiders, Godard notes that whenever he encountered one of the old rules he would break it, whenever he was told films were made certain ways he’d find a different way.

In 1960, Godard released Breathless, a jazzy, free-form homage to the American crime drama.  It was a smash hit and put both Godard and the New Wave on the map.  Four years later, he re-imagined the crime drama even further with Band of Outsiders.  Both films have become classics not only amongst the New Wave films but in the pantheon of greatest films ever made.

I had seen Band of Outsiders before, and remembered liking it, but it was so long ago that I remembered nothing else about it. I was surprised at just how fun it is.  Reading up on the New Wave makes it seem so academic.  Combine that with Godard’s reputation for being notoriously difficult and I was expecting an interesting, but ultimately hard to watch movie.  What I found was something completely different: wild, funny, erratic, and deeply enjoyable.

While you can sufficiently summarize the film’s plot – two rogues (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur playing Franz and Arthur respectively) convince a beautiful, young girl Odile (played wonderfully by Anna Karina) to burglarize her own house (or rather her aunt’s house where she’s currently living) – to discuss the plot is to entirely miss the point.

In fact, the film is really but a number of terrifically staged set pieces where the main characters do a whole bunch of random, ridiculous, unrelated things while waiting around to commit the robbery.

There is this wonderful moment in the middle of the film where Odile stands in the kitchen chatting with her aunt.  She lies and says that she is going to the market while secretly she is to meet up with her gang. We watch her fix her hair, grab some money out of a jar, and then she opens the refrigerator, takes out a slab of meat, wraps it in a piece of butcher’s paper, and sticks it in her pocket.

It is so utterly bizarre that I had to rewind just to make sure I saw what I think I saw.  The film makes no comment on it whatsoever. The camera shoots the entire scene in one take while sitting at the back of the room and above, like some mighty observer, never zooming in or making any indication it notices this young girl put raw meat into her pocket.  In the next moment we see Odile walking through the villa headed across the small river to meet with her friends.  Everything is back to normal when suddenly a tiger appears.  Odile nonchalantly pulls out the meat and feeds it to him while saying hello to its owner and then casually walks away.

In some ways, this perfectly sums up the film.  Time and time again we are subjected to these odd little non sequiturs that are both brilliant and wonderfully odd and have nothing to do with the rest of the film.  In the hands of a lesser director, they would add to to nothing much but with Godard at the helm, they make a deliriously beautiful film.

Other wonderful moments include a race through the Louvre in an attempt to break the world record on shortest visit to the museum, or when the cast decides to have a “minute of silence” and the film’s soundtrack and all the background noise go mute.  Or the famous “Madison” dance scene (which Quentin Tarantino paid homage to in Pulp Fiction – he also took his production company name from this film) with Godard himself interrupting periodically to inject the inner feelings of each of his characters. 

One of my favorites happens just before the dance sequence in which Odile gets up from the table to use the restroom, but we see her in a mirror in the background standing and staring at her companions.  Again there is no commentary supplied as to why she does this and the camera makes no moves to point her out.  It’s there for the noticing but you have to look.

The entire film, really, is just amazing to watch. There are so many lovely moments throughout you could talk about each one in a review like this.  Band of Outsiders is an important film in the French New Wave, and in world cinema in general but it is also a terrifically enjoyable film to watch all around.

Criterion’s Blu-ray is a digital master of Gaumont’s 2010 high-definition restoration and it looks absolutely gorgeous.  It also comes with a uncompressed monaural soundtrack that sounds good, though the film is mostly talking with a nice jazz soundtrack so it won’t give your system any sort of work out.

The extras include a visual glossary in which they show and discuss the myriad of literary, cultural, and film references made throughout the movie. There is footage from an old documentary featuring comments on the New Wave from Godard and the only behind-the-scenes footage of the film known to exist. The commentary is interesting but the brief behind-the-scenes footage isn’t.  There are also two recent interviews with Anna Karina and cinematographer Raoul Coutard.  Additionally there is a short film featuring Godard and some of the cast.  Plus there is a big booklet with essays, character descriptions and a 1964 interview with the director.

Mat Brewster

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