“If Les Carabiniers had no success in Paris, it’s because people are worms,” Jean-Luc Godard once said about the critical and financial failure of his bizarre 1963 war film. “You show them worms on the screen, they get angry.” It’s a surprisingly raw and angry comment from a filmmaker whose tendency has so often run more toward the gnomic and analytical. But then again, Les Carabiniers is a surprisingly raw and angry film. Now being re-released in an imported 35mm print, this controversial work remains singular in Godard’s filmography. He never made anything else remotely like it.
Spare and linear — already rare for Godard — Les Carabiniers follows two dim-witted peasants, Michelangelo (Albert Juross) and Ulysses (Marino Masé), who are conscripted into military service for an unnamed king in an unnamed war. Gullible to a fault, they are lured by the promise of riches and goods and land, as well as a supposedly personal letter written to them by the king, which they’re assured is proof that he considers them his friends.
Godard presents their journey simply, blankly. There are moments of violence and sexual aggression, but they are almost always filmed in distant, matter-of-fact master shots. What comes across more than anything is the tedium and indifference of war. Godard also cuts to images of the men’s plainly written letters home, the texts of which he took from actual correspondence by real soldiers throughout history.
Eventually, Michelangelo and Ulysses return home with a pile of postcards, and in a hilariously, agonizingly long and surreal sequence, list all the places and things they’ve seen and been promised will be theirs — including cars and planes and ancient ships and even astronomic concepts — just as soon as the war is over and the king victorious. Not long afterwards, they’re told the king has lost the war, and that he’s signed a treaty with the enemy. Then they’re shot. The end. (Spoiler alert.)
A simple description of the fable-like story can’t quite convey the snarling contempt for the world implicit in Les Carabiniers‘ every moment. Michelangelo and Ulysses are dolts — and Juross in particular has a pouty, childish blankness that’s quite striking — but they’re not the kinds of dolts that we’re expected to look down upon. Without anything to latch onto — no story details, or character development, or anything resembling an actual performance — we’re left face to face with these inchoate men and what we may or may not feel about them and their actions. In that emptiness, that uncertainty, Godard leaves us to wonder about our own gullibility, our own unquestioning patriotism and loyalty, our own capacity for violence in the name of political figures with whom we might imagine we share some kind of cosmic relationship.
The legendary Italian director Roberto Rossellini has a co-screenwriting credit on Les Carabiniers. (He had intended to stage the play I Carabinieri by Beniamino Joppolo; Godard adapted Rossellini’s adaptation.) But whenever I watch the picture I’m reminded of the work of another Italian, Pier Paolo Pasolini, with his mythically streamlined stories and simple characters. Much of Les Carabiniers even takes place in the kind of volcanically empty wasteland that Pasolini was so fond of, a kind of metaphorical landscape. But Pasolini also saw a lot to love in such places and people: a sincerity and truth, a prelapsarian innocence he himself often longed for. Godard sees the opposite — a barrenness and spiritual poverty that leaves us alone with our worst selves. As a film, Les Carabiniers doesn’t really “work,” but it’s not supposed to. There is no allure or drama or revulsion to be found here — no visceral rage, or excitement, or suspense. Godard wants to leave us hanging, as a way of forcing us to reckon with our own complicity in the violence of the world. Mission accomplished, as they say.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Opens June 22, Metrograph
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