Les carabiniers - Jean-Luc Godard - Gérard Poirot - Jean Brassat

Les carabiniers
1963, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

At one point during the war in Les carabiniers, Ulysses and Michelangelo, the two peasant soldiers conscripted by the carabiniers, are fighting in a company that has captured a young blonde resister and plans to execute her in the woods. From underneath her hood she calls out “Brothers!” seven times, and after hesitating to shoot they remove her hood. What happens next could only happen in a Godard movie: she recites a Mayakovsky poem, and the dumbfounded firing squad has no idea how to react. They raise their rifles a few times to shoot, but she continues reciting, and they lower their barrels in confusion. Finally an officer takes charge and interrupts her with a count of three, whereupon they fire.

The obvious question is why the Mayakovsky poem would thwart the firing squad for so long, but of course the incident follows the logic of humor. The real question, and the point of the scene, is why counting to three should make it easier for the soldiers to shoot. This sequence calls attention to the real purpose of the count, which is not only to synchronize the line of rifles – the soldiers fire at her one by one anyway. The mindless chain of numbers actually breaks down the soldiers’ resistance, dehumanizing them and making them more aggressive.

Les carabiniers - Jean-Luc Godard - firing squad - Odile Geoffroy

Les carabiniers is an anti-war movie, as most viewers take it to be, but its precise argument about war is so unconventional that it’s easy to miss unless the viewer is aware of Jean-Luc Godard’s interest in language. Like so many of Godard’s films, it’s about how syntax shapes the way people think. It analyzes the root causes of war by exposing how language can reduce people’s thinking to a primitive level, effectively erasing their intelligence and preparing them for war.

The four leading characters – Ulysses, Michelangelo, Cleopatra, and Venus – are comically stupid, gullible enough to believe war will make them rich. When Michelangelo visits a cinema for the first time in his life (the show alludes to three Lumière Brothers films) he makes a spectacle of himself trying to grope a bathing woman on the screen. The characters are ready to accept a suitcase full of postcards as title deeds to vast treasures. The final intertitle, which describes what Ulysses and Michelangelo imagined in the afterlife, mocks their naïvety. The four names are ironic, suggesting a pretension to a cultural pedigree that they obviously lack. All this low humor is no reason to overlook the argument behind it. The target of Les carabiniers is not any real-world person or group, but rather the particular stupidity that goes hand in hand with warlike aggression.

Les carabiniers - Jean-Luc Godard - Patrice Moullet - Marino Masé - Michelangelo - Ulysses

Les carabiniers begins with an offscreen voice calling for the sound technicians to insert a military march. This occurs over the first of many intertitles scrawled in loose handwriting that connotes a kind of simplemindedness. The text however comes from high culture, quoting Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges describing his preference for worn-out metaphors like comparing stars to eyes, or death to sleep. The Borges quote precedes the titles and opening credits, which are all crammed onto a single screen in that same cursive scrawl. After the titles, the action begins with a series of views from the front seat of a car, showing four consecutive underpasses on a highway. The shots are about as banal as possible and barely distinguishable from one another. They don’t even give any clear narrative context – they could represent the two recruiting officers on their way to enlist Ulysses and Michelangelo, but there’s no direct indication of that.

Already four similar ideas have been introduced in totally different forms: a military march, a cliché, a list, and banal repetition. Virtually every idea in Les carabiniers can be traced back to these elements and what they share in common, which is a kind of mindless simplicity. These four elements describe the subject (war), the language (cliché), the format (a clustering of undifferentiated things), and the syntax (endless repetition) that Les carabiniers is concerned with. Many of these elements will resurface in a more lifelike context: for example the soundtrack intermittently introduces a military drumbeat; the conscription forms handed to Ulysses and Michelangelo are as jumbled as the title card; and the falling bombs and firing cannons in the inserted war footage are as repetitive as the highway shots.

