“For latecomers arriving now,” intones Jean-Luc Godard’s narration early in Band of Outsiders, “we offer a few words chosen at random.” But, of course, they’re not random at all: “Three weeks earlier. A pile of money. An English class. A house by the river. A romantic girl.” This is a film self-consciously constructed from archetypes, a romantic crime picture designed by a former film critic so steeped in the history of American cinema that genre seems only a template to be copied as a lark. For Godard, clichés don’t intermingle or talk among themselves, as they did for Umberto Eco, so much as they reflect the traditions from which they’re borrowed, the citations themselves standing as signposts to a cinematic past. Godard often cobbles films together from disparate elements as a matter of remarking on their secret interconnectedness, as though the world of art and politics can be mapped out and understood as an obliquely coherent whole; it’s this gift for tracing lines from Rita Hayworth to Carl Dreyer, as he does in Histoire(s) du Cinéma, that makes his texts such rich historical resources as well as irrepressibly cinematic ones.
Though a consummate filmmaker, Godard is at his best when also courting the duties of historian and philosopher. That’s partly why Band of Outsiders, though one of his more purely entertaining early films, ranks among Godard’s slightest, matched perhaps only by A Woman Is a Woman in terms of conceptual and intellectual paucity. This isn’t entirely a bad thing (one of the film’s most appealing qualities is its airiness, as if not weighed down by typical Godardian substance), and in fact it might account for the film’s enduring popularity with young cinephiles, especially in North America. Despite his reputation as a master of the French New Wave, Godard is often too difficult a filmmaker to be enjoyed solely for the breathlessness of his style, which, while jazz-like and improvisatory, has certain barriers to entry for audiences not versed in his manner of thinking. Where a film like, say, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim can be relished for its youthfulness and vitality (as audiences today love to do, soaking up its romantic period flavor), many of Godard’s films find their superficial pleasures mitigated by their engagement with more sophisticated ideas. Godard’s films, in other words, are often too smart for their ideal audiences.
Unlike Made in U.S.A. or 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Band of Outsiders could hardly be described as inscrutable. Film fans no doubt continue to gravitate toward it for its quintessential nouvelle vague iconography and memorably picturesque moments, such as the now-legendary race through the Louvre and, even better, the bar-set song-and-dance number. There’s a reason such details have endured as some of the French New Wave’s most representative and instantly gratifying. But it’s a little too easy to conflate the fleeting romantic gestures with the more substantive legacy carried on to this day by Godard, who ought to be better remembered as a filmmaker who challenged the conventions of the cinema rather than simply riffing on them for the sake of entertainment. Band of Outsiders was essentially a studio film (Godard’s only one), funded by Columbia Pictures, produced with more stability and less freewheeling improvisation—not to mention less personal investment or intellectual fervor—than any Godard project before or since, and the result looks and feels like it. It’s a splendid film, joyous and occasionally astonishing, but it’s also, quite significantly, the only film Godard ever made to seem frivolous.
Jean-Luc Godard’s most classical-looking film looks as stunning as expected in high-definition, where its clean lines and simple, elegant compositions are greatly benefited by the detail and clarity offered by this new 1080p transfer. Though Raoul Coutard’s sfumato-like photography makes less use of sharp contrast than subtle shading, the black levels as presented here are strong rather than muted. The monaural LPCM soundtrack, likewise, is well balanced and clear. All in all, this is perhaps the best-looking transfer of a black-and-white Godard film yet.
Identical to the DVD release, which, thankfully, was already loaded. A "visual glossary” helps unpack Godard’s typically well-stocked library of references; interviews with star Anna Karina and cinematographer Raoul Coutard are duly illuminating; and a short lifted from Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7 is as nice a treat here as it is in its original film. And the writing from Godard’s original press kit, included in this collectible booklet alongside an essay by Joshua Clover, is in some ways more intriguing than the film itself.
Jean-Luc Godard’s most deliberately frivolous film remains a light-touch slice of New Wave romanticism.