Jean-Luc Godard completists will have an opportunity to fill in a few gaps over the coming weeks. For starters, one of the director’s least seen (and probably least liked) works from the astounding first phase of his career, the relentlessly bleak antiwar film Les Carabiniers (1963), is coming back to theaters. With a 35 mm print touring the States this summer, a handful of critics are arguing that now’s a fine time to give it the reconsideration it deserves.
The story’s an unusually straightforward one for Godard. In an unnamed land, two farmers, Michelangelo and Ulysses, are told by the king’s messengers that if they head off to war for him, they’ll be richly rewarded. When they return from their battles, where they’ve slaughtered more or less indiscriminately, they show their wives a series of photographs supposedly documenting their travels. The collection is absurd, seemingly random, and, as Clayton Dillard notes at Slant, includes an array of nudes ranging “from magazine spreads of American actresses to Sarah Baartman (also known as the Hottentot Venus). Here we glean the film's awareness of images that have been used throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to perpetuate colonialist ideals in French culture and beyond.”
In the Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri points out that Roberto Rossellini had planned to direct a production of Beniamino Joppolo’s play I Carabinieri, and it was on Rossellini’s adaptation that Godard based his. But for Ebiri, the film is even more reminiscent of the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini. “Much of Les Carabiniers even takes place in the kind of volcanically empty wasteland that Pasolini was so fond of, a kind of metaphorical landscape. But Pasolini also saw a lot to love in such places and people: a sincerity and truth, a prelapsarian innocence he himself often longed for. Godard sees the opposite—a barrenness and spiritual poverty that leaves us alone with our worst selves.”
At Screen Slate, Patrick Dahl agrees, adding that “no film so effectively skewers the cupidity shared by soldiers, their betters and the policymakers pulling the strings. . . . Godard said in 1963 what today all but the most staunch opponents of American militarism refuse to acknowledge: war is conquest, war is colonial, war is vindictive and hateful, and most crucially, war is a series of images.”
Noting that Les Carabiniers “spews misanthropy and dark humor in all directions,” Steve Erickson, writing for Kinoscope, argues that the film is “a crucial early stop on one of the most innovative and fundamentally serious bodies of work in cinema history.”
From July 13 through 19, Anthology Film Archives in New York will present not only a new restoration but also the U.S. theatrical premiere of Godard’s 1986 made-for-television movie The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company. Jean-Pierre Léaud stars as a neurotic director who aims to adapt a James Hadley Chase thriller with the help of a producer played by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Mocky.