The opening words of Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1961) establish his film will be presented simply, using “worn metaphors” and what’s “basically eternal.” The repetition of the piece (“Military March”, “Military March take one”) in the opening also hints the film’s subject repeats itself; each repetition anew. The title of the piece, Military March, hints at war as the subject matter, but, in reality, war is only the vehicle Godard chooses for his real subject: the powerful’s relentless manipulation of the powerless to achieve their own gains; and the powerless’ eager participation in whatever means is made available to obtain what they do not (cannot) have: material wealth.
The hint at repetition is again presented at the end of the opening credits when the title of the film is repeated, informing us that the film is to be watched with the thought that what the film presents (the dismal reality of humanity) repeats itself again and again and again long after the movie is done.
The film’s opening take is a point of view shot from within a vehicle traveling through a city via a six-lane highway. The heftiness of the highway, overpasses, and buttresses represents the collective right and might of civilization and the length of the shot represents the physical enormity of the that civilization. The blandness and coldness of the cement represents an emotional hollow as dense as the concrete itself, a distancing from the human consciousness that drives emotions. The non-diegetic Military March signifies whoever is in the vehicle is on a military mission on behalf of the emotionally absent civilization.
The subsequent shot features a jeep, gray skies, and desolate barren countryside consisting of dirt, brush and junkyard detritus. This shot contrasts the relative positions between those in power (established in the previous shot) and those destined to never acquire the power to determine their own existence. To punctuate this point further, the mis-en-scene shows high-tension lines, which the jeep initially runs parallel, then perpendicular to. These lines represent the selective distribution of power as it runs from tower to tower bypassing those below not deemed worthy to share in its distribution. The blocking within the shot shows the men (carabiniers) in the jeep have the full support and power of those in charge behind them.
The following scene shows the daughter, Venus (a powerless person), about to take a bath. She pulls a magazine out from under her sweater as if she’s pulling out her alter ego. It’s this second self she sees when she looks into the mirror. Godard could have, but chose not to show her reflection in the mirror, which, in fact, reflects the barren landscape behind her. Godard intends for us to view Venus as barren landscape, implying the most defining characteristic of the girl: her marginal existence. Godard later shows us how marginal existence is (repeatedly) seduced in order to obtain the services of those on the margins of society.
Godard’s film so far, then, is about the transitory nature of power as it flows from civilized Point A to civilized Point B, bypassing, and beyond the reach of, those not worthy or fortunate enough to share in it. But even more than that, it is about the familiarity by those along the fringes of society of the futility of their lives. It is this “it is what it is” attitude expressed by Venus’ family that allows them to emotionally accept their current situation and distance themselves from their future actions. This last point is made when Ulysses and a carabinier struggle. During the struggle, the carabinier fixes his hat while Ulysses picks up his cigar, which he has dropped. Afterwards the men agreeably resume their struggle. This is a game that’s already been played; one where all the participants know their predetermined roles.
The stated mission of the carabiniers is to “distract the population,” something advantageous for the police to do during “hard times.” At first the family rejects them (the fade to black just before Ulysses states the “war is no fun” ensures we do not miss the men are aware of the risks of war), but is eventually seduced by what the carabineers promise them on behalf of the King: wealth. (The powerlessness and accompanying poverty of the family is made clear when the wife informs the carabinier that their electricity (power) is off.) The completeness of the seduction is demonstrated when the women, initially skeptical, egg the men on to enlist so that they (the women) can obtain some trinkets, showing their willingness to sacrifice their men to achieve wealth. Generally, Godard paints the women as emotionally bankrupt, as when the wife starts to flirt with one of the carabiniers; but sacrificing their men is emotional bankruptcy of a higher order of type. Godard assigns the same lack of emotional quotient to the men as he has them recite a litany of atrocities allowed them by the nature of war to achieve wealth and misadventures for themselves.
By the end of these opening scenes Godard has succeeded in convincing us of three things: that the impoverished (as represented by the family) will debase itself for any material gains at the expense of any expedient enemy; and, that it only takes a minimum amount of distraction to convince those on the fringes of society to keep an equally emotionally-deadened powerful in power (an advantage fated to be exploited repeatedly.) And third, that man – at all levels – is single-minded in his efforts to obliterate his fellow man when possessions (wealth and/or power) are threatened. Godard paints for us a depressingly bleak picture (mise-en-scene: worn Kodak sign) of the human condition, and begs the question: Is the future of humanity irretrievably lost?
The lack of emotional fortitude in humanity is made apparent by the crude settings and primitive (maybe too strong a word; what I mean to describe is the emotional lack of maturity exhibited by cavemen that the actors actions portray, implying that we have not advance emotionally since the invention of the club) acting. The film’s settings are dank and the ground slippery (several times the actors slip physically in the mud, but the mud also represents the “slippery slope” of the quagmire of their emotional abyss); and the actions of all are unaffected by human compassion. Prior to the war, the family existed within their societal confines, not affecting those around them. For example, highway noise in the diegeses emphasizes the point that the civilized world goes to and fro unaffected by the family. This invisibility is also driven home towards the end of the film when the men have returned home and Michelangelo asks how they will know the war is over since “there’s nobody here.” The war however does up the ante. In unfamiliar territory, the foot soldiers blindly (without emotion) follow orders to the best of their abilities absent other guidance. The given existential horror here is that, according to Godard, the tragedy of war is that it repeats itself ad infinitum.
