Godard has always been a filmmaker who pays as much attention to the politics behind his work as the images in his work. Les carabiniers (The Riflemen), his fifth film, displays this dualism at work, criticizing the act of war and the politics of nationalism and imperialism while at the same time interrogating the aesthetics of the war and anti-war film.
The story of Les carabiniers is fable-like in its simplicity. Ulysses and Michelangelo are two peasants living on a wasteland with a mother and daughter, Cleopatra and Venus. Two riflemen come to their shack and convince Ulysses and Michelangelo to join the army and fight for the King, seducing them with all the riches in the world. They go to war, sending letters home to Cleopatra and Venus. However, when they finally get home, they find that their rewards are not quite how they imagined them.
Les carabiniers did not do well on release, and it isn’t hard to imagine why. It is gritty, nasty, plotless, ugly, the characters are vulgar stereotypes, the events are shocking, the soundtrack is a constant barrage of explosions and gunfire. It is an angry, abrasive little film, but it chooses its targets with intelligence and its critique and the way this critique is made are fascinating.
Ulysses and Michelangelo are promised everything, from money to the monuments of the world to any sadistic little wish they may want to carry out. The criticism is obvious – any horror is permissible in war – but it also alludes to colonialism in its acknowledgement of the gleeful seizure of lands and property regardless of the human toll it may take and to nationalism in the blindness with which Ulysses and Michelangelo gets suckered into signing up for the war. Given these characters’ grotty and aimless existences at the beginning of the film, it is clear that king and country have not done anything for them so far, and is unlikely to do anything in the future. Indeed, the extended punchline of all of this is that the two soldiers return home only with photos of their promised rewards – pointing towards the illusionary nature of all nationalism and, by extension, colonial gains. By the end of the film, the country has erupted into what seems like several distinct civil wars between the republicans, the democrats, the communists, the anarchists, the state and the army. The film ends on a disused, ugly bus shelter in which Ulysses and Michelangelo are shepherded and gunned down.
The film’s critique of war suggests that the men and women who fight are not those who receive the rewards and the acclaim and that it is not in their interests to fight their king’s wars. But the film also holds a critique of the aesthetics of the war film. The film is fractured, loud, uncomfortable viewing and the war scenes are intentionally choppy and confused. Godard opts for short scenes of sadistic war crimes rather than some grand narrative of war. Godard’s point is that war films, like action films, entertain an audience when they should be horrifying them. Compare the battle scenes in Les carabiniers to the same in Saving Private Ryan, in which the violence is certainly horrible but the film does allow the war to have a heroic and redemptive quality. War films tend to validate war even as they criticize it. Les carabiniers then, because it denies the audience a fluid narrative line with which to understand and digest the war on screen (even down to the simple cutting between weapon fired and damaged caused), can be said to be a truly anti-war film.
It even goes so far as to suggest, in the scene inside the cinema in which Michelangelo is fooled by the projection while everyone around him silently imbibes whatever the screen throws at them, the brainwashing nature of cinema and the need to engage intellectually with what is being shown. As such, Les carabiniers is a distancing and confrontational film, a bombardment of ugliness and noise, but all to an extremely moral purpose. There is nothing enjoyable or aesthetically pleasing about this war, nothing cathartic, nothing whatsoever to validate the horrors onscreen – because this film is truly a pacifist one.
With Les carabiniers, Godard unites form and message to create one sustained and powerful critique, which will make one rethink one’s opinions about wars past, present and future as well as rewatch war films looking for the signs that they are as much pro- as anti-war. It is one of Godard’s most difficult sixties films and one of the hardest to like, but it is one of real intellectual rigour - with this film, Godard could not be dismissed as just a stylist. Despite being one of Godard’s least financially successful films, it is one of his most important early films.
Up next was Le Mepris
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