Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

There’s little doubt that Godard was pleased with Vivre Sa Vie, and unafraid to broadcast his pride: he placed it at #6 in his own top 10 of 1962 (behind Rohmer, Truffaut, Bergman, Rossellini, and Hawks) and placed visual references to it in Le M├ępris. His satisfaction was plain to see, but Godard wouldn’t be Godard if he didn’t carry misgivings and self-contradictions even in the light of his wildest successes. After a film festival screening of Vivre, Godard was asked how he’d like to develop his work next. “What worries me is that I find I am no longer thinking in terms of cinema… When I was making A bout de souffle or my early shorts, a shot of Seberg would be… making sure that her head was just at the right cinematic angle, and so on. Now I just do things without worrying how they will appear cinematically.” Though anyone with an eye would guess that Vivre Sa Vie was his most carefully composed yet, Godard insisted it was made “as if I were writing an article without going back to make any corrections.” What a guy. Still, his next film, Les Carabiniers, can be clearly connected to his worries of “cinematic” precision. Whereas Vivre treated each shot (and each tableau) as an elaborate, self-contained compound, Les Carabiniers is far more concerned with montage. Godard was clearly having misgivings about the power of images, because this film is an assault on the notion of images as tools of persuasion, objects of fantasy, and connotations of what is “real”. It is, even more than Le Petit Soldat, an extremely roughly hewn film: compositions seem chanced upon, the location sound is filled with clattering and half-heard dialogue, the beginning of a shot will often repeat a line or gesture from the end of the last one, and the narrative lacks almost any clear arc. That narrative, as it stands: two army officers visit a small grouping of shacks to find recruits for a new war, using a “personal letter” from the king as persuasion. They hit their mark with Michelangelo and Ulysses, promising them any extravagance they wish in return for service, be it unchecked violence or a chocolate factory. Intrigued by this idea, and urged on by their wives Venus and Cleopatra, the two go to war, and the middle half of the film (only 80 minutes long) is a succession of stock newsreel footage, messily handwritten title cards, and vignettes involving Michelangelo and Ulysses.

The washed out, muddy appearance of the visuals (and the generally amateurish craftsmanship) serves two main purposes: first, to undermine any of the glamour or excitement typical to war films, even “anti”-war films, and second, as a Brechtian cue to the film’s own grammar. Les Carabiniers shows us unconvincing images to remind us of how convincing those images can be in a more conventional film. That point is never clearer than the sequence Michelangelo watches films in a cinema — modelled on the Lumiere actualit├ęs of the late 19th century — for the first time. He braces himself when the train rushes by the screen, and pivots and repositions himself to get a better view of the naked woman in the bath. Eventually, Michelangelo tries to hop into the image itself, only to tear the screen and rupture the illusion. The scene plays not only as a satire of empty wartime promises of glory and grandeur, but a caution towards the visceral seduction that cinema can offer when positioned as a mirror of reality. It’s like a self-riposte towards the Joan of Arc scene in Vivre Sa Vie.

The Cinematic Lure — Les Carabiniers, left, Vivre Sa Vie, right.
Yes, the gullible duo at the heart of the film’s satire are a couple of stereotypical country bumpkins, a counter-intuitive choice for a film that also includes stark depictions of murder, sexual assault, and other war crimes. Godard is well aware of this, and foregrounds counter-intuition and paradox every chance he gets (those bumpkins' namesakes of classical maestros are no accident). For Godard, war is an absurd invention, rooted in fantasy and illusion, a perspective brought fully to bear in the anti-climactic sequence, where the soldiers return home and spend 10 full minutes sharing their spoils of war: a suitcase full of postcards. Soon after, seeking the return on their deeds, they are told that the king has won, but made a compromise for peace (i.e. lost the war) and agreed to execute any war criminals. Michelangelo and Ulysses are certainly war criminals, and so they are hastily executed (like almost all the film’s deaths, off-screen) by one of the men who recruited them. It’s a sudden, banal, and dull death, much like the rest of the film. Les Carabiniers isn’t a pleasant film to watch, nor is it perfect. One scene, where the soldiers at first hesitate to execute a beautiful Marxist rebel and then riddle her with a comically lengthy storm of bullets, is politically salient but a little too random and disengaged from the central thematic apparatus of the film; the scene is less counter-intuitive than confused. But such missteps and muddle may be endemic to such a wilfully and brilliantly difficult approach, and the repulsiveness of Les Carabiniers is livened immeasurably by the wit that governs it. --- Further Reading 
“Godard’s 60’s: Les Carabiniers” by MJR at Reverse Shot
A review critical of the film's class politics by Robert Stanley Martin at The Hooded Utilitarian
"Les Carabiniers Under Fire" (1, 2, 3), contemporary defense of the film by Jean-Luc Godard


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