The acts of war depicted are many and horrific. Godard equates the filmed scenes to existing war documentary, and therefore links his repulsive (but true) argument, which states that humanity’s tolerance for war is based on its weakness for wealth and its ability to mechanically destroy any enemy defined as such, to past wars (and by extension, those who fought and supported those wars). An example of this mechanical cleansing is when Ulysses and Michelangelo mark a building (civilization). A lady (representative of civilization) comes out to sweep the steps in the adjoining building and is gunned down by Ulysses. The reasons? Two. The first is that Ulysses and Michelangelo could; the second is that, in their view, they were following the marching orders of their superiors. Another callous example is when the captured Leninist is shot reciting a poem detailing how slain soldiers would rise to return to their families, explaining that war and their deaths were all a joke and that there were no shells, mines, or forts. (This is in itself an distraction used by the “enemy” (meaning the Leninists) on their own foot soldiers, showing the other side “distracts” their margins of society as well.). As the Leninist lays on the ground, Michelangelo, showing no emotion, ticks off the times she moves before she’s finished off. The act of killing has turned into entertainment.
The precision of this last observation (killing as entertainment) by Godard is currently demonstrated by the Saw franchise and violent video games where killing is both replicated vicariously and franchised as entertainment. This propensity to not only distance ourselves from the emotional baggage involved with killing another human being, but to derive some positive emotional buoyancy (pleasure) from the act is the issue that strikes at the heart of Godard. The purported reason for Les Carabiniers is to show the horrors of war. The real reason for the film is to show the horrors of humanity. In other words, those horrors which are part and parcel of who we are as humans. Horrors that come about because of the nature of humanity, and therefore are bound to repeat themselves throughout our history.
When Ulysses and Michelangelo return from war, their postcards are the only “riches” realized. Like the transitory nature of power, the postcards represent the translucent nature of wealth for those without it, impossible to grasp even when visible. The elongated take of the family trying out their new found “riches” emphasizes the futility of their actions. They are no better off than before the war. The physical spoils of war are reserved for the powerful. Like all those on the fringes of society they are ordained to remain fodder for future endeavors. The film comes full circle when former comrades kill Ulysses and Michelangelo as the seat of power shifts.
It is this coming full circle that addresses the third point the film makes: man’s single-minded efforts to obliterate his fellow man. The consequence of this point is that since the cycle repeats itself, and destruction is mechanically (as in without emotional attachment) achieved without regard to individual identity (for example: the woman sweeping the steps in front of the building), there is no hope for humanity.
A reference has already been made to the earliest weapons of the caveman. In the thousands of years from that time till the Second World War, man’s ability to destroy himself had progressed to the point where hundreds (tens of thousands in the case of the atom bomb) of unidentifiable individuals died during a single indiscriminate (from the point of both the one doing the bombing and the one getting bombed) aerial bombing. Godard includes footage of aerial bombing, offshore shelling, and shelling in general. The point is that advances in killing technology are in lock step with the commensurate emotional distancing during the act of killing. Couple these advances to man’s propensity to subjugate emotional attachment to killing and the potential for a new scale of mass destruction presents itself, which is the warning of Les Carabiniers.
Examples of the above include the indiscriminate bombings and shelling with the killings of individuals as well as the lady sweeping the steps in front of her building. Another example of an unindividuated killing is when one man kills another posting a (wanted) poster on a building. The killer emotionally dispositions his act based on the act the man committed (posting a piece of paper); not with the individual himself. This justification (killing as a means – absent any emotional consequence – to an end) degenerates to one where Ulysses kills a civilian for money to buy a Maserati.
It is this emotional distancing (the means) from the act of killing that the film makes clear is a prerequisite for successful campaigns against competing factions, and is, by itself, sufficient to drive men relentlessly (a shot of Ulysses carrying a wounded Michelangelo across a stream cuts to a shot of a boat relentlessly battling high seas) to ensure their goals (ends) are achieved. The exposition that is the film is that this is a part of our nature we don’t like to acknowledge. The futility is not with war. It’s with human nature.
When the King loses the war, the Prime Minister is put to death, one of the carabniniers is pulled from his jeep and killed, and traitors and war criminals are to be hunted and killed. In short the once powerful are now powerless. The cost of war is not only born by the margins of society. There are no winners in the cycle about to repeat itself. The film ends with Ulysses and Michelangelo realizing (after they are shot to death) that paradise exists only in dreams.
The question remains: Is the future of humanity irretrievably lost? According to Godard, the answer is yes.