Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Anna Karina, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur
Director:  Jean-Luc Godard
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  January 7, 2003

“A minute of silence can last an eternity.”

Film ***1/2

If Jean-Luc Godard seemed unhappily out of his element in Contempt (a good film even if it doesn’t fit well in the scope of his career), he was back in true form and spirit with his next production, Band of Outsiders.  Forget Cinemascope, Technicolor, international stars and producers.  Here is a black and white, narrow framed look at three terrific characters who are involved in a simplistic plot on one level, but speak volumes of commentary about life, love, culture and philosophy on another.

It’s been said that Godard was an entirely improvisational artist, but that’s not entirely accurate.  There was a spontaneity about his work created by often last-minute scripting which kept both cast and crew on their toes, and sometimes taking different approaches in the editing room that seem to change the context of the film dramatically.

Such a device in this movie is his own personal narration added in the post production.  Characters on screen simply moving from one place to another had voice given to thoughts and perspective placed on their actions.  The most striking use of this device is during the most famous sequence, where the three lead characters dance the Madison…occasionally while they dance, the music drops down to silence, while Godard’s low key commentary suggests an unfolding drama.

The story is about a crime, but saying that is an oversimplification; it’s like saying that Gone With the Wind is a movie about the Civil War.  It’s really only “about” a crime in the pure prepositional context; the crime gives the film a map from point A to point B, while its restless characters explore life, love, and eventually fear within the loose constrictions of the plot.

Like Romeo and Juliet, of which a passage is read early on, this is a love story, but not about a pair of young lovers whose great passion could not overcome their social circumstances.  Instead, we have a triangle of three people in complete control of their destiny and somewhat out of sync with the world around them.  Odile (Karina) envisions a perfect crime, and enlists two men who love her, Arthur (Brasseur) and Franz (Frey) to assist.  By ripping off her rich aunt’s house, where an irresponsibly large bundle of cash is easily accessible, their dreams can come true.

But what are their dreams, exactly?  It’s hard to say…one only envisions the three moving from one state of boredom to another, despite their talk of travel and other experiences.  And what of their romantic situation, especially when Odile’s loyalties seem to be switching from the cold, handsome Arthur to the more sensitive and unassuming Franz?

Godard, the consummate experimenter and rebel against anything that had become “standardized” in movie making, failed sometimes in his career, but succeeded more often than not.  In his previous movie Contempt, he had the opening credits spoken instead of printed.  Here, they are back on screen, but each name wraps around his or her occupation as though artist and art were inseparable, the most notable example being “Jean-Luc Cinema Godard”. 

When his script calls for a minute of silence, we get exactly that…a stretch of film where the soundtrack is completely empty; what broadcast professionals would call “dead air”.  It’s both amusing and a little unsettling.  Though the spirit may seem a little listless to first time viewers, you never know when something unexpected will jump out at you, from a neon sign boldly proclaiming the French New Wave to a simple collapsing of the so-called “fourth wall”, when Odile is told of the need to make a plan, and she actually turns to the camera, to US, and asks us why.

Godard was crafting a new cinematic vocabulary for a new era of filmmaking, and his influence can be easily identified in the pictures of today.  Quentin Tarantino even used the French title of this film, Bande A Part, as the name of his production company!

Though New Wave still enjoys a resounding influence, some of the movement’s films today are enjoyed mostly by cinema students.  A picture like Band of Outsiders might too easily try the patience of modern mainstream audiences.  It’s a shame, because we get too used to having movies hand us everything they have to offer, and we forget sometimes that the best gold needs to be panned for.

Video ***1/2

This is a terrific offering from Criterion, who keeps giving film fans the best DVD treatments of Godard’s works.  The black and white transfer is clean and crisp throughout, with well defined images, a full range of rich, contrasting grayscale, solid blacks and clear whites.  The print is in terrific condition; little if any aging artifacts mar the viewing experience.  Only one brief night shot seemed a little murky and showed a bit of residue from the negative, but apart from that, this is a first rate offering that will definitely please Godard’s followers.

Audio ***

I seldom give simple mono tracks this high a rating, but here’s a rare case where a disc earns it.  Godard’s soundtrack is an important narrative tool here; his use of music suddenly dropping in or out, or his aforementioned trick of complete silence give the audio a sense of dynamism and personality.  This is a crystal clear offering, too…when the movie gets quiet, it’s completely quiet; no noise to distract.  A very commendable effort.

Features ***1/2

All that’s missing is one of Criterion’s noted film historian commentary tracks, but that being said, this disc has just about everything else a Godard fan could want.  There are two modern interviews:  a 20 minute one with actress (and former wife of Godard) Anna Karina, and a 10 minute piece with cinematographer Raoul Coutard.  Both are engaging listens, but even more enjoyable is the excerpt from a 1964 documentary on New Wave featuring Godard himself and some rare behind-the-scenes shots of the making of Band of Outsiders.  Newcomers to New Wave will appreciate Godard’s thoughtful comments on the subject.

A 17 minute visual glossary will help first time viewers understand Godard’s game of cultural pick-up-sticks by explaining or associating every reference made in the film (you can even access individual explanations via a menu screen).  Rounding out are the original and re-release trailers, a booklet including essays and interview transcripts, and a short film by fellow New Wave artist Agnes Varda, Les Fiances du Pont MacDonald, which featured the cast members of Outsiders as well as Godard himself.  Those who have seen her full length film Cleo From 5 to 7 (also available from Criterion) will recognize the short from being incorporated into that movie.


Band of Outsiders is another triumph for Criterion, who continues to preserve Jean-Luc Godard’s films and legacy for modern audiences to study and consider.  A solid transfer and a terrific package of extras not only supplement the movie, but enhance the enjoyment of it.