Les carabiniers - Jean-Luc Godard - Geneviève Galéa - Venus - mailbox

The four elements from the opening come to life when the two officers visit the peasants’ farm and persuade the men to join the king’s army. At first Ulysses and Michelangelo are wary of fighting, believing their lives will be ruined. The recruiters insist they will become rich instead. “You take it from the enemy. Not only lands and herds but houses, palaces, cities, cars, movies, dime stores, stations, airports, swimming pools, casinos, theaters, bouquets, triumphal arches, cigar factories, printing plants, lighters, airplanes, sophisticated women, freight trains, pens, jewelry shops, Alfa Romeos, ukuleles, splendid landscapes, elephants, locomotives, metro stations, Rolls Royces, Maseratis, strippers.” This kind of language, an endless list of riches, appeals enormously to the men. Their wives are instantly persuaded and urge their husbands to enlist. Michelangelo still has a few questions: Will they be allowed to steal jukeboxes? Break old men’s glasses? Break children’s arms? Both arms? Stab people in their backs? Set fire to houses? Ransack villages? Burn women? Steal chic pants? Slaughter innocents? Rat on people? Eat in restaurants without paying? “Oui oui,” answers the officer, “c’est la guerre.”

Both of these itemizations are cases of syntax stripped to a bare minimum. One is a long list of raw unconnected nouns, the other a list of verbs with direct objects. They are about as far from intelligent conversation as one can get without becoming incoherent, and yet these catalogues are powerful enough to persuade the men to fight a war. They represent the syntax of machine guns, one thing after another without care for structure or context. The image of a machine gun is central to the movie, both in the title where it’s linked to the more specific image of a carbine, and in the action where it’s so commonplace. It’s no accident that woodpeckers, whose pecking so closely resembles a machine gun, are heard during the two firing squad scenes in the woods.

Les carabiniers - Jean-Luc Godard - postcards - House of Parliament - Cologne Cathedral

The height of machine-gun syntax is the postcard scene toward the end. Ulysses and Michelangelo spend nine minutes showing their wives a suitcase full of postcards that represent the spoils they believe they’ve earned from the war… again one simple noun after another. This kind of reductivist thinking also describes Michelangelo when he fires repeatedly at the fallen body of the girl who quoted Mayakovsky: “She’s still moving. Again. Again! Again.” It shows up in one of their letters home which describes their repetitive experience: “Always the same words: cadavers, decomposition, rot, death, etc.” At one point a series of panning shots shows a modern housing complex in the war zone, where the identical buildings and unvarying window grids form an architectural correlative to machine gun fire, a reminder that the same syntax that makes wars easy to fight can also dehumanize people in peacetime.

Syntax is the aspect of grammar that brings order to a sentence, and Godard’s interest in syntax is part of a greater interest in the order of life. His films argue that much of the disorder in our world can be traced to disorder in the ways people think. Ulysses and Michelangelo are flawed characters with innate streaks of sadism, but they are not villains. Both their stupidity and their war crimes are the results of a world that encourages thoughtlessness, a world that promotes mindless forms of syntax that diminish the potential richness of language. The officer’s countdown for the firing squad and the long series of postcards illustrate how easy it is to dull people’s minds with reductive syntactical patterns.

Les carabiniers - Jean-Luc Godard - Geneviève Galéa - Venus - postcard - Leaning Tower of Pisa

Without Godard’s inexhaustible black humor, Les carabiniers would have had a hard time expressing its thesis. All the atrocities would provoke emotional responses, distracting viewers from considering the reasons for so much horror. Instead of trying to banish emotion altogether, the movie balances the ugliness with humor – not to belittle the reality of violence, but to allow the audience space to examine it free from manipulation.


A Woman Is a Woman – Inexpressive string of nouns as a model of aggressive syntax

Alphaville – Reductivist syntax reveals roots of conflict in the ways people think

Weekend – Faulty syntax leads in the end to chaos and nonsense