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Band of Outsiders

Band of Outsiders
Criterion 174
1964 / b&w / 1:33 flat / 95 min. / Bande à part / Street Date January 7, 2003 / $29.95
Starring Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, Louisa Colpeyne, Chantal Darget, Michel Delahaye, Danièle Girard
Cinematography Raoul Coutard
Film Editor Agnès Guillemot
Original Music Michel Legrand
Written by Jean-Luc Godard from the novel Fools' Gold by Dolores Hitchens
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A bouncy piece of 'cinema' (as opposed to a 'movie') from Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders swiftly separates the Godard lovers from the Godard detractors. A mostly improvised, off-the cuff riff on a suspense novel that has more fun breaking the standard cinematic rules than it does telling a story of any kind, this is a good representation of the Nouvelle Vague's bad boy's essential style.


Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) are a pair of loafers on the Paris outskirts who pick up the naive Odile (Anna Karina) at their English class. Their lack of real experience notwithstanding, they fancy themselves to be potential desperate criminals, and take immediate interest in Odile's remark that a suspicious boarder in her home has a large quantity of money stashed in an unlocked cabinet. After hemming and hawing around a loose romantic triangle for a day or two, they decide to go for the cash - even though Arthur's crook Uncle is now after the money as well.

Savant likes Jean-Luc Godard in theory, even though some of his supposed classics can be tough sledding depending on my particular mood. But Godard seems most of the time to be making his films in theory, so it all works out in the end. Originality is the plus factor that usually puts him over the top - it is true that nobody ever really made movies like him, even his imitators. When his style becomes tiresome, there's always the remarkable cinematography of Raoul Coutard to keep up the interest level.

Godard's Cinema is about breaking rules, which he claims he does as an attack the monotonous sameness of 'standard' films. He designs scenes in mastershots that look haphazard but actually cover the acting action of his improvising actors much better than would a series of planned, separate shots - the key to what sometimes looks crude in a Godard film is that he's cinematically allergic to slickness of any kind. If some shot is looking too sophisticated, too smooth, he'll interrupt it with some jarring device or another. He can be just as jokey as an American cartoon, as when Odile calls for a minute of silence at a cafe - and the soundtrack disappears for 40 seconds, until Franz loses his patience.

Another example of Godard's insistence that the show have rough edges happens during the trio's impromptu performance of 'the Madison', a cute line-dance sort of thing that's the charm highlight of the show. When voiceover is heard, Godard just crudely interrupts the dance music for it, purposely undercutting the scene.

When Godard isn't doing this relentlessly, he's dropping verbal allusions to poetry (often good), to movies he likes, or indulging in other private jokes for his select circle of art film fans. All well and good, but it must be said that the reason that a shapeless film like Band of Outsiders is at all watchable, is for the same reasons that any movie is: the characters are interesting.

Godard loads facile sight gags and cutesy business onto Anna Karina's adorable Odile character (looking into the camera, etc.) but she remains hypnotically watchable on the screen. The other two thief-wannabes are less charming but interesting for their ineffectual posing. As this is a Godard film, their entire education and experience base seems to be American movies.

Band of Outsiders is technically a film version of a thriller, but the handling of the main plot (stealing an easily-taken stash of illicit money) is almost irrelevant. So it's intriguing that we care at all, when the amateur crooks' plans fall apart and the movie opts for a violent wind-up, with a wistfully slapdash reference to Chaplin's The Gold Rush (the vagabond couple hugging on a boat deck, bound for South America).

Criterion's DVD of Band of Outsiders is blessed with another remarkable set of extras, in addition to its nigh-perfect transfer and a soundtrack that highlights the very nice music of Michel Legrand. A long 'visual glossary' of Godard's in-jokes, obscure references, and other errata becomes a bit tiresome, but the interview extras are priceless. Godard himself is lucid and responsive in a b&w interview from 1964. Raoul Coutard and Anna Karina (who I wish I could always see at age 20) appear in very nice new interviews. Karina says she's originally Danish and talks very frankly about what it was like to work with the New Wave wunderkind; Coutard's remarks show just how much in common Godard's films had with lower-tier American exploitation work. Godard had producers and distributors he had to please just as much as any filmmaker; Coutard explains that when Band of Outsiders came up a couple of minutes short, Godard just went out and shot a scene of his actors reading from the newspaper.

The disc also contains two trailers for the film, a silent movie parody excerpt from Cleo from 5 to 7 starring Godard and Karina, and a fat booklet with several essays, some more persuasive than others on the subject of Jean-Luc's genius.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Band of Outsiders rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: interviews, film clip excerpt, trailers, 'visual glossary' of Godard-isms
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 4, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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