Godard's cheeky classic gets a Criterion spruce-up on this gorgeous new high-def edition....
Criterion / 95 Minutes / 1964 / Unrated / Street Date: May 7, 2013
The influence of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard is lost on contemporary filmgoers, except those knowledgeable enough to know when he's being ripped off. When John Travolta and Uma Thurman danced at the diner in the 1994 Palme D'Or winner Pulp Fiction, director Quentin Tarantino was stealing from (or paying homage to, depending on your point of view) Godard's 1964 classic Band of Outsiders. In fact, Tarantino was so taken by the film, the named his production company A Band Apart, a cheeky, Anglicized version of the film's French title.
Godard didn't invent the language of film like Orson Welles and his masterpiece, Citizen Kane. However, he added its charming, bubbly European accent. Much like the other members of the New Wave coterie (Truffaut, Rohmer and Chabrol), Godard's films weren't about plot and character as much as they were about themselves. Actors talk to directly to the camera, plots are loose and spontaneous and earlier films are playfully alluded to. And all three New Wave requirements are fulfilled in Band of Outsiders.
On its most basic level, the film is about a heist involving two extremely petty criminals: Franz (a terrific Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur). In their English class they meet Odile (Anna Karina, who was Godard's wife at the time), a delicious number with her plaid skirt and schoolgirl charm. At first, Odile falls for Arthur, the slicker, more sinister of the two. He discovers that Odile lives with her mother and a wealthy border, who has a rather large sum of cash in his room. The threesome decides to break into the house, steal the money and run away forever. Of course, since this is a Godard film, the characters, the plot and the ultimate outcome are not entirely the point. It's the spaces between the characters, the plot and the ultimate outcome where Godard lives.
As usual, all the experimental, fourth wall nuggets you expect of New Wave cinema are here. The great director himself narrates the film, including an offer to sum up the plot "for latecomers arriving now." At another point, Franz, Arthur and Odile sit in a cafe and wonder what would happen if no one talked for one minute. Subsequently, not only do the three characters stay quiet, but Godard also kills the ambient audio, meaning there is zero sound of any kind for about 40 seconds. There is also a moment where our heroes pass under a sign that reads "Nouvelle Vague," which is French for New Wave.
But really, the most vivid character in the film is Paris itself. Raoul Coutard's black and white cinematography is cold and otherworldly. As if our anti-heroes live in a Paris just parallel to the real one, but constructed so Godard can say his peace about the state of cinema and his place in it. And it's also amazing that Godard's source material is the marginal pulp novel Fool's Gold, by Dolores Hitchens. As such, modern audiences can liken Band of Outsiders to the Nicolas Cage experimental comedy Adaptation. They both use their source material to comment on films and filmmaking. Both pictures challenge audiences to rethink their relationship with the film and the people who create the film. And while both movies deserve to be remembered, Band of Outsiders deserves to remembered, cherished and imitated.