Note: This review is part of a series on the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Links to the other pieces are at the bottom of the review.
No one enjoys higher stature in the contemporary arts than an accomplished film director. As such, it’s sometimes easy to forget he or she is a human being, as prone to bad days and professional misfires as the rest of us. But I still can’t bring myself to forgive Jean-Luc Godard for Les Carabiniers. The filmmaker’s first four features–Breathless, Le Petit soldat, A Woman Is a Woman, and Vivre sa vie–are all exceptional films, and all the more impressive for Godard’s venturing into new stylistic territory with each one. Les Carabiniers, his fifth feature-length effort, ventures into new territory for him as well—it’s a combination of satire, black comedy, and slapstick farce—but it’s a remarkably ugly-minded film. Godard reveals himself as a class bigot, and his sneering attitude towards people he clearly regards as cultural inferiors manages to destroy one’s pleasure in the film’s better moments.
The title Les Carabiniers roughly translates as The Riflemen or The Infantrymen, but a more apt English-language title might be The Two Stooges Go to War. It takes place in an imaginary, unnamed country. Michelangelo (Albert Juross) and Ulysses (Marino Mase) are two poor farmers in the hinterlands who live and work on a small farm—one that’s pitiful even by the standard of southern Appalachian sharecroppers—with their wives Venus (Geneviève Galéa) and Cleopatra (Catherine Ribeiro). They are visited one day by military recruiters who deliver a letter from the king. The letter asks the two farmers to enlist as soldiers in the current war. The recruiters sweeten the request by promising the farmers will be rewarded with wealth after their service, and that while in the service they will be allowed to steal, rape, and murder to their heart’s content. Ulysses signs on because he is flattered the king considers him a friend. Michelangelo follows after confirming he will be allowed to act on his long catalog of violent fantasies. We watch the two over the course of their misadventures during the war, which they write about to their wives.
Michelangelo and Ulysses (and their wives) are idiots, and Godard uses them to reinforce just about every hostile bourgeois stereotype about the poor. They’re gullible and easily manipulated. By dint of their characters, they are chronically incapable of taking care of themselves—the shabbiness of the pair’s home and farm appears to be more the consequence of sloth and neglect than misfortune. They have no sense of value or thoughtfulness about the future; instead of seeing the king’s reward as an opportunity to build a better life for themselves, all they can think of are the luxury items they believe the money will enable them to buy. And of course, they’re innately vicious animals who feel no compunction about murder and are delighted at the prospect of committing rape. Michelangelo particularly enjoys holding women captive, lifting up their skirts with his rifle, and ordering them at gunpoint to strip. Implicit in all of this is the common upper-class prejudice that the poor, for the sake of their moral good, need to be worked to the point of collapse for minimal compensation, lest they have the freedom and money to indulge their true beastly selves. There’s no awareness whatsoever of the fact that the more affluent members of society can be at least as dangerously sociopathic as the poorer ones, or that many lower-income people are grounded, morally upright individuals with strong work ethics, as well as being devoted to building the best possible lives for themselves and their families. I’ve lived and worked among all classes of people, and I’ve known people without high-school diplomas who are more sensible, reliable, and intelligent than many of the multimillionaires and Ivy-League PhDs of my acquaintance. There’s good and bad in all walks of life.
Godard’s snobbish bigotry infects and undermines even the film’s most artful scenes. In one, Michelangelo sees his first movie. It’s a short-subject of an attractive woman preparing and taking a bath. However, it is discreetly staged and shot to avoid showing any real nudity. Michelngelo moves back and forth in the row of seats trying to see the woman after she’s walked out of the frame, and then jumps in front of the screen attempting to look down at her in the tub. He ultimately tears down the screen in frustration. When one considers this scene alongside Godard’s work in other films, it’s apparent that part of the aesthetic motive is to use Michelangelo’s reaction as an opportunity for slapstick commentary about how film redefines reality. But in the terms of this particular film, what comes across is Godard mocking the character as a pervy ignoramus who is so in thrall to lust that he’ll destroy anything in pursuit of gratifying it.
Or, to pick another example, consider the film’s most famous scene. Late in the picture, Michelangelo and Ulysses return home and show their wives the riches of the world they’ve gathered in their adventures. It’s a suitcase full of postcards showing assorted monuments, animals, and celebrities, and we’re treated to all of them in a superbly sustained ten-minute sequence. Godard is fond of inverting the Wallace Stevens notion of “not ideas about the thing but the thing itself.” With the characters in his films, it’s not the thing but the ideas of the thing that are important. It’s a charming, witty social critique when applied to people played by actors with the glamour of Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, or Jean Seberg. Godard romanticizes and identifies with these figures, and the critique comes off as a perceptive acknowledgement of currents in contemporary culture. But when he applies it to dolts like these farmers and their wives, it comes across as a smirking, sneering “Ha ha ha, look at those stupid hicks.” The Coen brothers are the major purveyors of this brand of smug obnoxiousness in contemporary U.S. films, and I think even they’d find Godard’s venture into it embarrassing.
It’s interesting to compare Les Carabiniers to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. The two films were made at approximately the same time, and both couch their anti-war satire in the context of slapstick farce. However, while Godard lampoons the soldiers, Kubrick focuses his attacks on the most powerful and privileged members of society: heads of state, generals, and other high-level government figures. By portraying such people as petty buffoons, he’s implicitly questioning their fitness for their positions and responsibilities. Given that the film’s nightmarish scenario is only a small leap from the Cold-War circumstances of the time, it’s impossible not to see it as a harsh broadside against those figures’ real-life counterparts—only fools and madmen could bring us to the cusp of the situation the film depicts. Kubrick does not show enlisted soldiers in Dr. Strangelove. The closest he comes is his portrayal of the subordinate officers Captain Mandrake, Major Kong, and Colonel Guano. Mandrake is the film’s lone voice of reason, and while Kong and Guano are clowns, their clownishness is a reflection of their unquestioning subservience to the monsters above them in the chain of command. Unlike Michelangelo and Ulysses, they’re not savages in search of an outlet for their criminal tendencies. Kubrick does what any good social critic does: he afflicts the powerful. Godard, on the other hand, provides aid and comfort to their bigotries. Les Carabiniers is an absolutely contemptible piece of work, and unworthy of its maker. There are things too odious for even the excuse of having a bad day.
Reviews by Robert Stanley Martin of other films directed by Jean-Luc Godard: