Criterion Prediction #49: Le Petit Soldat & Les Carabiniers, by Alexander Miller
Titles: Le Petit Soldat & Les Carabiniers
Years: 1960, 1963
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Anna Karina, Michel Subor, Henri-Jacques Huet, Marino Masé, Patrice Moullet, Geneviève Galéa
Synopsis: Le Petit Soldat, Godard’s second feature film, revolves around the complexities that arise when a couple who are at opposing sides of the Algerian war meet. Bruno, working for French intelligence is commissioned to carry out an assassination of a sympathizer of the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN), however he has fallen for Veronica (Karina) another FLN supporter. Emotional and political conflicts arise, causing the two to be targeted by both factions. Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen) takes place in a fictional land that is in the throes of total war; two dullards enlist in the King’s military, not for glory, pride, or political ideals but to reap petty spoils of war and kill people. However, the climate of wartime politics compromises their exploits.
Critique: Godard’s work will always be a source of admiration (as his ardent, politically driven type of filmmaking indicates, he’s the closest thing we have to a punk rock director) and I think he’s at his best when his political allegory is woven into (mostly) cohesive narratives. The critical reception of Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) was initially poor. From the public’s point of view, Godard’s second feature was guilty of not being as visually anarchistic and tonally attuned as his debut, Breathless. Godard’s exclamatory visuals partially took a backseat for one of his most straightforward narratives, in doing so he crafted not one, but two structured films that bolster the director’s punchy style without compromising his virulent political purview. Though Le Petit Soldat is the less visually bombastic of these two movies Godard had put his foot down as the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, and his numerous deconstructions went one exit past genre as the medium of film became a recurring subject in his work. Godard measures the pacing and tone by constricting the filmic language of Le Petit Soldat; shearing it of foley effects and showy sound work and giving way to a hushed feature of bassy piano chords, narration, and dialogue. The immediacy of the Algerian war seemed too harsh for Godard to eclipse with allegorical flourishes.
The unimposing realism (whereas Breathless put an exclamation on location shooting and freewheeling structure) of Le Petit Soldat and Les Carabiniers underscores the turmoil of the first and the expansive habitat of the later. Godard’s politicized cinema at this juncture opts out of the soap box orating that would evolve in his later films like Weekend and La Chinoise, proving that narrative conveyance doesn’t compromise political veracity.
Ironically, Godard’s most technically shrewd film was one of his most controversial, banned in France for three years largely due to a graphic torture scene and the portrayal of urban terrorism. Outside of the controversy and politics, Le Petit Soldat marks the first collaboration with Godard and his future wife, muse and recurring actress Anna Karina, as well as the oft-quoted line, “Photography is truth and cinema is truth 24 times per second.” It’s a line that sounds nice but is somewhat ironic seeing Godard often manipulates or questions the “truth” of images, moving or still.
The tonal contrast of these films doesn’t break the unison both movies achieve in deglamorizing the grim futilities of warfare; Le Petit Soldat is the localized war, weighing the consequences of the rocky ethics on both sides while Les Carabiniers is the fabrication of global, or total, war in an unnamed land for an anonymous monarch. The two morons (living in squalor with their ragamuffin wives) enlisting for dubious spoils and debauched intentions instead of political idealism or glory. Les Carabiniers is an oddly satisfying slice of revisionist cinema; Godard, ever the rebel designs a war film that slyly defies any and every convention of the genre.
In striking contrast to the many alleged films that condemn war and violence, Godard takes us away from the semper-fi heroism and into the wanton thuggery of Ulysses and Michelangelo. This blunt exercise is persuasive in its relentlessness; the unflattering action of the film is supposed to clobber the audience over the head as if being scolded “war is an awful thing, don’t glamorize it, people die and it’s ugly”. Godard’s combative attitude towards formulism has only grown stronger over the years to varying degrees of success, but the forceful delivery in Les Carabiniers strengthens the accumulation of social commentary and literal deconstruction of a genre that is a forked road in itself. Frequent collaborating cinematographer Raoul Coutard shot on extra grainy film to match the quality of stock footage incorporated throughout; then it was sent to be processed and reprocessed to deplete its quality. Don’t worry; this is more Overlord than Midway. What I especially admire in this exercise of subversive expression is the detail in design throughout the picture. Gunfire is deafening and shells discharge as if we were privy to newsreel footage, weapons aren’t flattering, masculine appendages but deadly and cumbersome instruments. We cannot derive any vicarious pleasure from this film, nor should we, the point is that war is ugly, and Godard stresses what might seem obvious, but goes the extra mile by opposing the subject as well as challenging its execution in film. Satire and dark witticisms are liberally dispersed throughout Les Carabiniers. Ulysses and Michelangelo’s letters recount their conquests and body counts like a lazy child making a chore list. “Today we killed a lot of people..” and so forth. When the two infantile soldiers return to their wives, they present the treasures of the world they acquired which happen to be nothing more than pictures and magazines of monuments and landmarks.
The scene is a run on sentence but it illustrates a capitalist infrastructure that belches out a half-baked promise for acts of deluded valor.
Why They Belong in the Collection: Le Petit Soldat and Les Carabiners are two notable films from Jean-Luc Godard. While they are dissimilar, I can’t imagine one without the other. Part of this stems from a personal experience (seeing the titles within proximity at a time when the director was a “new” discovery for me) but, in retrospect, these movies communicate so much about the director and his subsequent career, almost as if this were part of an informal war duology. These aren’t “small” movies but overlooked efforts of consolidated strength that maintained the test of time and deserve a wider audience. They were distributed by Fox Lorber and the now defunct Winstar Communications, whose early generation DVD line has many overlaps with Criterion (Jules and Jim, Z, Breathless, La Notte, La Dolce Vita, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant). Some other OOP titles include Pierrot le Fou and Veronika Voss. Having said that, the future of these two films could fall into a Kino Lorber Blu-ray or a Criterion release. Both are fine. I’m inclined to root for the latter.