A Second Take
Les Carabiniers



often we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.

Following the surprise success of his debut feature Breathless, nothing could have prepared Jean-Luc Godard for the monumental failure of his follow-up Les Carabiniers—an anti-war film with shades of dark humor that relates the quest of two bumbling soldiers involved in a dubious conflict. Selling a staggering 2,800 tickets in its initial run (compare that to the 259,046 tickets Breathless sold) it marked not only the largest commercial disaster of Godard’s 60s output, but also the least popular film of the entire French New Wave movement.

Sometimes with overlooked films by canonized filmmakers, some disparity exists between public opinion and the critical response. In the case of Les Carabiniers, the critics’ response proved no more welcoming. At the time of its release in France, critics disparaged it as an amateur and hollow film tainted with an antiquated allegiance to the outdated techniques of the silent era. So violent was the critical backlash that it compelled Godard to write up a passionate response in Cahiers du Cinéma challenging some of the more virulent attacks on his work and consequently illustrating the amount of care and precision he put into this project.

Looking back on the film, it’s easy to discern what prompted the hasty attacks on its character. Godard intentionally constructed an unpleasant movie because he felt it relevant to its subject matter. An anti-war film necessitates an alienating approach since war itself represents a vile conquest. In the DVD commentary, David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor deems Godard the most moral of all filmmakers precisely because he consistently refused to compromise his vision in favor of box office returns. To that extent, Les Carabiniers approaches the apogee of that moral sensibility, standing apart from his more conventional genre experiments as the most inimitable film he ever conceived.

Indeed, Godard takes every precaution to ensure that his portrayal of war as gritty and unpleasant does not go unnoticed. Where other directors would feel compelled to liven up the action sequences in a film of this nature, Godard resists all temptations to adulterate his message by not providing any inclination toward conventional entertainment. As a result, the shots appear flat and impersonal, the characters stoic and unsympathetic, and the action muted and anticlimactic. Critics like myself may appear too eager to exonerate Godard by suggesting that anything abrasive in the film feels as such because he intended it that way. However, reading Godard’s own writing concerning this film illuminates the way in which this proves genuine.

In his response to critics, he discussed at length the manner by which he purposely overexposed the film stock to give it a grainy look, in part to endow the shots with that dull and ugly finish he deemed appropriate, but also to help match up with the newsreel footage intermingled within his film. When critics attacked the quality of the material, he proudly reminded them that his director of photography, Raoul Coutard, had “already won his third Grand Prix for photography.” In addition, his typically amateur performances by nonprofessional actors also came under fire. But rather than lending a desultory aura to the film, it helps to intentionally distance us from any sympathetic representation so that we don’t lose focus on the underlying message of squalor, thus achieving that Brechtian style of characterization.

Curiously, the most befuddling attack against Les Carabiniers concerns Godard’s use of text in the film. Certainly Godard was famous—along with his proclivity for jump cut editing—for his use of written text. In this film, he uses text to his most successful end. Tying his story together with long-winded text cards that represent letters written by soldiers to their girlfriends, Godard relates the horrors and triumphs of their conquest without ever depicting it. Critics responded by accusing Godard of sidestepping the difficulty of shooting such scenes by supplanting them with these written titles. Yet such judgments made explicit the oblivious nature of Godard’s most truculent critics.

These intertitles represent some of the most banal observations on the war, as the soldiers describe the conflict as routinely and impassively as possible. Perhaps most frightening is that the letters were allegedly taken from actual correspondences between soldiers and loved ones during WWII. The most illuminating insight into their purpose here is to look toward Godard’s view on what he believes to be the only proper way to shoot a film concerning the Holocaust. Of this he says, “The only real film to be made about them would be if a camp were filmed from the point of view of the torturers and their daily routine… the really horrible thing about such scenes would not be their horror but their very ordinary everydayness.” Transpose this statement over to Les Carabiniers and Godard’s purpose begins to take focus. In effect, he uses these title cards not to avoid difficult sequences but to draw out how banality supersedes morality in war. Death and torture become commonplace and no longer do we feel compelled to follow our conscience in such matters.

Godard’s decision not to shoot these sequences lends credence to the perspective that enlivening his film with action would undermine his purpose. To understand this we need only look toward such films as Platoon and Apocalypse Now, which convey an unflattering depiction of war, but conversely approach their combat sequences with an exhilarating exuberance. Recent films such as Jarhead (a film itself complicit with its own contradictory nature) have illustrated this theory by depicting how soldiers being shipped off to Iraq would rouse themselves by viewing Apocalyspe Now. Les Carabiniers, by contrast, deflects any possible attempts at manipulating its purpose simply by resisting any commercial trappings.

Even the humor comes across as muted and underwhelming, drawing upon the absurdity of its situations rather than the visceral comedy of its sequences. Other films have utilized this method as well—Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Catch-22 or David O. Russell’s Three Kings—yet neither of those films paint a bleak enough picture to contend with Les Carabiniers. While their humor may prove far more hilarious than anything Godard penned in this screenplay (although the scene in the movie theater is positively uproarious), on the most extreme level, one could regard that as counteracting their own moral.

Given the circumstances at hand, I feel no qualms in labeling Les Carabiniers the greatest anti-war film ever made precisely because it remains the least compromising ever attempted; certainly not the best starting point for those unfamiliar with the director’s past work, but invaluable as a manifesto against violence and genocide. With the current level of strife prevalent throughout the world and our present catastrophic involvement in a dubious and seemingly unending conflict in the Middle East, Les Carabiniers proves just as relevant to the current global climate as it was during its initial release. Perhaps somewhat tragically, it’s the kind of film humanity will always need around.


By: Dave Micevic
Published on: 2006-10-16
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