Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen) is an eerily perfect case of "be careful what you wish for." A contention I've held with Godard since first attempting to test his films is that his penchant for breaking narrative flow just to prove that he could is tedious in a world forever changed by his works, a complaint I haven't voiced as much since applying myself for this retrospective but one that still knocks around the back of my head. It's not fair to hold a director's own influence against him, but I can't (and won't) will myself to like something just because it's important. Well, I finally got to see an example of Godard playing it straight, and I learned this: his Brechtian disconnect isn't a cumbersome distraction to prove his intelligence and artistry. It's the playfulness that gives his movies verve.
Now, maybe this is because this is my sixth post in a span of less than 72 hours, but I've got almost nothing for this movie. I even slept on it, but that may have made matters worse. Les Carabiniers is so unlike the films Godard made previously (and, judging by Contempt, afterward) that it bears a mention, yet it's so dull, so plodding, so lacking in the self-assured cool of his other '60s pictures that I am flabbergasted to see that it was not imposed upon the director.
The titular riflemen are originally poor farm boys in a fictional country, recruited to serve the king in battle. The recruiters promise the two young jackasses that their behavior will be sanctioned by the government, that they can take what they want from the enemy, do anything to women and kill anyone who stands in their way, and at the end they can not only get away with it but receive a paycheck from their government.
So, the men head off to war, raping and pillaging through operational theaters as Godard flashes images of documented horrors, dismembered corpses and wanton destruction, as his two protagonists line up whole families and shoot them for fun. It sounds terrible, and it is, but Godard structures the film to sap all the energy from these scenes, robbing them of their impact. Eventually, the sights of corpses and the boys raping women become commonplace and tame, livened only when they return home to find that they've lost and are now considered war criminals.
One could argue that Godard structures the film not merely to comment on war but the war movie, particularly if we accept Jonathan Rosenbaum's belief that Godard used films as outlets for his film criticism. Its unlikable, rapacious, thieving protagonists, grainy film stock and use of actual war footage (shot on even grainier stock) and its overall lack of action could, then, be Godard's riposte to the bombast of war films and the pleasure they inadvertently give the audience. Yet boring the audience through repetitive, non-provoking violence is not a viable commentary on either combat or the films that potentially celebrate them. Godard, like Sam Mendes with his 2005 snorefest Jarhead (a picaresque film in the sense that if feels like you're staring at postcards for two hours), is so against letting the audience connect viscerally to recognize that, while war films occasionally bring out the bloodlust in us, we need that visceral response to abhor the fighting.
Godard's portrait of fighters committing crimes under the protection of one government, only to find themselves the criminals of another regime is a clever message that the crimes legalized by the West against the nations it subjugates might one day require payment, and that our policies of genocide and colonization deserve revenge. Yet the presentation is all wrong, and I'm reminded of a recent attempt at satire, Robert Edwards' Land of the Blind (starring Tom Hollander, Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland), a film that posited that most revolutionary leaders are tyrants in their own right. Both had interesting themes, but they fail to do anything with them, and believe me when I say that any comparison I make to Land of the Blind cannot be a positive one, lest I set the object of comparison in direct opposition to it.
Still, some touches are nice. Godard relegates much of the action we might see in battle scenes to postcards written to the riflemen's family, passionless voiceovers describing their fights and some of the horrors of the big fights with humorous interludes ("Even so, it's a nice summer"). But this almost seems like Godard's vision of a Béla Tarr movie long before the latter even started making films: how much more interesting would this have been if Tarr had made the project, lingering on the horrors without glorifying them as he made a larger point about man's capacity for self-destruction? Asynchronous sound and politics have been a part of Godard's films from the beginning, what with Belmondo "firing" an un-cocked pistol in Breathless (not to mention the brilliant fractring of the score in A Woman is a Woman) and the highly critical views in Le Petit Soldat, and Godard doesn't do anything noteworthy with his minute experimentation here, and I find myself -- God help me -- wishing Les Carabiniers made a bit less sense.