Band of Outsiders: The Criterion Collection
How fresh the films of the French nouvelle vague remain. After nearly 50 years, Truffaut's Jules and Jim, Godard's Breathless, Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour, and early films by Malle, Chabrol, and Vadim, still engage. Yet we forget today how controversial these pictures were at the time, pushing the limits of sexuality on the screen and dividing audiences between worshipers and detractors, thanks to unglamorous, naturalistic photography and disjunctive narrative techniques. And, outside of Resnais, no New Wave director was both as revered and reviled as Jean-Luc Godard. The scion of a well-to-do Protestant Swiss family with roots in medicine and banking, Godard had a pampered childhood and a troubled youth, even spending time in a mental ward thanks to his vagrant ways, which included thievery. He took an interest in film when he fell in with the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, and he became a writer-critic-filmmaker along with Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and others. In just a few years, from 1954 to 1964, Godard wrote, starred in, and/or directed 19 films, culminating with Bande à Part, known in the U.S. as Band of Outsiders. Bande à Part is widely considered by many, including Wheeler Winston Dixon in his fine book on Godard, to be "not one of the directors major works." You'd get an argument about that from others, however, including Quentin Tarantino, who named one of his production companies after the film, if for no other reason than that the plot of Bande à Part resonates with QT's affection for young-loves-on-the-run tales. The film concerns Odile (Godard's then-wife Anna Karina) and her two friends from language school, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur). The trio contrive to rob a rich lodger in Odile's aunt's estate. Odile and the romantic Franz (after Kafka) have only just met, but once the more-feral Arthur (after Rimbaud) gets a load of her, he proclaims his intention to take her for himself. And in fact she complies, even going along with Arthur and Franz's flimsy scheme. Unfortunately, Arthur's criminal family finds out about the heist and wants a share.
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Band of Outsiders is Godard's version of a '50s teenploitation film (though the cast is a little old for that). It's Albert Zugsmith territory, rather than noir. It's a world of sportscars, cafés (standing in for soda fountains), demanding teachers, rebellious students, and snappily dressed youngsters trying to grow up too fast. But the film also can be viewed as Godard's competitive response to Truffaut's Jules and Jim, another story about two guys both in love with the same girl. With her tendency to wear pleated skirts and sweaters and don male attire (Franz's hat), Karina is Godard's more-accessible Jeanne Moreau. A Lennon to Truffaut's McCartney, Godard was the hard-edged, contrary, contradictory warbler of people's minds, while Truffaut aspired to please with his soft tales of love and children. Made a year after Godard's more commercially conventional, high-gloss Contempt, Bande à Part is a return to the "style" of Breathless and the early films of the New Wave: Hit the streets of Paris with some black-and-white film and a clutch of interesting actors and handful of quotes from French literature and see what happens.
The Criterion Collection, in its 174th release, has done a thoughtful job with Band of Outsiders. Given to releasing its directorial treats in pairs, this disc bookends Godard's Contempt (spine #171). From its menu, which shows the trio doing the Madison dance from Chapter 12, to a pair of trailers separated by half a decade, the disc is a delight and a fine celebration of Godard's strangely cogitating cinema. The new full-frame transfer (1.33:1) is admirably clean after some digital restoration, under the supervision of cinematographer Raoul Coutard. The monaural track (DD 1.0) also has been digitally corrected. Meanwhile, the solid package of supplements includes a "Visual Glossary" (17:58), which consists of 31 annotations to the film cataloging the in-jokes and literary and cinematic references many to novelist Raymond Queneau, but others to American pop culture, such as the partnerless Madison line-dance, whereas the famous Louvre tour in Chapter 28 also is tracked to antecedents in American cinema. "Godard 1964" (5:16) is an excerpt from the TV special La nouvelle vague par elle-même by André S. Labarth, and it contains some rare behind-the-scenes footage of the Band of Outsiders shoot. There are two appealing and informative video interviews, the first with Anna Karina (18:26), who made seven films with Godard, the second with Raoul Coutard (11:01), who shot 15 of Godard's films. Another novelty is "Les Fiancés du Pont MacDonald" (2:54), the faux silent film-with-the-film from Agnes Varda's 1962 Cleo from 5 to 7. In it, we see Godard (sometimes without his trademark dark glasses), Karina, Frey, Eddie Constantine, and other members of the French New Wave clique. Also on hand is Godard's original trailer for the film (1:52), plus the American trailer (2:10) for the 2001 Rialto re-release, which is mostly the same but for some added text. A 16-page booklet contains an essay Joshua Clover, excerpts from Godard's original press notes, an interview with Godard from 1964, chapter titles, transfer information, and credits. Keep-case.