G.I. Joke: Jean Luc Godard’s “Les Carabiniers”
When R. Lee Ermey, who played the drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), passed away recently, he received many obituaries praising his charismatic performance as a specimen of toxic machismo whose bullying leads to one character bringing the film’s first half to a close by blowing his brains out. Not so fast, suggested writer and veteran Anthony Swofford, whose New York Times op-ed blamed Ermey and the film itself for seducing his generation into signing up for military service. François Truffaut allegedly said, “there’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” His far more politically radical French New Wave colleague Jean-Luc Godard gave the war film a try in 1963, with Les Carabiniers, and came up with something difficult for real or armchair soldiers to recuperate.
Godard, Roberto Rossellini, and Jean Gruault wrote the script, adapting it from Beniamino Joppolo’s play. Rather than using charismatic stars like Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo, Godard cast the unknown Marino Masé and Patrice Moullet as the idiotic leads Ulysses and Michelangelo, respectively, with Geneviève Galéa and Catherine Ribeiro as their wives. Upon its release, Les Carabiniers was badly received, but it’s clear that Godard felt passionately about this subject matter. Only three years before, he had dealt directly with France’s war against Algerians fighting for their country’s independence in Le Petit Soldat and wound up having his film temporarily banned by the government, delaying its release and ability to work as an intervention. While Le Petit Soldat is far more conventional than Les Carabiniers, and can even be read as right-wing, Les Carabiniers marks the point where Bertolt Brecht exerted a strong influence on Godard, and his ideas started lining with those of the Situationists (who hated him).
The most memorable scene in Les Carabiniers is an extended sketch in which Ulysses and Michelangelo show their wives a seemingly endless set of picture postcards depicting their travels. It quickly becomes obvious that they couldn’t have gone to all these places and that for them, all of history can be reduced to a set of clichéd tourist traps. But the postcards go on to show animals, cars, and photos and drawings of (mostly nude and always eroticized) women. Shortly after this scene, Michelangelo poses in front of his wife with a photo of underwear exactly covering his crotch. As early as 1963, Godard sensed that the world was being replaced with images of itself.
The title cards in Les Carabiniers are elliptical but elegant. The characters’ dialogue is far cruder. The film makes no pretense of respecting either war or the soldiers who fight in it. While politically minded, it spews misanthropy and dark humor in all directions without offering the spectator the comfort of a safe position to occupy. This is especially true in its focus on the ways war and a soldier’s power allow men to abuse women. As soon as the film begins, it emphasizes rifles as phallic symbols: Ulysses and Michelangelo lift up their wives’ skirts with them. In a scene that never turns into rape but is still quite unpleasant to watch, one soldier orders a woman to take off her jacket. When she is down to her slip, he makes her crawl around on the floor with him riding slightly on top of her. He leaves and does the macho coup de grace by throwing a hand grenade at her house. In 1963, Godard was not exactly a feminist, but it is remarkable how much this film keeps returning to the subject of how war empowers the worst aspects of masculinity. However, praising the film on political grounds feels like a perverse defanging of its angry power; it does not want to be easily liked.
At the same time, Les Carabiniers takes pains to make sure that no one would mistake it for unfiltered reality. A moment in which Michelangelo goes to a movie theater, holds his hands over his eyes while watching a film where a train passes and then walks up to the screen during a scene of a woman taking a bath, wanting to participate, all but shouts at the audience not to believe what we see in cinema. Godard subverts the usual use of shot/counter-shot editing: his actors constantly react to stock footage that they were obviously nowhere near in reality. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s black-and-white photography in early French New Wave films was most noted for the way it lent an anti-glamor to Paris circa 1960 without prettifying the city; he, Godard, and their location scout seem to have selected the most ramshackle rural locations they could find for Les Carabiniers. In 1963, no one could tell where Godard was going aesthetically and politically, and the principled stance — so often expressed through a pissed-off sense of humor — represented by this film might look more like an adolescent middle finger. Seen from the perspective of 2018, this is a crucial early stop on one of the most innovative and fundamentally serious bodies of work in cinema history.
A 35mm print of Jean Luc-Godard’s Les Carabiniers plays for a week in New York City at Metrograph starting June 22. In July and August, the film will also screen at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas’ Texas Theatre, and Columbus’ Wexner Center for the Arts.