Les Carabiniers was Jean Luc Godard's fifth film and it showed how far he was willing to go to make a totally unentertaining film and still make an important statement. It's about two simpletons named Michelangelo and Ulysses who are recruited by the king of their (unnamed) country to go to war. While at war they commit every atrocity known to man and they become war heroes. As they travel around they send postcards to their wives - Venus and Cleopatra - so that when they finally get home they have gained nothing much except fame and postcards of material goods.
Les Carabiniers is not a war film in the conventional sense but a Jean Luc Godard war film. There is a difference. Where most war films have a certain ardent patriotic feel to them Godard's film shows an obvious contempt for the concept of war and for anyone who goes to war. In this way it is a totally subversive film even though few people would feel violated while watching it. More than likely they would feel impatient a little confused or bored.
Part of the genius of the film is that it is almost atonal in nature. It is shot in a very grainy, drab black & white so it looks like news footage. The actors were unknown when it came out and they remained relatively unknown after. And the story has no emotional pull to it. Instead – like the theatre of Bertholdt Brecht – it explores an abstract, detached idea of war.
The film has a good number of annoying scenes. The actors speak in monotonous, deadpan delivery, the narrative flow is choppy and it looks as though it were made by college students in a hurry to meet a deadline. I'll admit this doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement but since Godard purposely went out of his way to make a film of this nature then there is no question (since he's a great filmmaker) that it deserves to be seen and understood.
The picture quality looks very good considering that Godard shot the film on 16mm and purposely made it look like an old newsreel. A menu item on the disc notes that the restoration was done by the BBC for video and that the producers of this disc cleaned up the video materials through a digital process called 'revival'. This makes the quality of the image cleaner than it has ever been. There is some artefact noticeable but this was never meant to be a beautiful film to look at so any problems with the image can only enhance Godard's vision.
The film's sound is in mono but it sounds good. There is some cracking and hissing but, as I've already mentioned, these imperfections are all done on purpose so nothing is lost. By the time this film came out Godard had really developed an advanced form of sound editing where shards of sound abruptly start and stop. It isn't important to hear everything perfectly but just to hear it, recognize what it is and place it within the context of Godard's message.
The best extra is a mini commentary by David Sterritt, which is short, fast, very informative and - best of all- persuasive. Rather than a full-length commentary it is an extra menu item that only runs for 15 minutes and includes various scenes from the film. But despite its short length it's the kind of commentary that can make you rethink a film and watch it again. There are also a few filmographies of the actors in the film and web links. The film is 86 minutes long and there are 16 chapters. There too are yellow subtitles that can be removed.
Les Carabiniers is one of Godard's most potent and cynical political films. In short the film is totally subversive in every department – which also means it's not entertaining in the Hollywood sense of the word (although it is occassionally funny). But it is effective in making us realize that war is totally absurd and amoral. The DVD restoration is so good that it actually makes the film look and sound better than it probably should. It is worth a look though if you are a Godard fan or want to see why so many critics voiced their opposition to the film back in 1963. And remember, the film is virtually critic proof because if you don't like it then you're responding just like Godard wants you to feel.